Mon. Feb 6th, 2023

Katherine Clark, celebrated after winning a special election for Congress in 2013.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

In months that followed, Clark ran in and won the 2013 special election to replace soon-to-be-Senator Ed Markey in the House of Representatives, launching a career in Washington that next year will include taking the number two spot in Democratic leadership. It’s well-worn terrain for Massachusetts’ political elite, but, historically, not its women.

The Revere Democrat will be only the second woman to reach such heights, following the retirement and the mentorship of the woman who made it possible: outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

In interviews with more than two dozen of Clark’s current and former colleagues and allies, a portrait emerges of a tactical, thoughtful, and tough politician, one whose gift for quiet but clinically effective inside strategies has earned her the nickname among some in the House as “the silent assassin.” She is no one to take lightly; her rise has come with breathtaking speed. And she remains relentlessly focused not only on her stated mission — enacting policies that promote and support women, children, and families — but also on empowering other women to follow in her footsteps.

The underpinning of Clark’s story is also a subtler one, less visible than her abrupt ascendancy. It is a story of how a corps of women in Massachusetts saw an opportunity to not just break the glass ceiling with individual candidates, but to organize a force that could bust up one of the oldest old boys’ clubs.

In an interview, Clark, 59, reflected on that meeting around the kitchen table that Lee inherited from her mother as the first of three pivotal moments that persuaded her to run for Congress.

“There is always that moment of doubt, especially, we see, in women candidates,” Clark said.

The meeting with a who’s who of campaign veterans, she said, began to convince her it was possible to win. The next question was whether the upheaval in her life, and her family’s life, would be worth it.

The second moment came when she conferred with former representative Niki Tsongas, of Lowell, who, in 2007, became the first woman elected to Congress in Massachusetts in 25 years when she won her late husband’s seat. That flicker of doubt she sometimes sees now in her women peers played behind her questions.

“I remember saying to her, I would come in a special election as the most junior member of the minority party, and Congress doesn’t seem to be a place that’s functioning particularly well,” Clark said.

Tsongas told her it would be hard but worth it, that in Congress, even one line in a budget or a small change in law “can have a positive impact on millions of Americans.” It was an insight that resonates with Clark to this day.

But Clark still had to be sure her family was on board. That was the third and most important step.

Prominent Massachusetts attorney and Democratic fund-raiser Beth Boland, who attended the meeting in Lee’s house, recalled Clark’s hesitation to subject her family to the all-consuming demands of a campaign for Congress.

“She gave me a lift into Boston to my office after that meeting, and I turned to her and I said, ‘Here’s the most amazing thing and the reason we love you … when you say you really need to check with your family, you mean it,’” Boland said. “And if they said no, I knew she was going to say no.”

The family meeting included Clark’s husband, Rodney Dowell, her three children, at the time in middle school and high school, her parents, and her in-laws. The verdict was unanimous in favor of running. But there was one last hiccup, though it wouldn’t show until some time later.

“Halfway through the campaign, my youngest came to me and said, ‘I would like to change my vote,’” Clark recalled. “That was a really tough moment as a mom and also a chance for a lesson in democracy: Make sure you research before you vote, because once you vote, you cannot take it back.”

Representatives (from left) Katherine Clark, Ayanna Pressley, and Lori Trahan peeked into a classroom at naptime, while on a tour of Nurtury Early Education, in Cambridge in 2021. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

That combination of empathy and pragmatism guides Clark as she takes on her new job; as Democratic whip she will be tasked with keeping her colleagues in line on legislation. With a razor-thin House Republican majority next year, her tasks will largely involve counseling Democrats through tough votes designed to send a message to the electorate, and to deny Republicans easy victories. She will also help negotiate Democratic support for bipartisan legislation.

While Clark’s climb to the number two spot may have seemed effortless — she ran unopposed — it was the result of months of quietly securing support among her colleagues in anticipation of a leadership shuffle. That mastery of the inside game has helped her at every level of her career.

The Connecticut native and attorney moved to Massachusetts to work as general counsel in the state’s Office of Child Care Services and get her master’s at the Harvard Kennedy School. In 2001, she moved to Melrose and ran for an uncontested seat on the School Committee, motivated by her personal and policy preference for all-day kindergarten, as her oldest was about to enter the schools. She eventually rose to chair the committee.

Her first political loss came three years later: an unsuccessful bid for state Senate in 2004. Clark was discouraged.

But Lee, who saw Clark’s promise during her days on the school committee, called a few days later to ask, “what’s next?”

“She was the one who made me think … I see politics as a way to center work around women and families, and that one loss shouldn’t be closing that off,” Clark said. “But I think it took another woman calling and posing that challenge and saying, you know, ‘I believe in you and so what’s the next step.’”

For Clark, the answer was to work behind the scenes. In 2006, she cochaired the Massachusetts Democratic Party’s Coordinated Campaign, a fund-raising and organizing effort designed to boost all party candidates, especially for governor, in the general election. Her role there also introduced her to numerous candidates statewide and taught her the mechanics of campaigning. She got to know Martha Coakley through Lee, following her into the attorney general’s office as a policy specialist.

Four years after her state Senate loss, Clark ran successfully for the state House. In 2010, she launched a campaign for the state Senate and, this time, she won.

When then AG Martha Coakley was running for governor in 2014, Katherine Clark, then a US congresswoman, joined her at a campaign event. Stephan Savoia

When John Kerry took a job as secretary of state in late 2012 and Markey ran for his Senate seat, Clark jumped in, and so did her powerful, carefully assembled network. Key to her victory in the crowded field was the early and strong endorsement of Coakley and a coveted primary endorsement from EMILY’s List, a national group that supports pro-abortion rights women candidates. She emerged on top from the primary against six other Democrats.

“Emily’s List went out on a limb, and when they did that, it was a real inflection point and it showed the power of that women donor network,” Boland recalled. “You just got those checks and you just said, ‘Oh my goodness, this is like getting a love letter from each of these donors.’”

In fact, Clark’s 2013 race was one of the first in the country to have a majority of women donors, Clark said.

As a back-bencher in Congress, Clark found moments to stand out, including leading a high-profile sit-in against gun violence on the House floor with the late civil rights icon John Lewis.

A photo tweeted from the floor of the US House of Representatives showed Democratic members of the House, including Katherine Clark, staging a sit-in “to demand action on common sense gun legislation” on June 22, 2016. U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark

As she ran for her second full term, Clark felt Tsongas’ advice about making an impact had been proven true.

Then, in 2016, Donald Trump was elected president.

“I really felt like I had to do something different,” she said, and that meant co-chairing Democrats’ recruitment effort to find candidates to win back the House majority in 2018. “The only thing that Donald Trump has ever really done for me was help me recruit credible candidates to come and be part of putting our country back together.”

One of her targets during that time was a registered nurse from Illinois named Lauren Underwood. Underwood, now in her third term in Congress, said that when Clark visited her during her campaign in 2017, she gave Underwood both confidence and healthy fear that she could win.

“She literally told me, looked me in my eyes and she said, ‘Lauren, you are fabulous. We need you to raise more money,’” Underwood recalled. “That has just been seared in my mind. And that’s been my relationship for this whole time.”

Asked in an interview if she recalled that moment with Underwood, Clark let out a loud laugh. “That sounds spot on,” she said.

Underwood’s was one of the 41 seats Democrats flipped that midterm — and, as a result of her recruitment efforts, Clark had a powerful bloc of new supporters that buoyed her when she decided to run for an official leadership position in 2018. It also cemented Clark as no longer just a beneficiary of the network of women who helped her rise, but an active contributor.

In 2017, Representative Katherine Clark joined other women in the House to condemn controversial tweets From President Donald Trump. Drew Angerer

Colleagues interviewed by the Globe used many of the same words to describe Clark: She’s a friend, a great listener, someone who makes an effort to get to know other lawmakers and their districts, and trustworthy.

Representative Katherine Clark was greeted by a supporter during an Election Day gathering at Santarpio’s in East Boston on Nov. 8.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Representative Annie Kuster of New Hampshire, Clark’s roommate in D.C., described her as fastidious and “hilarious” behind the scenes. Clark’s “secret sauce,” Kuster said, is her ability to build relationships.

“She has an uncanny ability to read people and to understand people’s lives,” said Kuster.

Kuster said the pair share the experience of parenting teenage boys while also caring for parents, in Clark’s case a mother with Alzheimer’s and a father who had a debilitating stroke. “She just has a lovely way of rising above life’s constant, persistent challenges and just looking for the best in people. And I think that is her magic.”

But, allies cautioned, Clark’s affability should not be confused for vulnerability. After her first race for leadership, a nickname for her as the “silent assassin,” or sometimes “velvet assassin,” began floating around, though its precise origin remains a mystery. In that contest, she bested California Representative Pete Aguilar, now her partner as the incoming number three in Democratic leadership.

Aguilar has a warning for those who might seek to challenge her.

“My takeaway is don’t mess with Katherine Clark,” Aguilar said, admiringly.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren said she has heard the nickname used by Clark’s allies and non-allies alike, as has Representative Jim McGovern, of Worcester.

“The deal is that, you know, behind Katherine’s kind of very calm and friendly exterior is a spine of steel,” McGovern said. “She’s a fighter for the things she believes in, and so she’s always very pleasant, but, you know, don’t get in her way.”

Clark has even impressed some Republicans, including Oklahoma Representative Tom Cole, a member of House GOP leadership and a senior member on the Appropriations Committee with Clark.

“She’s a really good legislator, great to work with, extraordinarily able,” Cole said. “So while she’s clearly rising very rapidly, politically inside the Democratic caucus, she hasn’t lost her ability to be a thoughtful and I think genuinely bipartisan legislator on appropriations.”

Where Clark goes next is an open question.

Representative Katherine Clark, accompanied by Representatives Hakeem Jeffries and Pete Aguilar, spoke to reporters after the three were elected by House Democrats to form the new leadership at the Capitol in Washington on Nov. 30.Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press

Some of her predecessors in the Democratic whip role, including Pelosi and the last two speakers from Massachusetts, did go on to lead the House. But others, like the man she is replacing, Maryland Representative Steny Hoyer, never had an opportunity to move beyond the number two role because the person ahead of them held on. Clark has given no indication she is interested in competing with incoming Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries, whom she has held close as a political partner, and maintains that her overarching goal is ensuring that women and mothers are at the table in powerful positions when policies affecting them are being decided.

“I never contemplated politics as a career for myself,” Clark said. “My interest in politics really came out of working very closely with the state Legislature and watching how important those decisions were to the families that they impacted.”

Lee, the political talent scout who identified Clark early and now takes recommendations from her former protegé, said she hopes her friend’s rise continues.

“The sky’s the limit when it comes to Katherine Clark,” Lee said. “I certainly would like her to become speaker, but she would also make a great president.”

Tal Kopan can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @talkopan.

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