Jul 15, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Katherine Clark's friend-filled path to speaker

Rep. Katherine Clark is seen addressing reporters at the Capitol as Rep. Hakeem Jeffries looks on.
Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) speaks as Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) listens before last year's House leadership elections. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Rep. Katherine Clark's career-long habit of making friends has the Massachusetts Democrat in contention to be the next speaker of the House.

Why it matters: Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has already suggested this is her final term in that job, but there's also continued speculation she'll accept an ambassadorial nomination to Italy or the Vatican that would spark an earlier succession vote.

  • If that happened, Clark would be thrust into a race with, among others, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), the House Democratic caucus leader.
  • Clark has built up a pile of chits in just under eight years in Congress, rising to assistant speaker — her party's fourth highest-ranking slot in the House, and just one notch ahead of Jeffries.
  • Bonds she's made helping freshmen members settle into their new jobs have not only given her a network of friends and supporters but loyalists she can tap in a speakership battle.
  • A source close to Pelosi says she has no interest in serving as an ambassador.

Clark won't have any of that talk right now. During an afternoon Axios spent with her in her Greater Boston district this month, Clark continually turned the conversation back to her legislative focus — child care.

  • She also displayed the type of raw political skill John McCormack and Tip O'Neill used to become the most recent of the eight Massachusetts members to ascend to House speaker, notes Axios' Glen Johnson, a longtime Statehouse correspondent in Boston.
  • "I think there is something about women’s leadership styles that are built on listening, building consensus and listening not just to people — our constituents — but also to my colleagues that come from different districts, have different concerns, different pressures than I do," Clark said during a break in a Cambridge, Massachusetts, ice cream shop.
  • Between careful licks of a salted caramel cone, she added: "That’s what gets me excited about being in leadership, is helping our caucus succeed, shining the light on my colleagues, because I know when they are successful, then we’re going to succeed for the American people."

Clark deflected when asked if she’s the best person to be the next speaker.

  • "I don’t know," she said, "but I can tell you that those are going to be tall stilettos to fill."

While outwardly dismissive of a strategic rise through the ranks, her actions reveal a well-honed, practiced and careful politician.

  • Clark, 57, started in elective politics as a member of the Melrose, Massachusetts, school committee. After three years, her colleagues unanimously voted her chairwoman.
  • From there, Clark spent three years as a state representative and three years more as a state senator. She then won the special election to replace Edward Markey in the House when the Democrat was elected U.S. senator in 2013.
  • Along the way, the non-practicing lawyer has raised three children, propelling Clark's interest in child care issues — and her affinity for the needs of fellow lawmakers balancing work, life and new jobs.

Clark has a "shine-theory" leadership mentality: investing in members so they may succeed and then, as a result, allow the entire Democratic caucus to "shine."

  • As assistant speaker, she holds monthly dinners for freshmen members.
  • Her team meets with chiefs of staff on a regular basis to ensure all teams’ needs are met.
  • And recently, they started a weekly newsletter to highlight the successes and innovations of different members of Congress.

She describes her leadership style as one predicated on listening and building consensus. While men or senior members of Congress may possess some of those qualities, Clark thinks it’s a largely stereotypically feminine approach.

  • "I think people are sometimes taken aback by the success of that model," she said.

On any given day, Clark is juggling several group chat threads that range from all-female groups, a thread for the building she lives in (which she says has around 40 members of Congress), as well as a sub-group featuring just the women in that building.

  • The substance of these congressional texts range from "Can you move my car?" to "Does anyone understand what’s happening with this bill?," or "What does 'reconciliation' mean?"
  • On yet another text chain are Clark’s roommates and closest friends in Washington: Reps. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.), Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), Lois Frankel (D-Fla.), Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), and Julia Brownley (D-Calif).

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a source close to Pelosi denying her interest in an ambassadorship.

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