Sarah Silbiger / The New York Times

Rep. Katherine Clark J.D. '89 (D-Mass.) appears with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) during a ceremonial swearing-in to the 116th Congress.

November 19, 2020

Cornell Alumna Ascends to No. 4 Democratic House Leadership Position

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Rep. Katherine Clark J.D. ’89 (D-Mass.), the current vice chair of the Democratic caucus, has climbed further up the party’s leadership, winning an election Wednesday morning to serve as Assistant House Speaker.    

House Democrats voted — virtually, for the first time — to elect their slate of leaders for the 117th Congress. Clark, who announced her candidacy for the position in September, beat fellow New Englander Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) in a 135-92 vote to win the intra-party contest. She will replace outgoing Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), who won election in New Mexico’s Senate race.  

“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 previously told The Sun in a phone interview. “[It is] the meticulous work that helps Congress achieve our goals.”

Created by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in 2018, the role of Assistant House Speaker is the party’s fourth-highest ranking position in the House. The job, 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.

Most of the other marquee positions were uncontested: Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) are set to return their current posts, while Pelosi will also run unopposed in her bid to retain the speakership for a second consecutive term. 

The freshly elected leadership team held a Capitol Hill press conference Wednesday afternoon to lay out their vision for the party’s future.  

“I am humbled … to join the leadership team in this new role,” Clark told reporters. “I can tell you this about our caucus: We are the guardians of peoples’ hopes and aspirations. We are going to be the unified engine for change. We are going to see and help the American people with the pain and suffering … from this pandemic. This caucus is ready to serve, ready to lead.”  

Clark, who holds a safe Democratic district centered on Boston’s suburbs, has played an active role in party politics since winning election to Congress in 2013. Sometimes called the “silent assassin” by House colleagues, Clark has garnered a reputation as a shrewd, TV-averse insider.      

During the 2018 midterms, Clark served in the leadership of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the partisan arm charged with electing Democrats to the House. With her help, the DCCC oversaw what many observers called a “blue wave,” picking up 41 seats on the way to ending eight years of GOP control.  

This cycle, Clark has raised a hefty $4.5 million, much of which was used to shore up the finances of incumbent Democrats in tight races. She also spent time campaigning for House Democrats, particularly women and minorities. 

Such work is typically a key step in building enough support from colleagues to advance to higher leadership positions; notably, in a previous interview, Clark did not deny that she one day may like to run for Speaker of the House.      

The road ahead for Clark, and other party leaders, however, may be a bumpy one: She assumes the high-ranking leadership position at a bitterly contentious time for House Democrats. 

Although the party won back the White House, down-ballot underperformance among Democratic congressional candidates has led to sharp infighting between swing-district moderates and their more outspoken, progressive colleagues. 

Despite widespread expectations to pick up 10 to 15 seats, Democrats instead lost a net of at least eight, shedding ground in districts from South Florida to suburban Los Angeles — reducing the party’s House majority to one of the narrowest in recent memory. 

In a heated conference call after election results trickled in, Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), who only narrowly avoided being ousted herself, said the party “need[s] to not ever use the term ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again,” while decrying the “defund the police” slogan. Liberal firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), by contrast, rejected those criticisms as premature and “irresponsible.”     

In her new role, Clark faces the challenging task of helping to unite a newly fractured caucus. Holding just a slim majority, House Democrats say they cannot afford major divisions between both wings of the party if they are to advance a legislative agenda.