It’s hard to say much about newly elected Congresswoman Yvette Clarke without first talking about her mother.
That would be Una Clarke, the pencil-thin, 71-year-old Jamaican-born grandmother with short white hair who became the political face of Brooklyn’s growing Caribbean community.
A decade after her election to the City Council in 1991, Una’s career in politics seemed to have come to an end in 2000, when she narrowly lost her bid for a seat in Congress against a longtime ally, the 20-year incumbent, Representative Major Owens.
“I still have his picture on my wall,” said Una, sitting with her daughter in the campaign office that used to be hers.
The next year, term limits forced her out of the Council.
Enter Yvette, now 42, who in 2001 ran for and won her mother’s vacated seat amid complaints of nepotism from opponents.
This year, with Mr. Owens retiring, Yvette jumped into the race for the open House seat. After an unusually competitive four-way primary against a field that included the incumbent’s son—and with an assist from her mother, who quit her day job to help run the campaign—she won.
The victory, Yvette is the first to say, had everything to do with the good will and name recognition that her mother had built up in the community over her years of public service.
Any suggestion of entitlement, however, draws an animated rebuke.
“They love it when it’s George Bush and his father,” said Yvette, sitting up from a casual slouch to lean towards her questioner. “They love it when it’s Al Gore and his father. They love it when it’s the whole damn Kennedy family. But when it’s just Yvette and Una from Brooklyn, it’s like, ‘You think you’re owed this,’ and blah, blah, blah. No, I have to work every single day for each and every vote I can possibly get. You can’t get caught up in people’s hang-ups.”
The Clarke family, by the standards of most burgeoning political dynasties, has a distinctly feminine tilt.
In a two-hour conversation about the family’s journey from the hills of Jamaica to the halls of Congress, hardly a word was mentioned about the men in their lives.
(Una’s older brother, Busha, 76, a retired machinist who now looks after the office, came into the room only to ask if anyone wanted a cup of tea.)
But the Clarke women, in a way, were born into activism.
“My mother is a part of the entire history of the island of Jamaica,” Una explained. “My mother is a Jamaican maroon. My mother’s forbears came to Jamaica as free blacks. They came with the Spaniards. When the British came, my mother’s forbears fought the British for 80 years to gain their own independence and liberation in Jamaica. Her name is Adelle Rowe.”
“Thomlinson,” Yvette added.
“Thomlinson is her married name,” Una replied, correcting her daughter, who is unmarried.
“From Ghana,” she added. “Ashant, if you’re looking for a tribe.
When asked about the other half of the family, Yvette said, “My dad, his mother has a similar origin. I don’t know as much, but she always told us she was a descendant from maroons from a different section of Jamaica.”
In 1958, Una arrived in New York on a student visa to study business, but while she was at Long Island University, she quickly became involved in student-led civil-rights activism.
She remained involved in public affairs over the years, and when the City Council was expanded from 35 to 51 seats in 1991, Una was one of the activists who lobbied the redistricting commission, helping to create the Brooklyn-based seat that she went on to win.
Shortly after her failed bid for Congress in 2000 came the world-realigning events of 2001. She sounds more than a little frustrated that she wasn’t in a position to influence what followed.
“Basically, because of my own humanity, I think I would have really been against the war, and there is no way on heaven or earth that Bush could have shamed me after 9/11 to vote on a war,” she said.
Yvette, who is currently looking for housing in the D.C. area, is equally strident about the war.
“They had shifted the mission to being about Saddam when it was originally about weapons of mass destruction,” she said. “These guys think we’re stupid, and maybe we are. But how stupid are we going to be, and for how long, was really what was in my head.”
Her mother, not for the first time, had shown her the way. But then, that’s just the way they are in the Clarke family.
“I am appreciative of everything my mother has done for this community, but she expects me to stand on my own two feet. And I tell you, my parents are my landlord and I pay rent, O.K.? Literally—they own the house I live in,” she said, referring to her residence in Prospect Lefferts Gardens. “We both live on the same block, houses apart on the same side of the street.
“If I’m going to pay a stranger all this money to live in New York City, I might as well pay my parents, because at least it goes back into an investment that maybe one day my brother and I may inherit. So there was a method to my madness.”