Clark seems like she’s in a good spot

Her stock will rise if Dems retake House, and maybe even if they don’t

US REP. KATHERINE CLARK appears well positioned politically if the Democrats retake the House of Representatives in November—and even if they don’t.

If Democrats win, Clark can take some of the credit and ride the coattails of her patron in the congressional leadership, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. If Democrats come up short and Pelosi is ousted or decides it’s time to step aside, the Californian’s replacement will almost surely come from the ranks of her deputies, of which Clark is now one.

Clark, who’s in just her second full term representing Boston’s northern and western suburbs (she succeeded Ed Markey when Markey won John Kerry’s old Senate seat in 2013), is already a senior whip, a member of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, and co-chair for candidate recruitment of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. In the first role, she lobbies fellow Democrats to vote as Pelosi wishes. In the second, she helps decide committee assignments of rank-and-file members. In the last role she’s helping recruit the Democrats’ candidates for the midterm elections.

Clark’s stock has risen in the House because Pelosi has taken her under her wing, but also because she reflects the ideological and strategic views of the majority of the Democratic caucus. In other words, she’s a progressive who sees the Democrats’ best chance for success in promoting unabashedly liberal stances. At the same time, she’s cognizant of the need to recruit candidates that match the politics of their districts. In some cases, that means moderate Blue Dogs who oppose immigration, gun control, and even abortion rights.

“Our goal is not to have one monolithic caucus, but to elect people with core Democratic values about creating economic opportunity and security for families,” Clark says.

It’s a notion that doesn’t go over well with the Bernie Sanders wing of the party, which believes Democrats can sell progressive politics anywhere in the country. But in the Democratic Party power structure, the Bernie Bros are still on the outside looking in, as was clear last year when Democrats selected former Obama labor secretary Tom Perez as the party’s chairman over the Bernie wing’s favorite, Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota.

Clark is now part of that establishment and will gain if it’s restored to power. “Speakers like to reward their allies, and so those close to a speaker-elect or new speaker usually get some benefit,” says Matthew Green, a political science professor at the Catholic University of America who’s written a book on the House speakership.

And while it may seem counterintuitive, Green thinks Clark is likely to rise even if the Democrats lose. “When a party loses seats, especially when it loses more seats than expected, that’s a danger zone for a party’s incumbent leaders,” says Green. “But if a leader steps down or is forced out, it’s usually another establishment figure who takes that person’s place.”

Look no further than the 2015 GOP leadership transition. House conservatives forced out their speaker, Ohio’s John Boehner, but the two contenders to replace him didn’t come from the insurgent, right-wing Freedom Caucus. Rather, the first choice, Kevin McCarthy of California, was Boehner’s No. 2, and when he declined to run for the job, Republicans selected the Ways and Means chairman, who’d been the Republicans’ 2012 vice presidential nominee, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

For her part, Clark says party leadership is not her goal. “I have one priority and that is winning back the House,” she says.

US Rep. Katherine Clark

Still, having friends in high places can be helpful. Clark last year won a coveted seat on the Appropriations Committee, a position that could grow in importance if Republicans lift their ban on earmarks, the spending line items that benefit individual districts. Clark supports the restoration of earmarks on the grounds that they will ease the appropriations backlog that has contributed to the gridlock at the Capitol. She argues that transparency about who requests earmarks can combat the graft and waste that prompted Republicans to kill them off seven years ago.

According to an analysis by the Campaign Finance Institute, a Washington think tank, Democrats planning to challenge Republican House incumbents in 2018 vastly outnumber Republican challengers. They’ve also seen a great deal of early fundraising success. The figures are reminiscent of past wave elections, like that of 2010, when Republicans saw a surge in candidates, and 2006, when Democrats did, both preceding big election wins. Still, Democrats have a big job ahead this year. They must win 24 Republican-held seats to take the majority.

Clark thinks they will get there with candidates like Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy helicopter pilot and federal prosecutor whose strong campaign in New Jersey prompted Rodney Frelinghuysen, the Appropriations Committee chairman, whose family has produced six members of Congress, to announce his retirement in January.

Clark is also high on Abby Finkenauer, an Iowa House representative challenging Rod Blum, a member of the Freedom Caucus who represents a district that twice voted for Barack Obama, and Brendan Kelly, a Navy veteran and Illinois state attorney who’s making opioids an issue in his challenge to incumbent Republican Mike Bost.

Clark’s voting record is solidly left-wing. She sided with fellow Democrats 99.6 percent of the time on House votes that split a majority of Democrats from a majority of Republicans last year, according to an analysis by Washington publisher CQ Roll Call. She was a ring-leader in 2016 when Democrats held a sit-in on the House floor, recruiting civil rights icon John Lewis to the effort, to protest Congress’ lack of action on gun control despite the continuing plague of mass shootings.

Clark has positioned herself in a sweet spot between competing Democratic factions that are separated less by ideology than by strategy.

US Rep. Seth Moulton, who won his seat in a 2014 Democratic primary, defeating incumbent John Tierney, has increasingly challenged Pelosi, first for her support of the House’s seniority system, which assures top committee posts go to older, long-tenured members, and more recently for her leadership itself.

He says he’d like her to step down whether Democrats win in November or not. He sees Democrats’ best hope in recruiting candidates, and leaders, who are not perceived as career politicians. “It’s time for a new generation to step up,” he says.

His beef isn’t about ideology, but process. “The Demo-cratic Party has historically been terrible at choosing candidates,” he says. “We always seem to pick whoever is next in line rather than inspiring leaders.” Moulton has focused on helping veterans like himself because, in his view, Democrats are too easily caricatured as anti-military. That military background is part of the appeal of fellow veteran Mikie Sherill in New Jersey as well as Conor Lamb, the ex-Marine strongly backed by Moulton who squeaked to a narrow special election House victory in March in a heavily Republican-leaning Pennsylvania district.

Moulton says his campaign for change, however, isn’t about securing a leadership position for himself. “I’m doing it because it’s the right thing, not to advance my own political interests,” he says.

Meet the Author

Shawn Zeller

Washington Correspondent
The 2016 leadership election, in which Pelosi beat Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan 134-63 (Moulton voted for Ryan, Clark for Pelosi), revealed significant dissent in the caucus, but also that Pelosi continued to enjoy the support of the vast majority of Democrats.

Whether that support will continue if the Democrats fail to retake the House is unclear. Clark, a Pelosi lieutenant, will benefit if they do. If they don’t, odds are she will still land on her feet as well.