A rookie on Pelosi’s team

Clark is raising money for Democrats and most (but not all) of the time blasting the GOP

WHEN SENATORS AND REPRESENTATIVES gathered in the House chamber in January to hear President Obama’s State of the Union address, Katherine Clark, the Melrose representative who is now serving her first full term, strode up to Mitch McConnell, grabbed his hand, and wouldn’t let go.

Her aim was to convince the Kentucky Republican, who is the Senate majority leader, to work with her on legislation to combat heroin addiction in infants. Though the tactic may have been presumptuous, it worked. McConnell, whose state has a big problem with heroin, agreed. “I literally grabbed him on his way down the center aisle,” says Clark, who won a special election in December 2013 to take Ed Markey’s 5th District seat. “I did the famous politician double-grip, where you kind of grab the forearm, and I just wouldn’t let go of him.”

Clark’s other priority bill, to provide federal grants to allow victims of domestic violence to bring their pets with them to temporary housing, has more than a dozen Republican co-sponsors. She met the lead GOP sponsor, Florida’s Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, by going out for the House’s softball team last year. Clark says she’s not even particularly good at softball. “I really joined it for that opportunity — to be able to meet people,” she says.

In a Congress riven by partisanship, Clark is trying to find common ground with Republicans on issues that few would regard as controversial. At the same time, she’s trying to rise in the Democratic ranks, which means raising money for Democrats and blasting Republicans with regularity for their stingy funding of the social safety net and for policies she believes hurt women.

In the last few months, she’s criticized House Republicans for passing a law to ban abortions after 20 weeks of gestation and for trying to reverse a District of Columbia law barring employers from firing women for having abortions. She has also been a leading critic of the Republican plan for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act, which would lock in cuts from the 2011 budget sequestration.

Her strategy seems to be working. In a Massachusetts delegation diminished by the losses of Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, and Barney Frank, Clark has begun to climb the leadership ladder. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi named her to the Democrats’ Steering and Policy Committee, giving her a say in the party’s policy goals and input on which representatives sit on which committees. She also landed an assistant’s spot on Maryland Democrat Steny Hoyer’s whip team, a job that requires her to ask fellow Democrats how they plan to vote on key bills and to lobby them to support the party leadership’s position.

Clark Katherine

Other than two first-term representatives assigned to fill slots set aside for the freshman class, Clark is the most junior member on the steering committee. She is among those picked for the job by Pelosi, with whom Clark has struck up a friendship. Pelosi campaigned for her after she won a competitive Democratic primary in 2013, even though Clark had no real challenger in the general election. When Clark arrived in Washington, Pelosi showed her around. They snapped pictures together and shared stories about Massachusetts political legends Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. and John F. Kennedy.

Their rapport is notable, given the critical comments about Pelosi that Clark’s fellow Massachusetts US Reps. Stephen Lynch and Michael Capuano made to WGBH’s Jim Braude earlier this year. Lynch and Capuano said they thought the Democrats needed new leadership to get them back to the majority. Clark says she doesn’t think Pelosi is to blame for the Democrats’ woes. Pelosi “brings her ‘A’ game every day,” she says. “I don’t see Nancy Pelosi as the reason the Democrats are in the minority.”

Fundraising skills are crucial in leadership and Clark proved herself capable, raising more than $2.4 million for her special election and 2014 re-election campaign —nearly 40 percent more than the average House member over the same period. In a safe Democratic district, Clark’s in a good position to share with other Democrats and win friends across the country. And her district offers plenty of opportunity. It includes wealthy Boston suburbs such as Lexington and Weston.

When Pelosi came to Massachusetts in May for a fundraiser for high rollers at the home of Alan Solomont, dean of the College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University and an elite Democratic Party fundraiser, Clark helped round up donors. In so doing, she helped raise big bucks for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the House Democrats’ fundraising arm.

Clark and Pelosi are in step on women’s issues and both are committed to winning more seats for women in Congress. Clark is part of a growing cadre of powerful women politicians in Massachusetts, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Attorney General Maura Healey. She’s also tight with the former attorney general, Martha Coakley, for whom she worked for a time as policy director.

With women voting now at greater rates than men and leaning increasingly Democratic, they are a crucial constituency for the party. Democrats’ effort to paint Republican leadership officials in Washington as being at war with women was a major campaign theme in 2014.

Clark, only the fifth woman to represent Massachusetts in the House, has done her part to push the theme. She’s spoken on the House floor for the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill to require equal pay for women workers that has no chance of passing in the GOP House. “It was the very first bill that I cosponsored,” she said on the House floor this spring. “We shouldn’t have to wait until our children are ready to retire before women are finally paid what they are worth.”

She has also advocated for more federal funding for childcare and is pressuring the Justice Department to direct more attention to cyberstalking. Hoyer says Clark’s attention to women’s issues is the reason she’s on the whip team. She’s “a champion for women and families,” he says.

Clark has seats on the Education and Workforce Committee, which authorizes funding for the Education and Labor departments, and the Science, Space and Technology Committee, which oversees federal grant-making agencies, including NASA and the National Science Foundation.

The former assignment gives her a say in the No Child law’s future. A former Melrose School Committee member, Clark is well briefed on the issues. One of her main priorities is to promote an idea that President Obama has proposed—universal public preschool. At a committee markup of the No Child law this winter, she offered an amendment to establish a new federal-state partnership to provide 4-year-old children from families with income less than twice the poverty level access to pre-kindergarten. It was voted down, but it’s not a hopeless cause. A number of Republican states across the South are ramping up pre-K programs.

Last year Congress reauthorized, with little dissent, a $5.2 billion block grant program to help states pay for daycare for poor families. Clark authored provisions in the reauthorization law that allow states to spend some of the money on training and technical assistance to improve the quality of the care.
“As a working mom of three, I understand that parents want nothing more than when their children are in child care, they are happy, learning, safe, and healthy,” she said on the House floor.

Her Science Committee seat, not normally considered a plum post, is more appealing when you’re from Massachusetts. Clark has used it to defend federal funding for basic research and for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education.

Clark grew up in Connecticut and acquired the political bug at her maternal grandmother’s table, where the family would gather on Sundays to discuss politics. Her mother and grandmother shared a concern for women’s rights and issues affecting the working class. Clark’s father was a diehard Republican, but his views changed when her brother came out of the closet, and George W. Bush waged war in Iraq. The elder Clark switched his voter registration.

Meet the Author

Shawn Zeller

Washington Correspondent
Still, Clark learned from her father how to talk the language of Republicans. In lining up Republican sponsors for her heroin bill, for instance, she notes that babies exposed to opiates in utero are prone to birth complications. “This bill will save us money,” she says, noting that such births are five times more expensive than those of healthy babies and that Medicaid is paying for them in three out of four cases.

“She’s part of a new generation in Democratic Party politics,” says Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College. “Massachusetts has a reputation for having a hard-charging partisan liberal political culture. But she is really trying to work across the aisle, and to do that you are going to start with smaller, more pragmatic bills.”