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 ClarkTen notable Democrats who do not favor impeachment The Hill's Morning Report - Trump searches for backstops amid recession worries Fourth-ranking House Democrat backs Trump impeachment 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 TrumpMarine unit in Florida reportedly pushing to hold annual ball at Trump property Giuliani clashes with CNN's Cuomo, calls him a 'sellout' and the 'enemy' Giuliani says 'of course' he asked Ukraine to look into Biden seconds after denying it 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 PelosiPatagonia says to shut stores for a few hours during Global Climate Strike Overnight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Pelosi unveils signature plan to lower drug prices | Trump says it's 'great to see' plan | Progressives pushing for changes Progressives push for changes to Pelosi drug pricing plan 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 LewisThe Hill's Morning Report — Biden steadies in third debate as top tier remains the same CBC marks 400th anniversary of slaves' arrival in US GOP buys JonOssoff.com after Democrat launches Georgia Senate bid 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 AguilarDemocratic leaders seek balance amid liberal push to go big on immigration Katherine Clark quietly eyes leadership ascent The Hill's Morning Report - Crunch time arrives for 2020 Dems with debates on deck 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 McConnellPatagonia says to shut stores for a few hours during Global Climate Strike Overnight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Pelosi unveils signature plan to lower drug prices | Trump says it's 'great to see' plan | Progressives pushing for changes On The Money: House votes to avert shutdown, fund government through November | Judge blocks California law requiring Trump tax returns | Senate panel approves three spending bills 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 MarkeySanders defends job losses from ending use of fossil fuels The Hill's Morning Report - Pompeo condemns Iran for 'act of war' while Trump moves with caution Defense bill talks set to start amid wall fight 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 SpanbergerTen notable Democrats who do not favor impeachment Centrist House Democrats press for committees to follow pay-go rule Gun debate to shape 2020 races 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 CrowOvernight Defense: Trump ousts Bolton in shocker | Fallout, reaction from GOP senators | Senate spending talks in chaos | Dems eye vote to nix Trump border emergency Swing-seat Democrats oppose impeachment, handing Pelosi leverage Second Democrat representing Trump district backs impeachment MORE and Ed PerlmutterEdwin (Ed) George PerlmutterMarijuana industry donations to lawmakers surge in 2019: analysis Appetite for Democratic term limits fizzling out Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers struggle to understand Facebook's Libra project | EU hits Amazon with antitrust probe | New cybersecurity concerns over census | Robocall, election security bills head to House floor | Privacy questions over FaceApp 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 HoyerDemocrat accuses GOP of opposing DC statehood because of 'race and partisanship' News outlets choose their darlings, ignore others' voices Overnight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Pelosi set to unveil drug price plan | Abortion rate in US hits lowest level since Roe v. Wade | Dems threaten to subpoena Juul 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 struggles with retirement wave DCCC names new head after mass staff departure The Hill's Morning Report - Trump ousts Bolton; GOP exhales after win in NC MORE (Ill.). Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesBadrun Khan to challenge Ocasio-Cortez in Democratic primary Lewandowski, Democrats tangle at testy hearing Words matter, except to Democrats, when it involves impeaching Trump 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 FrankelDemocrats call on House committees to probe Epstein's 2008 'sweetheart deal,' suicide Democratic Women's Caucus calls for investigation into Epstein plea deal Epstein death sparks questions for federal government MORE (Fla.), Grace MengGrace MengHillicon Valley: Ocasio-Cortez clashes with former Dem senator over gig worker bill | Software engineer indicted over Capital One breach | Lawmakers push Amazon to remove unsafe products Lawmakers call on Amazon to safeguard against unsafe products Lawmakers urge DNC to name Asian American debate moderator MORE (N.Y.), Ann KusterAnn McLane KusterHouse Democrats inch toward majority support for impeachment Katherine Clark quietly eyes leadership ascent Key endorsements: A who's who in early states MORE (N.H.) and Julia BrownleyJulia Andrews BrownleyKatherine Clark quietly eyes leadership ascent California Democrats unveil redistricting reform bill after Supreme Court partisan gerrymandering ruling WHIP LIST: The 132 House Democrats backing an impeachment inquiry 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.”