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 ClarkRep. Robin Kelly enters race for Democratic caucus vice chair Clark rolls out endorsements in assistant Speaker race Races heat up for House leadership posts 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 TrumpHR McMaster says president's policy to withdraw troops from Afghanistan is 'unwise' Cast of 'Parks and Rec' reunite for virtual town hall to address Wisconsin voters Biden says Trump should step down over coronavirus response 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 PelosiMcConnell focuses on confirming judicial nominees with COVID-19 talks stalled Overnight Defense: Top admiral says 'no condition' where US should conduct nuclear test 'at this time' | Intelligence chief says Congress will get some in-person election security briefings Pelosi must go — the House is in dire need of new leadership 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 LewisLWCF modernization: Restoring the promise Rep. Cedric Richmond set to join House Ways and Means Committee GOP ramps up attacks on Democrats over talk of nixing filibuster 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 AguilarRep. Robin Kelly enters race for Democratic caucus vice chair Pelosi seeks to put pressure on GOP in COVID-19 relief battle Races heat up for House leadership posts 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 McConnellMcConnell focuses on confirming judicial nominees with COVID-19 talks stalled McConnell accuses Democrats of sowing division by 'downplaying progress' on election security Warren, Schumer introduce plan for next president to cancel ,000 in student debt 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 MarkeyMassachusetts town clerk resigns after delays to primary vote count Bogeymen of the far left deserve a place in any Biden administration Senate Democrats urge Amazon to recall, stop sales of explosive products 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 SpanbergerThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - Pence lauds Harris as 'experienced debater'; Trump, Biden diverge over debate prep The Hill's Campaign Report: Florida hangs in the balance Eric Cantor teams up with former rival Dave Brat in supporting GOP candidate in former district 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 CrowClark rolls out endorsements in assistant Speaker race Trump-Afghan deal passes key deadline, but peace elusive Cook shifts 20 House districts toward Democrats MORE and Ed PerlmutterEdwin (Ed) George PerlmutterCongress needs to finalize space weather bill as solar storms pose heightened threat OVERNIGHT ENERGY: 20 states sue over Trump rule limiting states from blocking pipeline projects | House Democrats add 'forever chemicals' provisions to defense bill after spiking big amendment | Lawmakers seek extension for tribes to spend stimulus money House Democrats add some 'forever chemicals' provisions to defense bill after spiking major amendment 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 HoyerHouse Democrats postpone vote on marijuana decriminalization bill Democrats scramble on COVID-19 relief amid division, Trump surprise The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - Pence lauds Harris as 'experienced debater'; Trump, Biden diverge over debate prep 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 BustosThe Hill's Campaign Report: Biden asks if public can trust vaccine from Trump ahead of Election Day | Oklahoma health officials raised red flags before Trump rally DCCC dropping million on voter education program Clark rolls out endorsements in assistant Speaker race MORE (Ill.). Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesPelosi: House will stay in session until agreement is reached on coronavirus relief Races heat up for House leadership posts Postmaster general earned millions from company with ties to Postal Service: report 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 FrankelShakespeare Theatre Company goes virtual for 'Will on the Hill...or Won't They?' Florida Democrat introduces bill to recognize Puerto Rico statehood referendum Hillicon Valley: Democrats demand answers over Russian interference bulletin | Google Cloud wins defense contract for cancer research | Cyberattack disrupts virtual classes MORE (Fla.), Grace MengGrace MengHouse passes resolution condemning anti-Asian discrimination relating to coronavirus Clark rolls out endorsements in assistant Speaker race This week: House returns for pre-election sprint MORE (N.Y.), Ann KusterAnn McLane KusterPelosi seeks to put pressure on GOP in COVID-19 relief battle Clark rolls out endorsements in assistant Speaker race Pelosi: House will stay in session until agreement is reached on coronavirus relief 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.”