Sarah Silbiger / The New York Times

Rep. Katherine Clark J.D. ’89 (D-Mass.) speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in February 2019. The Cornell alum is now running to be Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s right-hand woman.

October 11, 2020

Cornell Alum Rep. Katherine Clark Jockeys for Assistant House Speakership

Print More

Rep. Katherine Clark J.D. ’89 (D-Mass.) works behind the scenes in Washington. She doesn’t frequent day-to-day news headlines, eschewing cable TV in favor of forming coalitions, relationships and raising dollars for the Democratic party. It’s her secret to success, and, as she sees it, advancement towards the assistant House Speakership.

Clark is not only running for re-election to her Boston suburb seat this election cycle, she’s aiming higher. The current vice Democratic caucus chair is vying against three other Congressmembers to be Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) right-hand woman.

“I have used my current position and will use this position, if I am elected, to make sure that we are helping every member of Congress in our caucus be successful,” Clark told The Sun in a phone interview. “[It is] the meticulous work that helps Congress achieve our goals.”

The position, created by Speaker Pelosi in 2006, is the fourth highest-ranking position in the party’s House leadership, behind Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.). The role, which has no officially set responsibilities, is generally seen as an avenue for younger House members to attain a voice in the chamber’s administration and instill party values in new members.

Clark, dubbed the “the silent assassin” by some of her Democratic colleagues for her political tactics, said her time at Cornell Law School was key to shaping her legislative ideology and style.

“[Cornell Law School] taught me to challenge the status quo, and to not be afraid to dissent when it is necessary, something that Justice Ginsburg also modeled for us so very well,” she said. “The size of the classes, the opportunities to do clinic work, all helped me realize the power of law in people’s daily lives.”

She recounted one particular experience working for Cornell Law School’s Legal Aid Clinic that showed her how just minor misfortune can cause economic strife. A single mom had been in a car accident that, despite being minor, nevertheless placed an immense strain on her finances.

“In what seems like a small case of a car accident, where there were not serious injuries, really underscored for me, the interconnection, and how fragile people’s existence can become when you have these other economic factors at play,” she said. “It was a really a learning moment for me.”

Over the past two decades, Clark has worked her way up the political ladder. She was a school board member, prosecutor, Massachutes House Representative and Massachusetts State Senator. In 2013, she ran for the House seat vacated by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

The race for assistant house speaker occurs within the Democratic ranks, and is set to occur after the 117th Congress is elected on Nov. 3. Clark faces off against Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) to replace current assistant speaker Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), who is running for New Mexico’s open Senate seat.

Support from women colleagues and mentors has been fundamental to Clark’s ascent through party leadership, and if elected to assistant speaker by her colleagues, it will likely be because of their backing. According to Clark, amplifying issues that disproportionate affect women and women of color — including sexual harassment in the workplace and domestic violence — would be one of her  central goals in the new leadership role

Clark hopes to join the party power organ as Democrats attempt to win the House, Senate, and White House for the first time in nearly a decade. Clark was ardent that Democrats need to “seize this moment” and show “the American people that as Democrats, we’re far more than just anti-Trump, that we know how to govern.”

Whether it be a red, blue or divided government, Clark’s methodical, relationship-centered approach to legislating is not going to change any time soon.

“I’m going to stay with the playbook and the strategy that I have developed for success,” she said. “That is meeting the needs of individual members, making sure that their offices are functioning well, making sure that they no matter where they are, whether they are incoming freshmen or senior members of our caucus, that they are able to contribute.”