Lately, Choi Palms-Cohen has been juggling two very different roles. At the Institute for Continuing Legal Education in Ann Arbor, she spends her days in sales and customer service, helpful but anonymous–taking calls from lawyers who want to buy books the nonprofit publishes, or who are seeking information about its legal education seminars. After hours, at home in Detroit, she’s also on the phone or computer–but now she’s checking finance reports and screening messages from people eager to get in touch with her husband, congressman-in-waiting Hansen Clarke.
Currently a Democratic state senator, Clarke defeated longtime Detroit representative Carolyn Cheeks Kirkpatrick–mother of felonious ex-mayor Kwame–in August’s Democratic primary. Since the district is a solid block of blue, he is all but assured of election come November 2.
After the primary, Clarke received a congratulatory call from President Obama. Palms-Cohen, thirty-three, slim and smartly dressed, recalls her husband’s joy. “They talked for about seven minutes,” she says. “The president congratulated him and said he [had been] watching the race, and he found Hansen’s story ‘very interesting.’ “
Perhaps the president, the son of an African father and a white American mother, identified with the future congressman. A native Detroiter, Clarke is the son of a Bangladeshi father and an African American mother. Raised as a Muslim, he converted to Catholicism as a young man.
Palms-Cohen’s background is equally diverse. At three, she was adopted from a Korean orphanage by Ann Arbor nursery school teacher Jeannine Palms and David Cohen, a teacher and social justice activist. Palms was raised Catholic and Cohen Jewish, so they exposed their daughter to both faiths. (She now describes herself as “agnostic.”)
Her parents divorced when she was seven, and Jeannine, who runs Blossom House preschool, later married Dale Petty, a Washtenaw Community College instructor. David Cohen, a dialysis patient most of his life, died when Palms-Cohen was a junior at Community High. “I miss him every day of my life,” she says. She gets comfort from knowing how much he would have appreciated her husband: “They have similar qualities–a wicked sense of humor, great intelligence, and the kindest hearts on the planet.”
The family had moved from Detroit to Ann Arbor partly because Jeannine wanted their daughter to be able to attend Community. English teacher Judith DeWoskin recalls Palms-Cohen as “a great kid, just a wonderful student, hard-working, smart–and she had a beautiful voice as well.”
Palms-Cohen took music business courses at Siena Heights University in Adrian and dreamed of being a professional singer, but after graduation decided the odds against success were too high. She managed Vintage to Vogue in Kerrytown and sold cars at Dunning Toyota before starting at ICLE six years ago. The job suits both her extroverted personality and her interest in contemporary legal issues. Several of her colleagues are Democrats from Detroit, and when Clarke won the primary, she says, “They were really thrilled!”
Their romance started at ICLE’s Greene Street office in the summer of 2007. Palms-Cohen took a call from Clarke, a Georgetown-educated attorney, inquiring about a book. He asked her about her unusual name, then sought her out when he came to pick up his book.
The next day they dined at Cafe Verde–talking about art, not government. Though friends who’d Googled him told Palms-Cohen that Clarke was a state senator, she at first believed his tongue-in-cheek insistence that he “would never be able to survive” in politics.
Things moved very fast after that–two weeks later, they went to Las Vegas together to attend a Democratic convention targeted at both African and Asian Americans. The two stayed in the same hotel but in separate rooms, and she says they never so much as kissed. Then, the day they were to leave, Clarke proposed–during a cab ride.
Forty-five minutes later, they had their marriage license and were taking their vows at a county office. “I pulled a security guard, Juan Hilario, off the street to be our witness,” Palms-Cohen recalls. “He took off his security uniform and changed into a white T-shirt, stood with his right hand across his heart, and his eyes welled with tears when Hansen and I said our vows … he didn’t know us at all but said he was so moved by the whole scenario and that he thought about how much marriage means to him and about how much he loved his own wife. It was beautiful!”
Still, the speed of it all freaked out her friends and family–especially since Clarke is twenty years older. Palms-Cohen says she even surprised herself. “I had never felt that way before,” she says. “Hanson embodied what I wanted in life. That twenty-year difference did not matter.
“I was looking for someone who wouldn’t take this world, and our experiences, for granted,” says Clarke in a phone call from Lansing. Though the media had long pegged him as one of Detroit’s most eligible bachelors, Clarke says that he detested the singles scene, rarely dated, and doubted he would ever marry.
That changed when he met Palms-Cohen, “I was ready to make that commitment–I had such an easy time talking with her,” he recalls. Still, he prayed before he proposed. “I was doing this completely on faith–but I was ready to do it!”
Palms-Cohen will keep her job at ICLE, and she plans to move back to an apartment in Ann Arbor when Clarke goes to Washington. He expects to live primarily in D.C., spending weekends with her in Detroit or Ann Arbor.
While she has no desire to become a Washington wife–“I’m not infatuated with the limelight or with the status,” she says–Palms-Cohen says she has become much more watchful about what she says, worried about negative press attention. And she’s thinking of ways to use her potential new clout to call attention to poverty and homelessness.
She’s been told that when she was adopted at age three, she was so malnourished she looked like a one-year-old. Knowing that her life might have turned out very differently keeps her humble. Of her role in her husband’s new mission she says: “I will never forget, nor will I ever take for granted, that this is a privilege, that this is temporary.”
Update: On Nov. 2, Hansen Clarke was elected to represent Michigan’s 13th congressional district.