MALDEN, Mass. — Katherine Clark leaned into a small table at her campaign headquarters here Friday morning and spoke of her late grandmother.
The pride she took in her “Rosie the Riveter moment” during World War II, toiling at a machine shop. Her embrace of 1960s ferment. A plucky 102 years of life.
“She was the very first environmentalist I knew,” said Clark, a state senator from Melrose who is running for the U.S. House of Representatives. “She had a big bumper sticker on her stick-shift car, that she drove a little bit like a maniac, that read ‘Love Mother Earth.'”
Clark’s focus on her grandmother, who stayed home to raise her children but relished moments in the public sphere — moments more accessible to her daughters and granddaughter — is of a piece with the congressional campaign she is poised to run in the coming months.
One of five Democrats vying to replace former U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, who won a promotion to the U.S. Senate last month, Clark is putting women’s and family issues near the center of her campaign.
Those issues will hardly be her only focus. She plans to talk about jobs, climate change and veterans affairs at the official launch of her campaign Saturday.
But she’s already won backing from some key women’s groups and leaders in her bid to represent the 5th Congressional District, which bends through the heavily Democratic suburbs north and west of Boston.
Emily’s List, a national group that aims to elect pro-choice Democratic women, has put her “on the list” — urging its national network of donors to contribute to her campaign. Barbara Lee, a Cambridge-based activist who supports women candidates nationwide, is behind her.
And Attorney General Martha Coakley, who has taken on a higher profile of late amid talk of a gubernatorial bid, will stand by her side at the campaign kickoff.
“Those are pretty high-powered endorsements, that will bring attention, that will bring money, that will help her in the field,” said Peter Ubertaccio, a political scientist at Stonehill College.
The early support is particularly noteworthy given the presence of another woman — state Sen. Karen Spilka of Ashland — in the Democratic primary, scheduled for Oct. 15.
But Spilka’s presence, no doubt, complicates matters. She is vying for women voters, too.
“No one in this race has a better record than Karen on standing up for women’s health and reproductive choice,” said Spilka’s campaign manager Eric Hyers, touting the candidate’s voting record and creation of a mentorship program for women legislators.
And Spilka’s campaign has remained in touch with Emily’s List since the group announced its support for Clark.
The organization has not yet moved Clark from its “on the list” designation to a formal endorsement, which would probably mean a larger cash infusion — including possible spending by Emily’s List’s political action committee.
In a low-profile race, fundraising may be even more important than usual.
Clark leads the pack, to date, with $402,000 in the bank at the end of the second quarter. Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian had $292,000 in cash on hand as of June 30, state Sen. William Brownsberger of Belmont reported $288,000, state Rep. Carl Sciortino of Medford had $273,000 and Spilka claimed $201,000.
Clark and Koutoujian’s totals are not quite as robust as they look, both candidates taking in substantial general-election donations they cannot spend before the Democratic primary.
But Clark still has the edge on her competitors when it comes to primary money.
The state senator, who grew up outside New Haven, Conn., got her law degree from Cornell University and worked at a large law firm in Chicago.
After a stint in Colorado as clerk for a federal judge and lawyer with the Colorado District Attorney’s Council, she landed in Massachusetts.
A mother of three, she served on the Melrose School Committee for six years and worked as general counsel for the Massachusetts Office of Child Care Services, which oversaw licensed child care centers and residential programs for adolescents.
Ardith Wieworka, the agency’s former commissioner, said Clark brought grace and a sense of humor to the job — developing a “cooperative and collegial” relationship with regulated programs, but getting tough when required.
“Katherine took on some of our most intractable cases and was successful in turning some really terrible programs around,” she said.
Clark made a failed bid for the state Senate in 2004 and an aborted run for the state House of Representatives two years later. In 2008, she won a seat in the House and moved up to the Senate two years later.
Clark has worked on a wide range of issues in the state Legislature. Earlier this year, she co-sponsored a bill that would expand the state’s wiretapping authority, allowing law enforcement to listen in on those suspected of murder and other violent crimes.
The law, as it stands, only allows for wiretapping in organized crime investigations. Law enforcement says the update is long overdue. Defense attorneys have raised privacy concerns.
But Clark placed an emphasis, in an interview with WBUR Friday, on her work to boost special education funding and form a commission that will study best practices in early childhood literacy.
She also spoke of a law she passed extending restraining orders in domestic violence cases to victims’ pets. Beloved animals, she explained, can be used as pawns in abusive relationships.
Gov. Deval Patrick signed the measure in an animal shelter, a kitten strolling across the bill as he took pen to paper.
Observers expect the congressional race to turn, in part, on geography, with rivals scrambling to turn out as many voters as they can in their own stomping grounds.
But candidates who can reach outside their own bases and pick up votes elsewhere will have an advantage.
The contenders are doing what they can to carve out images of broad appeal. Brownsberger, for instance, is running as a maverick of sorts. Sciortino is positioning himself as the true liberal in the race.
Ubertaccio, the political scientist, said Clark’s appeal to women could be effective.