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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 ClarkPelosi signals no further action against Omar Progressives rally behind Omar while accusing her critics of bias Pelosi, leaders seek to squelch Omar controversy with rare joint statement 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 TrumpBiden prepares to confront Putin Biden aims to bolster troubled Turkey ties in first Erdoğan meeting Senate investigation of insurrection falls short 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 PelosiPelosi: 'No intention' of abandoning Democrats' infrastructure goals Senate investigation of insurrection falls short Ocasio-Cortez: 'Old way of politics' influences Manchin's thinking 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 LewisWhat the Democrats should be doing to reach true bipartisanship Democrats mull overhaul of sweeping election bill Garland vows fight against voting limits that violate law 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 AguilarPelosi signals no further action against Omar Progressives rally behind Omar while accusing her critics of bias Pelosi, leaders seek to squelch Omar controversy with rare joint statement 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 McConnellWhat the Democrats should be doing to reach true bipartisanship Democrats mull overhaul of sweeping election bill McConnell seeks to divide and conquer Democrats 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 MarkeyEd MarkeyClimate progressives launch first action against Biden amid growing frustration Senate Democrats urge Google to conduct racial equity audit Senate climate advocates start digging in on infrastructure goals 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 Memo: Democratic tensions will only get worse as left loses patience Five takeaways on the House's return to budget earmarks Lawmakers say companies need to play key role in sustainability 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 CrowPelosi floats Democrat-led investigation of Jan. 6 as commission alternative Finding hope in the hard unfinished work of building and revitalizing our democracy Colorado Democrat: Fear of Trump, desire for power 'overriding' patriotism in some Republicans MORE and Ed PerlmutterEdwin (Ed) George PerlmutterDemocrats urge Biden to take executive action on assault-style firearms Colorado governor, spouse test positive for COVID-19 Rep. Rick Allen tests positive for COVID-19 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 HoyerPelosi signals no further action against Omar Overnight Energy: EPA to reconsider Trump decision not to tighten soot standards | Interior proposes withdrawal of Trump rule that would allow drillers to pay less | EPA reverses Trump guidance it said weakened 'forever chemicals' regulations Progressives rally behind Omar while accusing her critics of bias 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 BustosTo reverse the teaching shortage in low-income communities, give educators incentive to stay Democrats confront difficult prospects for midterms Democrat Cheri Bustos to retire from Congress MORE (Ill.). Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesPelosi signals no further action against Omar House unveils antitrust package to rein in tech giants Wray grilled on FBI's handling of Jan. 6 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 FrankelOmar feuds with Jewish Democrats Democrats fume over silence from DeSantis on Florida election Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings dies at 84 MORE (Fla.), Grace MengGrace MengHouse sends anti-Asian hate bill to Biden's desk Senate locks in hate crimes deal, setting up Thursday passage Jim Jordan, Val Demings get in shouting match about police during hearing MORE (N.Y.), Ann KusterAnn McLane KusterThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Sights and sounds from Inauguration Day Democrats to determine leaders after disappointing election Pelosi seeks to put pressure on GOP in COVID-19 relief battle MORE (N.H.) and Julia BrownleyJulia Andrews BrownleyOvernight Defense: Tucker Carlson comments cause military rage | Capitol guard duty questioned | Vet who served in Marine One unit charged in insurrection Voters elected a record number of Black women to Congress this year — none were Republican House Democrats eyeing much broader Phase 3 stimulus 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.”