Katherine Clark quietly eyes leadership ascent

Katherine Clark quietly eyes leadership ascent
© Greg Nash

She’s the most powerful woman in the Capitol you’ve probably never heard of. But for Rep. Katherine ClarkKatherine Marlea ClarkHouse pushes back schedule to pass spending bills Gun control group rolls out House endorsements Pelosi scrambles to secure quick passage of coronavirus aid MORE (Mass.), the vice chairwoman of the Democratic Caucus, that soon may change as she eyes a climb to the top.

The progressive Massachusetts Democrat has been quietly working behind the scenes to curry favor with House colleagues, writing checks and campaigning around the country on their behalf. She’s been holding one-on-one meetings with members in an effort to lend them greater voice, and hosting lawmakers at monthly policy dinners, including a June gathering with celebrity chef José Andrés on disaster relief.

And Clark’s been courting minority and female lawmakers, who have become the new power centers of the diverse 235-member caucus and will play a critical role in determining the next generation of party leaders.

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Some congressional Democrats have begun referring to the unassuming 55-year-old as “the silent assassin,” as she plays the inside game — mostly out of view of the TV cameras — and looks to scale the leadership ladder.

A former prosecutor and state legislator, Clark said she is laser-focused on implementing House Democrats’ “For the People” agenda and making President TrumpDonald John TrumpFauci says his meetings with Trump have 'dramatically decreased' McEnany criticizes DC mayor for not imposing earlier curfew amid protests Stopping Israel's annexation is a US national security interest MORE a “one-term president.” But she doesn’t flinch when asked if she views herself as a potential Speaker of the House when Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump tweets as tensions escalate across US Judd Gregg: Biden — a path to the presidency, or not Trump asserts his power over Republicans MORE (D-Calif.) decides to step aside.

“This opportunity to be at the leadership table has been a true honor and privilege … And as opportunities arise in leadership, I will look at them,” Clark, the most powerful woman in Congress after for Pelosi, said in a wide-ranging, hourlong interview in her Capitol Hill office.

“But we have so much work to do right now that I don’t want to take my eye off the ball of the critical work that we’re doing around health care,” she added, “around putting those issues that we were sent here in the midterms to do as the top priority.”

For Clark, one of those priorities is tackling gun violence. Three summers ago, Rep. John LewisJohn LewisTim Scott: Trump's 'shooting,' 'vicious dogs' tweets 'are not constructive' House pays tribute to late Congressman Sam Johnson on the floor House Democrats press Treasury on debit cards used for coronavirus relief payments MORE (D-Ga.) became the public face of the historic Democratic sit-in on the House floor protesting congressional inaction on gun violence.

But the seed for the sit-in was planted when Clark approached Lewis, the legendary civil rights leader, on the House floor; she was furious that the GOP-controlled Congress was responding to the deadly Orlando, Fla., nightclub shooting with yet another moment of silence.

There had to be more that Democrats could do, Clark told him. Lewis, who was brutally attacked during the 1965 Selma, Ala., march, suggested they do something “dramatic.”

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“She’s smart; she is gifted. She is a leader. She’s leading now,” said Lewis, who endorsed Clark in her vice chairman’s race last year against Rep. Pete AguilarPeter (Pete) Ray AguilarDozens of Democrats plan to vote remotely in a first for the House Biden rolls out over a dozen congressional endorsements after latest primary wins Biden rise calms Democratic jitters MORE (D-Calif.). She defeated him 144-90.

“How high could she rise?” a reporter asked Lewis. “No telling, no telling. She can go as high as she wants,” he responded.

After taking control of the House in January, Democrats passed legislation expanding background checks for people purchasing firearms. But the bill has gone nowhere in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump tweets as tensions escalate across US This week: Senate reconvenes as protests roil nation amid pandemic For city parks: Pass the Great American Outdoors Act now MORE (R-Ky.) is opposed to the measure — and controls the floor.

The Senate’s inaction has frustrated liberals like Clark, who has accused Republicans of being in the “grip of the gun lobby” at the expense of public safety. Democrats intend to spotlight the issue in hopes that voters will respond by flipping the upper chamber in next year’s elections.

“To have [Republicans] thumb their nose at these families and victims, and the despair and fear, and to have regular school children growing up doing drills for active shooters, and they say, ‘This is an America that we accept,’ and we here in Congress in the United States of America … there’s nothing we can do about this?” Clark said in the interview.

“It’s an absurd abdication of our role as people who are sent here to represent communities and keep them secure,” she added. “And it’s, it’s mind-boggling to me ... how this [has] somehow become acceptable.”

Despite the theatrical 2016 sit-in, Clark’s path to congressional leadership, and to Washington, has been anything but dramatic.

She earned her law degree from Cornell University, practiced law in Chicago, and clerked for a federal judge before working as a prosecutor in Colorado. In Massachusetts, Clark served as general counsel for the state Office of Child Care Services. She won a seat on an education committee in Melrose, Mass., then served in the state legislature from 2008 to 2013.

When then-Rep. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyBipartisan senators call for investigation of TikTok's child privacy policies OVERNIGHT ENERGY: New documents show EPA rolled back mileage standards despite staff, WH concerns | Land management bureau grants 75 royalty rate cuts for oil and gas | EPA employees allege leadership interference with science in watchdog survey EPA's Wheeler grilled by Democrats over environmental rollbacks amid COVID-19 MORE (D-Mass.) won his Senate race in 2013, Clark jumped into the special election to replace him in a liberal Boston suburban district — winning the crowded Democratic primary and the general election with backing from EMILY’s List and female politicians.

Now, Clark is slowly, methodically climbing the leadership ladder in the House. In the previous election cycle, she was the recruitment vice chairwoman for the Democratic campaign arm — a post that allowed her to travel the country, campaign for future colleagues and forge relationships with a huge 67-member freshman class, including moderate front-liners like Reps. Angie Craig (D-Minn.), Colin Allred (D-Texas) and Abigail SpanbergerAbigail Davis SpanbergerGun control group rolls out House endorsements The Hill's Campaign Report: DOJ, intel to be major issues in 2020 Human Rights Campaign rolls out congressional endorsements on Equality Act anniversary MORE (D-Va.), whose potential support could offer Clark a critical edge in future leadership races.

She campaigned last year in the Centennial State with progressive Rep. Joseph Neguse (D-Colo.) and two other Colorado Democrats, Reps. Jason CrowJason CrowGun control group rolls out House endorsements Bipartisan House bill seeks to improve pandemic preparedness Human Rights Campaign rolls out congressional endorsements on Equality Act anniversary MORE and Ed PerlmutterEdwin (Ed) George PerlmutterFor safety and economic recovery, Congress must prioritize cannabis banking Eight surprises in House Democrats' T coronavirus relief bill Democrats introduce bill to include cannabis businesses in coronavirus relief MORE, and keynoted the Jefferson County Eleanor Roosevelt Dinner outside of Denver. Clark and Neguse have bonded talking about her time practicing law in Colorado. He calls her “an incredible leader.”

“I think she is incredibly talented,” Neguse, the first Eritrean American elected to Congress, said in an interview. “She has a great way of connecting with members and understanding their needs from a policy perspective.”

Pelosi, 79, has indicated she will step down after either this Congress or the next. Her top deputies, Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerKey races to watch in Tuesday's primaries Overnight Defense: Democrats expand probe into State IG's firing | House schedules late June votes with defense bill on deck | New Navy secretary sworn in House scheduled to return for votes in late June MORE (D-Md.), 80, and Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who turns 79 this month, could follow her out the door. Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) is stepping aside to run for the Senate in 2020.

That could create a huge leadership vacuum and big opportunities for second-tier leaders like Clark and House Democrats’ campaign chairwoman, Rep. Cheri BustosCheryl (Cheri) Lea BustosGOP pulls support from California House candidate over 'unacceptable' social media posts Republican flips House seat in California special election GOP's Don Bacon and challenger neck and neck in Democratic poll MORE (Ill.). Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesGun control group rolls out House endorsements Pelosi: George Floyd death is 'a crime' Tara Reade's attorney asks Biden to authorize search of his Senate papers MORE (N.Y.), the No. 5 House Democrat, under whom Clark serves, is well-positioned to rise to the top. But Clark’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering suggests she could launch a risky, unprecedented challenge to Jeffries in any future leadership shake-up.

Perhaps Clark’s biggest base of support comes from women, who now number almost 90 in the Democratic Caucus. She has forged deep friendships with many of them, including a close-knit informal group of six that frequently can be heard discussing dinner plans each night when the House is in session. The “Pink Ladies” include two rising leaders, Clark and Bustos, along with Reps. Lois FrankelLois Jane FrankelGloves come off as Democrats fight for House seat in California House members race to prepare for first-ever remote votes The Hill's 12:30 Report: Pence visits Orlando as all 50 states reopen MORE (Fla.), Grace MengGrace MengDe Blasio, John Cho, Rep. Grace Meng unite for event to fight racism against Asian Americans NY Democrats call for mortgage forgiveness in next coronavirus relief bill Hillicon Valley: Experts worry U.S. elections vulnerable due to COVID-19 | Report finds states need more federal election funds | Republican senators to introduce coronavirus-related privacy bill MORE (N.Y.), Ann KusterAnn McLane KusterHillicon Valley: Trump signs order targeting social media legal protections | House requests conference with Senate after FISA vote canceled | Minneapolis systems temporarily brought down by hackers HHS chief suggests workers are to blame for COVID outbreaks at meatpacking plants Democratic Congresswoman Val Demings endorses Biden ahead of Florida primary MORE (N.H.) and Julia BrownleyJulia Andrews BrownleyHouse Democrats eyeing much broader Phase 3 stimulus Assistant House Speaker self-quarantines out of 'abundance of caution' Actor Orlando Bloom to self-quarantine MORE (Calif.).

“I think Katherine will be one of the ‘Big Four’ one day,” Frankel told The Hill. “If you look at the caucus as a whole, we’re gonna want to have a woman in top leadership. I think Katherine and Cheri are two.”