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 ClarkDemocratic staffer says Wendy Davis will run for Congress Here are the 95 Democrats who voted to support impeachment Democratic leaders seek balance amid liberal push to go big on immigration 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 TrumpLiz Cheney: 'Send her back' chant 'inappropriate' but not about race, gender Booker: Trump is 'worse than a racist' Top Democrat insists country hasn't moved on from Mueller 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 PelosiDemocrats should rise above and unify against Trump's tweets 10 questions for Robert Mueller Ocasio-Cortez tears into Trump's immigration agenda: 'It's about ethnicity and racism' 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 LewisMedia cried wolf: Calling every Republican a racist lost its bite Rubio criticizes reporters, Democrat for racism accusations against McCain Graham: Every Republican president or nominee 'will be accused of being a racist' 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 McConnellMcConnell challenger faces tougher path after rocky launch Funding a strong defense of our nation's democratic process can't wait The Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants 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 MarkeyHillicon Valley: Trump seeks review of Pentagon cloud-computing contract | FTC weighs updating kids' internet privacy rules | Schumer calls for FaceApp probe | Report says states need more money to secure elections Poll: McConnell is most unpopular senator FTC looks to update children's internet privacy rules 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 SpanbergerOvernight Defense: House votes to block Trump arms sales to Saudis, setting up likely veto | US officially kicks Turkey out of F-35 program | Pentagon sending 2,100 more troops to border House votes to block Trump's Saudi arms sale Katherine Clark quietly eyes leadership ascent 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 CrowHouse passes bills to boost small business cybersecurity Katherine Clark quietly eyes leadership ascent Senators offer bill to protect small businesses from cyberattacks MORE and Ed PerlmutterEdwin (Ed) George PerlmutterHillicon 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 On The Money: Liberal Dems warn moderates against changes to minimum wage bill | House grapples with Facebook's Libra | Congress, White House inch closer to budget deal | Blue states sue over tax law regulations House asks Facebook: 'What is Libra?' 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 HoyerThe House Democrats who voted to kill impeachment effort Overnight Defense: House votes to block Trump arms sales to Saudis, setting up likely veto | US officially kicks Turkey out of F-35 program | Pentagon sending 2,100 more troops to border House votes to block Trump's Saudi arms sale 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 BustosHouse Democrats' campaign arm raises over million in second quarter Lawmakers join Nats Park fundraiser for DC kids charity Democratic leaders seek balance amid liberal push to go big on immigration MORE (Ill.). Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou Jeffries3,100 to be released from prison under criminal justice reform law House Democrats delete tweets attacking each other, pledge to unify Democratic staffer says Wendy Davis will run for Congress 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 FrankelLawmakers concede they might have to pass a dreaded 'CR' Hillicon Valley: Trump officials to investigate French tax on tech giants | Fed chair raises concerns about Facebook's crypto project | FCC blocks part of San Francisco law on broadband competition | House members warn of disinformation 'battle' Lawmakers, experts see combating Russian disinformation as a 'battle' MORE (Fla.), Grace MengGrace MengHere are the 95 Democrats who voted to support impeachment Katherine Clark quietly eyes leadership ascent Warren introduces universal child care legislation MORE (N.Y.), Ann KusterAnn McLane KusterKatherine Clark quietly eyes leadership ascent Key endorsements: A who's who in early states Republicans troll Democrats with proposals to rename upcoming health care bill 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 Biden holds lead in 2020 endorsements 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.”