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Moving Past Coulter and Olbermann?

Mark Kirk's '81 star may be falling, but another Midwestern Cornellian is poised to win big in November. As we posted in the sidebar and the Sun reported last week, Hansen Clarke '81 defeated thirteen-year incumbent Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick in the Democratic primary for Michigan's 13th District. Given that the district is strongly Democratic, analysts predict that Hansen is "all but certain" to win this fall's election.

Clarke's victory was due in large part to the ethical problems facing Kilpatrick and her family, but Clarke's personal story is a compelling narrative of diversity and perseverance. His father, a Bangladeshi Muslim, died when Clarke was eight years old. His mother, an African-American Methodist, raised Clarke in Detroit on a crossing guard's salary. (Clarke later converted to Roman Catholicism.)

Clarke was flagged by a teacher for a special art program, and it was through this experience that he gained admission to Cornell. However, Clarke struggled during his first few months on East Hill:

An aspiring artist attending prestigious Cornell University on a scholarship, Clarke couldn't study, couldn't work, couldn't keep up his grades. His mother, who had raised him alone on the tough east side of Detroit, had died. Clarke was bereft.

He dropped out of Cornell in his freshman year and ended up back in the neighborhood, living on food stamps and struggling to survive.

In an act which cemented Clarke's loyalty to his city, neighbors in Detroit raised money to send him back to Cornell. However, he had lost his full scholarship and needed to work his way through school.

After turning around his academic career, Clarke attended Georgetown Law School and began working in politics. He married Choi Palmer-Cohen - bonus points if you guessed that she was born in South Korea and adopted by a Jewish father and a Catholic mother.

Clarke's story is not easily simplified. He has described his politics as a "mix of Newt Gingrich and Malcolm X" - I'll let Isaac Kramnick sort that out - and has campaigned in favor of decreased federal spending.

Despite Clarke's time in the Ithaca ivory tower, he is a legitimate Detroit local. In contrast to many political transplants who spent time in other areas before returning home to run for office, Hansen has received less than one-tenth of one percent of his career fundraising from New York.

So, is Clarke the person to finally carry the Cornell political flag past the era of bickering Keith Olbermann '79 and Ann Coulter '84? Perhaps not.

At Cornell, Clarke ran for a student seat on the board of trustees against (who else?) Coulter. It is believed that Clarke's victory in this election was a major factor in pushing Coulter to become the conservative firebrand whom we know today:

“She was so laid back when I ran against her,” Clarke said. “I think that election changed her.”

Clarke is not the only Cornellian on the political rise - I'm still partial to Gabrielle Giffords M.R.P. '96 - but he's got one of those stories which is likely to be discussed more and more as we get closer to January 2011. I'm hoping that Clarke's ascendancy is not evidence that we are still in the era of Coulter, Olbermann, Wolfowitz, etc., but that Clarke will instead serve as a bridge between that era of the 1990s and 2000s and a new period in which he will be only one of several new, exciting Big Red faces to make headlines.

Elie Bilmes | Posted on August 09, 2010 (#)

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