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The Rise Of Katherine Clark: From Small-Town School Board To Contender For Assistant Speaker Of The House

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Rep. Katherine Clark at WBUR in 2018. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Rep. Katherine Clark at WBUR in 2018. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

In 2004, a little-known member of the Melrose School Committee ran for state Senate. She lost by double digits.

That candidate was Katherine Clark, now a congresswoman and a contender to become assistant speaker of the House next year.

Clark has come a long way in 16 years — from small-town politics and a resounding defeat to the top tier of the Democratic Party — but she says the seemingly little job she used to hold isn't so different from the very big job she's running for today.

"You know, my time on school committee has been some of the most informative for how to be a leader," Clark said.

Apparently, if you can handle parents, you can manage members of Congress.

Since winning a special election to fill Sen. Ed Markey's old House seat in 2013, Clark has quickly climbed the ranks in Washington. She's already vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus. And if her peers vote her assistant speaker, she'll become the number four Democrat in the chamber.

"I think she's got great chances," said Rep. Lori Trahan, a Lowell Democrat. "Katherine is someone who has really focused on building relationships."

Trahan is in her first term and says Clark helped her navigate the committee selection process and other aspects of life as a lawmaker.

"I know so many of my freshman colleagues who say the same thing," Trahan says, "that Katherine was one of the first members to reach out to them and offer help on their campaign in 2018 or when they were going through their first term in Congress."

Clark may be popular among congressional newcomers, but she'll also need support from some old timers if she's to win the race for assistant speaker. Her opponents so far are Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island and Rep. Tony Cárdenas of California, who have roughly the same amount of experience as she does. Members of Congress will likely vote on their leaders soon after the November elections.

Rep. Jim McGovern of Worcester, who's been in the House for more than two decades, says Clark has impressed him and other veteran Democrats.

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"I remember when she joined with John Lewis and asked us all to have a sit-in on the House floor, protesting the Republican Congress's lack of action on gun control in the aftermath of massacre after massacre after massacre," McGovern said. "People respect what she believes and what she stands for, and they also respect her style."

The Hill reported last year that Clark's style has earned her the nickname "silent assassin" among some colleagues.

"I want that nickname," says Cambridge Vice Mayor Alanna Mallon, adding that it's fitting for Clark, whose district includes Cambridge.

"The 'silent assassin' — it's so true," she says. "She's just so quietly, powerfully effective in what she does."

Mallon says that while some members of Congress are giving fiery speeches, Clark is doing behind-the-scenes work, like raising money for fellow Democrats.

"I remember going to a lunch that she hosted with Speaker Pelosi here in Boston that featured eight congressional candidates, all women that were running against Republican incumbents," Mallon says. "Four of those women are now in Congress. So, these are the things that I think the public doesn't always realize. She's quietly working to ensure we have a Democratic majority and can get things done."

Clark's approach resembles the way some other politicians have risen to prominence, according to Democratic strategist Scott Ferson. In fact, Ferson says Clark reminds him of another Massachusetts representative who went on to become speaker.

"Katherine Clark has sort of taken up Tip O'Neill's mantle, I think, and has done the hard work that you need to do that really isn't in the spotlight, but it makes you just a key and powerful member of the House of Representatives," Ferson said.

In his view, Clark has a shot to become speaker some day, too.

Clark notes her first order of business is winning reelection in the 5th District this fall. She's heavily favored against Republican Caroline Colarusso.

Clark can't be assistant speaker — never mind speaker — unless her party is in the majority. So, she says she'll keep working on behalf of other Democrats.

"It often isn't the stuff of headlines, but it is the meticulous work that helps members achieve their legislative goals, helps them serve their constituents and, as a result, makes our country stronger," Clark said.

This segment aired on September 21, 2020.

Related:

Headshot of Callum Borchers

Callum Borchers Reporter
Callum covered the Greater Boston business community for Bostonomix.

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