Clark coasting in Fifth District race

Some see election as mere formality

It seems the Massachusetts Fifth Congressional District special election is a mere formality for Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader of the US House of Representatives. “You can see how excited I am that we are going to have Congresswoman Katherine Clark in the Congress before too long,” Pelosi said at a recent Cambridge College campaign event for the Melrose Democrat. When she quickly added that the district’s voters also had to weigh in, the audience chuckled.

Read Gurley’s profile of Clark’s opponent, Frank Addivinola Pelosi echoed what her Democratic brethren in the Bay State are already banking on. Barring some cataclysmic development in the race, state Sen. Katherine Clark can start thinking about new office space and shuttle flights to the nation’s capital. She will trade a seat in a state Legislature dominated by Democrats for a seat in a US House dominated by Republicans. She said the first question most voters ask her is why.

“For me, it’s really about not sitting on the sidelines while we watch a small band of extremists in the House roll back all the progress we’ve made, whether it’s on women’s rights or education access,” she said, sitting in a room of a sign-cluttered Malden campaign office. Her solution to Republican intransigence is to isolate the “extremists” who are “almost leading by tantrum” and “to have a good strategy for finding people [with whom] you have common ground.”

With Democrats in the minority, “you don’t control agenda,” said Sen. Will Brownsberger, one of the six Democrats Clark beat in the Democratic primary. A new representative would have to seek out a “niche issue” to work, according to Brownsberger. He notes that US Rep. Niki Tsongas, for example, has been heavily involved in addressing the issue of sexual assault in the military.

Prospective Democratic lawmakers will have to deal with another round of federal budget cutbacks. Clark notes that sequester-driven funding cuts will have long-term impacts in the district in areas from Head Start programs to university research and development. Clark calls sequestration, “a very cynical way to go about setting a budget.”

Like many Democrats, Clark said that the disastrous rollout of the federal health care exchange has been “frustrating,” even though Massachusetts has been largely immune from those problems. “I think the power of [Obamacare] to transform people’s lives and the economy will overshadow the problems of the rollout, as profound as they are,” she said.

Clark has also confronted concerns about immigration reform on the campaign trail. She supports the Dream Act that would provide a pathway to citizenship for some young people. However, much like Frank Addivinola, her Republican challenger, she is careful to stress the difficulties facing legal immigrants seeking citizenship who are hamstrung by bureaucratic regulations. “Until we bring some reform to our legal immigration system, we are never going to stem the tide of people coming here through illegal means,” she said.

The Connecticut native said her mother, a school librarian, sparked her interest in education and children’s issues. But her late grandmother, who lived to be 102, is the person who stars in the personal stories Clark tells. A real-life “Rosie the Riveter,” her grandmother worked as machinist during World War II. Clark said she spent many Sunday dinners at her home listening to the family matriarch describe changes in social attitudes on issues like civil rights and gay marriage. Clark is married to attorney Rodney Dowell and is the mother of three sons who attend the Melrose public schools.

After launching her legal career with a Chicago law firm and the Colorado District Attorneys Council, Clark moved to Massachusetts nearly 20 years ago to attend Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She later served as the general counsel in the Office of Child Care Services and worked for Attorney General Martha Coakley as the head of the Policy and Government division.

Clark’s rise in Bay State politics has been swift and her timing impeccable. After six years on the Melrose School Committee, she moved to the House of Representatives after a 2008 special election. Two years later, she succeeded Richard Tisei in the Senate after Tisei resigned his seat to pursue an ultimately unsuccessful bid to oust US Rep. John Tierney.

On Beacon Hill, Clark played an unusual role for a freshman senator as a key participant in the negotiations to move municipal employees into the Group Insurance Commission, the state agency that oversees health care coverage for state, municipal, and other public sector employees. She served as a bridge between municipal officials, labor leaders, and her former House comrades.

“She is a hard-working, committed public servant, someone who is well liked by her colleagues,” said Brownberger.

She jumped into the congressional race to succeed Ed Markey when he moved to the US Senate. Her rivals in the Democratic primary included three other state lawmakers — Brownsberger, Sen. Karen Spilka, and Rep. Carl Sciortino – and Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian, a former state representative. Clark stood out from her competitors on field operations and in fundraising, almost matching Koutoujian’s take. Her margin of victory was decisive, 10 percentage points over Koutoujian and 19 over Spilka.

But Clark received some unwelcome attention after one of her PAC contributors, Emily’s List, paid for mailers that featured photos of Clark and US Sen. Elizabeth Warren, which some voters misconstrued as an endorsement by Warren. The senator remained neutral in the October primary.

Asked about the mailings, Clark said campaigns are in a difficult position since legally they cannot have any contacts with a PAC like Emily’s List that endorses them. “Transparency is overall in our campaigns and how they are financed, who is providing that money, is what we have to keep working toward.” she said.

Most analysts expect Clark to cruise to victory on December 10, but she is taking no chances. Until recently, she resisted her Republican challenger’s multiple requests for debates, but she ultimately agreed to sit down with him for a discussion on NECN on Friday.

An Overview of the Fifth Congressional District

The Fifth Congressional District seat opened up in June when US Rep Ed Markey moved over to the US Senate after beating Republican challenger Gabriel Gomez. The district swung to the Democrats in the mid-1970s and has been reliably blue ever since. President Obama won here by comfortable margins of nearly 70 percent in 2008 and 2012.

Most of the communities were in the Seventh Congressional District before the 2010 redistricting cycle, which reduced the number of Massachusetts districts from 10 to nine. When the dust cleared after state lawmakers redrew the electoral map, Cambridge had been divided between the Fifth and the Seventh District represented by Michael Capuano. Sudbury also had been split in two between the Fifth and the Third, which is represented by Niki Tsongas.

The median income of the district is $79,474. The economically diverse area of 24 communities ranges from the working class cities of Malden and Revere in Greater Boston to wealthy Metrowest towns like Weston, Wayland, and Ashland that have a rural flavor.

Meet the Author

Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

The majority of the population is white. Asians comprise the largest minority group and Latinos the second largest. Most residents have a high school education; 52 percent of residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Some of the largest companies in the state, Bose, Staples (Framingham); Raytheon (Waltham); and Biogen Idec (Weston) are headquartered here. Institutions of higher learning are well-represented. Harvard University, Tufts University and Brandeis University are located in the Fifth.