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August 20, 2014

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She won’t quit as long as people need her help

Las Vegas political lobbyist Thelma Clark, a 5-foot-1 spitfire, has been cornering politicians in Carson City for 13 consecutive legislative sessions, going back to 1981, advocating on behalf of seniors and others who otherwise have little political voice.

So how does she explain her absence in the state capital this legislative session?

In February, she broke her back in a fall.

She's hoping that with rehabilitation, she'll be back in Carson City before this session is over, or at least for the next session.

Ah, the ambitions of an 89-year-old.

"There's still too much work to be done," Clark said, tugging occasionally on the front of her plastic body cast. "I will continue to do it if I can."

And did we mention she's 89?

Clark, a Democrat who has pushed through scores of bills on behalf of mobile home park residents and provided assistance for the elderly and the poor, said the secret of her success with lawmakers has been to "first make friends" with them.

"Don't mention any of your bills when you first meet them," she said. "Get to know them. It doesn't matter what party they are with. It's a lot easier to get a friend to look at your bill than a stranger."

Clark's supporters say another key to her success is that her causes are not about economic matters. They are about justice and fairness.

"She takes her issues to heart," said Las Vegas City Councilman Gary Reese, who served with Clark on the City Council's Citizen s Advisory Board in the mid-1990s.

"For many, their issues are self-serving or they are supporting something that will mean more money for them. For Thelma, it has always been about whether something is right or wrong."

When Las Vegas instituted its Citizen of the Month awards, Clark was Reese's choice as the first Ward 3 recipient.

Reese, who recently was reelected to a fourth term on the council and serves as mayor pro tem, called Clark his "teacher on learning to respect people and their opinions."

Jim McKinzie, one of Clark's two nephews, said her undying desire to help is constantly fed by large numbers of people seeking her assistance.

"She will never quit doing this because people won't let her," he said. "People come to her when they believe they are being treated unjustly. When a crime occurs in our neighborhood, some people call her before they call the police."

Clark, a native of Olney, Ill., is an unlikely hero. She launched her community activism when she turned 65, after retiring as a Culinary Union food checker and cashier at Caesars Palace.

Clark came to Las Vegas in 1964, two years after her husband, Illinois golf pro Ishmael Clark, died. That was 17 years before her initial crusade: to change what she said were unjust Nevada laws involving mobile home park tenants.

"When it came to politics, I was a dummy back then," Clark said. "But I got my first bill passed at the Legislature and thought, 'This is easy.' "

Clark got into political activism by accident.

"In 1980, a neighbor in my mobile home park told me he was being evicted because the landlord wanted to move a relative into his space," Clark said. "My neighbor took the landlord to court and the judge found in favor of the landlord. My neighbor was evicted. That was not right."

An angry Clark researched the law and found there were virtually no protections for mobile home residents at the time. After that, there was no stopping her from changing that situation.

Over the years, Clark championed mobile home owner protection laws for the Silver State Mobile Homeowners League, which, during the 1980s, paid Clark no salary, just her room and board in Carson City.

The successful measures supported by Clark included the outlawing of lot rental increases without giving proper notice and requiring mobile home park managers to get training in treating tenants professionally.

Last legislative session, at age 87, Clark didn't slow down, weighing in on more than 80 bills .

Despite her age and being legally blind, she goes through the rigors of daily therapy to improve her strength and keeps tabs on what is going on in Carson City and elsewhere to stay mentally sharp.

Over the years, she has served on the state Liquefied Petroleum Gas Board, successfully crusaded for soundproof barriers on local highway ramps, attended Public Utilities Commission meetings and, in the mid-1990s, served as a delegate to the White House Conference on Aging, working on Social Security and Medicare issues.

When one of Clark's elderly friends was denied rehabilitation therapy last year, Clark called Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., who in January introduced the Medicare Access to Rehabilitation Services Act.

If it passes, the legislation will provide seniors with greater access to physical therapy and repeal arbitrary Medicare beneficiary therapy caps.

Asked why she stuck with her political activism so long, Clark said, "I guess I had no hobbies to keep me busy."

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