Mass. congresswoman takes disciplined approach to power and politics
LAST YEAR, The Hill called Rep. Katherine Clark “the most powerful woman in the Capitol you’ve probably never heard of.”
Plenty of people have heard of her now, and many more soon will.
In January, Clark will become the fourth highest ranking member of the US House of Representatives when she assumes the post of assistant speaker, a position she won last month in a vote among her Democratic colleagues. That she prevailed over Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, who entered the House three years before Clark, is just another mark of the savvy shown by the Fifth Congressional District congresswoman, who has not let seniority issues get in the way of a fast ascent into the top ranks of House leadership.
The former Melrose state legislator won a 2013 special election for the seat vacated by Ed Markey when he joined the Senate, and she has made a quick — and often quiet – rise into power. That has earned her the moniker among some colleagues of the “silent assassin.”
Clark evinces little of the killer instinct in a conversation on this week’s Codcast, but that seems very much a part of her no-drama playbook, where an outwardly modest bearing has served her far better than lurching for the next headline.
Clark said she thought hard about running for the seat, knowing she would be the newest member of what was then the minority party in the House.
“I had a conversation with then-Congresswoman Niki Tsongas that really solidified my decision to run,” said Clark. “And she talked about the power of being in Congress is that even a discreet budget line item, a bill that doesn’t have your name on the top, but that you worked on and matters to families at home gets folded into a bigger bill.” You can have an impact on “bills and policies that are not the stuff of headlines, but affect millions of people for the better.”
When pressed on a range of issues confronting the country and the Democratic leadership in the House, Clark doesn’t flinch from a well-honed message that Democrats are ready to lead and govern, with Republican obstruction the only thing in the way of addressing the serious problems facing Americans.
On the most pressing issue of the day in Congress — whether a new pandemic-driven economic stimulus bill will be passed before the end of the year — she says: “We have very clear dynamics. Mitch McConnell simply refuses to care about the suffering of the American people. And this dynamic has not changed for months.” After the House passed the Heroes Act in May to push $3 trillion into pandemic-related spending, she said, Republicans insisted on pausing until after the election. They now want to tie any spending to liability protection for companies.
“How are the 12 million [workers] who are looking at unemployment benefits running out on December 26 going to continue to pay their bills and get those payments?” asked Clark. “These are the fundamental crises of our time and of this pandemic. And it has gone from frustrating to absolute despair that we cannot get Mitch McConnell to agree to this fundamental help.”
Though Democrats are, of course, elated by Joe Biden’s election and the end of the Trump era, Clark deflected questions about what went wrong in the Democrats’ loss of seats in the House.
“I think what went very right is the election of Joe Biden and that we were able to hold onto the majority [in the House], including in places that overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump,” she said.
She also didn’t bite when asked to weigh in on former President Barack Obama’s recent comments — echoed by her House leadership colleague Jim Clyburn — that messaging from the party’s left flank the invokes phrases like “defund the police,” which Obama called a “snappy slogan,” is counterproductive to making real strides in police reform.
“It is always the right time, to quote Martin Luther King, to do the right thing,” said Clark. “What we can’t do is get derailed by a disagreement over any particular message. It is a time in our country’s history where we have to look at racism unblinkingly. We have to do everything we can.”
The three House leaders above her — Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and Clyburn, the majority whip — are all 80 or older (Hoyer is 81). With Pelosi signaling that this will be her last term at the helm, it’s hard not envision a move by the 57-year-old Clark to become the ninth House speaker from Massachusetts.
But don’t look for Clark to broadcast any such intentions, though perhaps she hinted at the idea of another woman at the top.
“Well, I can tell you this,” she said. “Whoever is our next speaker is going to have some tall stilettos to fill. I am so grateful to be part of this leadership team. Going back to my story about Niki Tsongas, for me, this has never been about the title or the ambition, and I’m going to use this position that I have to do the very most I can for my constituents, for the people of the Commonwealth.”