WASHINGTON — Massachusetts is a storied pipeline for leaders in the House of Representatives, producing eight speakers — all men — and numerous committee chairs, all but one also men.
On Wednesday, Representative Katherine Clark, the Melrose Democrat who has risen swiftly up the ranks in the House, was elected assistant speaker, making her the fourth-ranking member in the chamber and the most powerful congresswoman in state history.
In a closed-door session of House Democrats, held partially in a hotel ballroom in Washington and partially over Zoom, Clark beat out Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island, 135 to 92, in a race described by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as “beautifully contested.”
“Effective leadership is not about individual ambition,” Clark wrote when she announced she was running for the role in September, “but collective good.”
She will be the second-highest ranking Democratic woman in the history of the House, after Pelosi, and next term will mark the first time there are two women in the top four slots of the party’s House leadership.
“These institutions are really stubborn,” said Kelly Dittmar, research director at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “This is one of those situations where we can move the conversation forward … to consider not only the number of women in office but the power that women hold once they are in office.”
Clark, 57, may not be the delegation’s biggest star, but over three full terms she has recruited new members, become a prolific fund-raiser, and developed powerful alliances in the House, drawing on a low-key leadership style that has reportedly earned her the nickname “the silent assassin.” Her win on Wednesday puts her on track to rise further in the future, whenever the octogenarians currently holding the top three House leadership spots — to which they were all reelected Wednesday — retire. Pelosi suggested on Wednesday that this is her final term as speaker.
“Katherine Clark is a new face, doing it in an old-fashioned way,” said Erin O’Brien, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “She’s working the leadership. She’s raising a lot of money, and she’s spreading the money out. She’s making friends.”
“Like Pelosi,” O’Brien added, “she knows what every member needs.”
Clark claims a leadership post atop a Democratic caucus that has been roiled by the losses it sustained in the Nov. 3 elections. While the party retained its House majority, Republicans netted at least eight seats, triggering a bitter round of finger-pointing between progressive and moderate Democrats over what went wrong.
Amid the rancor, Clark emphasized party unity and said Democrats can win by focusing on fundamental issues like pandemic response, health care, racial justice, and climate change.
“I firmly believe that we know our districts best,” Clark said in an interview with the Globe. “And my leadership style is one of making sure that we understand the different perspectives and life experiences and districts that members come to Congress with, and use those not as points of division, but as points of strength.”
Clark got her start in politics as a member of the Melrose School Committee before serving in the Massachusetts Legislature. In 2013, she won a special election to fill the House seat previously held by Senator Ed Markey.
She has not shied away from headlines, as in 2016, when she showed up to the Capitol with a suitcase and a plan to stage a sit-in over gun control legislation alongside the late Representative John Lewis. They led their colleagues in holding the floor for 25 hours.
But much of her work has played out behind the scenes. Clark had a key role recruiting Democrats to oust Republican incumbents during the 2018 midterm elections, and she fashioned herself as an advocate for and ally to members in competitive districts in her current role as vice chair of the Democratic Caucus, the sixth-ranking House leadership spot. She is a progressive Democrat who has spent considerable time with members from swing districts, and she is seen by her colleagues as having a keen sense of which votes will be difficult for them to take, and a strong interest in protecting them.
The previous assistant speaker was Representative Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, who was elected to the Senate on Nov. 3. The position only got its current name in 2018, so it is not as clearly defined as older leadership positions.
“She’s an inside player and she’s playing the long game,” said Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University. “I think she fits the Democratic caucus like a glove.”
Over her time in office, Clark formed a close alliance with Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, who ran unopposed Wednesday for a second term as chair of the House Democratic Caucus, the fifth-ranking position. The pair are widely seen as likely to rise when the top three House Democratic leaders — Pelosi, 80, House majority leader Steny Hoyer, 81, and House majority whip James Clyburn, 80 — step down.
A Democrat close to Clark who was not authorized to speak publicly said Clark and Jeffries anticipate working as partners to climb the ranks of the House.
Her rise is a landmark achievement for women in Massachusetts politics. The only woman to chair a committee from the state was Edith Nourse Rogers, a Republican who led the Veterans Affairs committee from 1947 to 1949 and 1953 to 1955.
The state has built considerable clout in the House. In addition to Clark’s post, Representative Richard Neal of Springfield is the chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, and Representative Jim McGovern of Worcester is the chair of the House Rules Committee.