Politics

Katherine Clark Is the Adult in the Room

In a world swirling with controversial and chaotic political personalities, Massachusetts Congresswoman Katherine Clark—one of the most powerful people on Capitol Hill—is competent, reliable, and, yes, maybe even a little bit boring. Thank God.


Photo by Matt Kalinowski

The first sign that something was wrong came when her car was rerouted away from Democratic National Committee headquarters. A pipe bomb had been discovered outside of it. Then the same thing happened near Republican National Committee headquarters, and Katherine Clark suddenly felt concerned. Fearful.

Clark, who represents Massachusetts’ 5th Congressional District, hadn’t gone to the Capitol the morning of January 6 because she’d been exposed to the coronavirus three days earlier, at her own swearing-in ceremony. But now, at 2 p.m., she’d decided to make her way to the Rayburn House Office Building.

She got out of the car at Independence Avenue and began walking to the east side of the Capitol. There was a mass of people on the west side of the iconic building, and everything looked…off. Trump flags everywhere. Protestors on the Capitol steps, where she’d never seen them before. The smell of smoke in the air. And the noise—not the sound of demonstrators chanting, but something angrier.

Outside of the Rayburn building, a woman wearing MAGA gear approached her. “Do you know this area?” the woman asked. “Can you get food inside this building?”

Normally Clark tried to be helpful to visitors, but this felt different. She told the woman she didn’t know the area well and didn’t think there was food in the building, then quickly moved on. She had to knock on the door of Rayburn to get the Capitol Police to let her in, and when she was finally inside, a shaken officer told her the Capitol had been breached.

Clark hustled to her office and started calling and texting fellow members of the House. Two of her closest friends in Congress, Representatives Grace Meng of New York and Lois Frankel of Florida, had barricaded themselves in a room just off the National Statuary Hall. They told Clark they could hear people banging on the doors and fighting with police.

Things went on like this for the next six hours, Clark staying in touch with colleagues on her phone as law enforcement slowly cleared the building. The one thing they all agreed upon was that they couldn’t be intimidated by the insurrectionists; they needed to return to the House floor to resume certifying the results of the presidential election. Would America continue as a democracy, or would it not? The stakes felt that stark. Finally, around 8 p.m., members gathered again on the floor and resumed voting. Except for one problem: Scores of GOP representatives simply picked up where they’d left off earlier in the afternoon, one by one rising to their feet not to support democracy, but to continue undermining it.

In all, 147 House and Senate Republicans chose the side of the Big Lie.

“I have—it was….” It’s 12 days later, and as she sits inside her basement-level district office in Malden, Clark, wearing a black pandemic mask and maroon winter coat (we have the windows open), still struggles to describe what she felt at that moment—and still clearly feels. “White-hot rage is the only way I can describe it,” she says finally. “Just shock and disbelief that after what we had just witnessed, they would continue to push this lie.”

White-hot rage is probably not the first thing you associate with Katherine Clark—assuming, that is, you associate anything with her at all. Despite having spent the past 19 years holding elective office around Boston, despite having served in Congress for the past seven years, despite being part of House leadership since 2017, Clark is anything but a household name, even in Massachusetts. While colleagues such as Ayanna Pressley are building profiles in the national media, Clark remains mostly under the radar, “quietly doing the work of the chamber,” says UMass Boston political science associate professor Erin O’Brien, who’s followed Clark’s career closely. “She’s focused on Congress. Knowing the other members. Knowing how Congress works.”

Still, cable TV hits aren’t necessarily the best measure of clout. Last fall, Clark’s colleagues elected her assistant House speaker, making her the fourth-most-powerful member of the chamber, behind only Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and Majority Whip James Clyburn. More notably, the position makes her the second-most-powerful woman in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives. Think about that for a moment: In the 232 years that the House has been convening, only one woman—Pelosi—has held a higher position.

It’s extraordinary and, to be honest, kind of shameful. And Katherine Clark is intent on doing something about it. “For me, it’s really not about pursuing a particular title or leadership post, but having women at the table,” she says when I ask why she wants to help lead an institution that most Americans don’t exactly think highly of. (Congress’s approval rating currently stands at 15 percent. One suspects that—I don’t know—dandruff is more popular.) “Bringing my perspective as a mom, I remember the day my husband and I discovered my entire salary was going to childcare. And we looked at each other and said, ‘What are we doing?’”

To spend time with Clark is to be reminded just how much power—power in politics, power in boardrooms, power in DC, power in Boston, power everywhere—remains male turf, the election of Vice President Kamala Harris notwithstanding. It’s not just the numbers; it’s the approach, the tone, the issues that get taken up. Talking with Clark is a reminder, too, post–Donald Trump, post–January 6, that there are forces in America that need to be stood up to. As Clark herself says, quoting Thomas Paine, “The times have found us.”

And so Clark, age 57—a woman in what is still a man’s world, a progressive in a reactionary age, a quiet player in a loudmouth culture—has gotten a seat at one of the most celebrated tables of all. The question is, can a person like that really change anything?

Representative Katherine Clark standing behind House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as she signed the article of impeachment against Donald Trump. / Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

In person, there’s something aggressively, well, normal about Clark. She’s down to earth and quick to laugh in the manner of the woman you enjoy chatting with at your kid’s soccer game. She’s bright (a law degree from Cornell, a master’s from the Kennedy School), but rarely in a way that’s pedantic, lecturing, or hectoring. Even her most striking physical characteristics—her height (a lean 5-foot-11) and hair (a shoulder-length gray cut)—somehow only add to her familiarity.

Now, you’d assume, given how important connecting with voters is in politics, that Clark’s regular-gal energy would be an asset in her line of work, and it clearly is. She’s lost only one election in her career (a long-shot state Senate run in 2004), and in her most recent House race last November she won her district—which includes parts of Cambridge and the northern and western suburbs—by a way-more-than-comfortable 49 points. And in 2014 and 2016, Republicans didn’t even put up a challenger.

Yet, when you think about politics, you realize that the leaders who really break through, the generational talents (to borrow a phrase from sports), are often the ones who possess something not so ordinary—who are not so like the rest of us. Think of JFK’s glamour and wit. Obama’s eloquence and cool. AOC’s millennial brashness. Trump’s assholishness. (I’m not trying to be funny. Trump’s pathological need to bully, irritate, and disrupt is a key feature for his grievance-spewing followers.)

Clark’s normalness—put less generously, her lack of supernova-like charisma—has led some observers to either underestimate her or be surprised by her success. More than one reporter has referred to her as “the most powerful woman you’ve never heard of,” while The Hill once said she’s known within the halls of Congress as “the silent assassin.” (Clark insists this Bourne-like moniker is not actually something her colleagues call her. “Nobody’s saying, Hey SA….”).

Of course, if the point of such descriptors is to emphasize that Clark is effective, that’s demonstrably true. Start with her remarkably orderly rise up the political ladder, which suggests ambition, of course, but also competence. In 2001 she was elected to the Melrose School Committee and in 2005 became its chair. In 2007 she was elected to the state House; in 2010 to the state Senate; in 2013 to Congress. (The latter three races were, coincidentally, special elections held after the previous officeholders moved up. Clark’s House seat belonged to Ed Markey.) Meanwhile, Clark’s rise within Congress has been equally steady and swift. In 2017 she became vice chair of recruitment for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC); in 2018 she was elected vice chair of the Democratic Caucus; and in November she elevated to assistant House speaker. If trend lines hold—and who’s to say if they will?—Clark is certainly a contender to succeed Pelosi, who turns 81 this month, as House speaker.

As her caucus leadership posts attest, Clark has risen in part because she’s been effective at earning her fellow Democrats’ respect. House members talk about her ability to listen, to understand both policy and politics, to build consensus around issues, and to occasionally put aside her own ego in order to get things accomplished. “When I think of Katherine, I think of two words: substantive and constructive,” says Grace Meng, the New York representative who’s one of Clark’s closest friends.

“She plays exceedingly well with others,” says Denny Heck, who served as recruitment chair of the DCCC when Clark was vice chair. (Heck is now lieutenant governor of Washington state.) “She’s the kind of person you want modeling civility.”

Clark’s ability to understand the needs of other people was a key part of her success, Heck notes, in her role at the DCCC. Hers was a grueling, not particularly glamorous team-player job—crisscrossing the country to recruit, mentor, and fundraise for new Congressional candidates. Heck says Clark was especially adept at holding prospective candidates’ hands as they contemplated running—understanding their pain points, offering guidance, and ultimately persuading them to get in the race. While success has many fathers (and mothers), the results of the 2018 cycle speak for themselves for Democrats: It was the year they not only took back control of the House, but did so on the strength of a record number of female candidates. Of course, it’s worth noting that many of those candidates now feel some loyalty to Clark, hardly a bad thing for a ladder climber.

Beneath all of this—in fact, if Clark does have a superpower, perhaps this is what it is—is an outsize capacity for empathy. In conversation, she frequently shifts from telling her own story to talking about what that same situation must be like for other people. “Not that there haven’t been times when money was tight, but I’ve never put my kids to bed hungry,” she says to me at one point, as we talk about financial hardships. At another moment, as she tells me about the challenge of caring for her aging parents a few years ago (her father died in 2017, her mother in 2019), she quickly adds, “And I had so many resources. A job where I could take a day if I needed to. The ability to hire some help to help me care for them. It gave me such an appreciation for so many families that don’t have a safety net.”

Maybe the most powerful story Clark tells me along these lines is about her House colleague Lisa Blunt Rochester, a representative from Delaware. When all hell broke loose inside the Capitol on January 6, many House members removed their congressional lapel pins in order to avoid being identified by the insurrectionists. But Blunt Rochester, who’s Black, had a moment of indecision because the pin meant something different to her: It’s what signaled to law enforcement that she herself wasn’t a threat. Says Clark, “I’ve never had to make that kind of calculation about whether I would be more at risk from the mob looking for me as a congresswoman or not being identified as deserving respect. That, for me, captures the moment we’re in.”

Clark’s interest in other people’s stories and ability to walk in their shoes, and her willingness not to make everything about her, are all likely factors in the never heard of part of “the most powerful woman you’ve never heard of.” “I think especially with women, people mistake congeniality, friendliness, and interest with not being powerful and not being effective,” she says. “I may not be a headline grabber, someone who’s a regular feature on people’s evening news. But I believe in doing the work that the American people need, and building teams and constituencies, and bringing those voices together. That work is not always a traditional power model that you have seen historically in Washington, DC.”

Still, Clark’s empathy and desire for consensus-building have their limits. In 2017 she refused to go to Trump’s inauguration. The previous year she was so disturbed by the House’s lack of reaction to the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando—then-Speaker Paul Ryan led a moment of silence that lasted mere seconds—that she began asking fellow Democrats what else they could do to draw attention to gun control legislation that Ryan refused to allow to be debated. One of them was John Lewis, the legendary congressman and civil rights leader, who said they needed to do something disruptive—maybe a sit-in on the House floor. “When John Lewis says how about a sit-in, there’s only one answer,” Clark says with a laugh. A few days later, 170 Democrats took part in a sit-in that lasted 24 hours.

Today, Clark’s natural instinct for getting along is, of course, being tested by those congressional Republicans who continued to dispute the results of the election—even after insurrectionists sought out former Vice President Mike Pence so they could hang him. She points specifically to a Republican House member she’s worked closely with on opioid legislation, despite their differences on most other issues. (Clark didn’t name him, but news reports and a staffer later confirmed she was referring to Oklahoma Representative Markwayne Mullin.) “You know, I watched him vote to decertify Pennsylvania and Arizona. I’ve watched him on video refuse to put on a mask when asked by Lisa Blunt Rochester—in a secure room where we’ve now had many outbreaks from being in that room. And I watched him yelling at a Capitol policeman who was asking him to step through a metal detector, and the rage with which he was pointing his finger, saying it was unconstitutional and he would make him pay for this.

“I don’t know if I can work with him again,” she continues of Mullin, who could not be reached for comment by press time. “You have to believe in upholding the Constitution. And what I saw of his behavior fundamentally changed the way I view him.”

Representative Katherine Clark speaking at a press conference this past November. / Photo by Caroline Brehman/Getty Images

Clark’s entry into politics wasn’t quite accidental, but she insists there was never any grand plan to conquer the world. She ran for that seat on the Melrose School Committee in 2001 because she and her husband, Rodney Dowell (a Colorado native she met at Cornell Law), had just moved to the community with their two small children (a third would come along shortly; the kids are now 24, 21, and 18). Clark, who was then working as general counsel for the Massachusetts Office of Child Care Services, believed in all-day kindergarten and wanted to push for it in Melrose. “From my observation, I have seen that women are motivated to run for office to do something,” she says. She leaves unsaid the natural corollary to this thesis: that men get into politics to be somebody.

Clark grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, and came from a family of doers, including her grandmother, who went to work in a factory during World War II because, well, that’s what needed to be done. That grandmother—her mother’s mother—hosted Sunday dinner throughout Clark’s childhood and would often say that contributing to the war effort was the time in her life when she felt like she was part of something bigger. “It was really that Rosie the Riveter spirit that she gave our family,” Clark says. “Look for bigger ways that you can help.”

Clark was also influenced by her parents, who, at least at first blush, came off as a classic and conventional New England couple. Her mother, Judy, was the librarian at the grade school Clark and her brother attended; her father, Chan, was a successful lawyer and loyal Republican whom Clark remembers defending Richard Nixon at the family dinner table during the height of Watergate. Both were Episcopalians. But later in life her parents took an interesting detour, developing a deep interest in Eastern spirituality and often hosting fellow seekers. “I still think of people coming to our house and not expecting my parents to look like they looked,” she says with a smile. “There was never an occasion when my dad didn’t think a blue blazer was appropriate.” (The surprises from her father didn’t end there. At age 80, Chan Clark announced to the family that he’d become a Democrat, pushed to the other side by George W. Bush’s wars and the Republicans’ position on gay rights.)

Clark might not have entered politics hoping to one day become House speaker, but it didn’t take her long to figure out she liked it and had a knack for it. In politics, particularly inside the walls of power, her ability to listen, synthesize ideas, and build consensus found a natural home. That said, when she was approached about running for Congress in 2013, she initially wasn’t interested, believing that DC was fundamentally broken and that more interesting things were happening at the state level. But a conversation with Niki Tsongas, then the lone female member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, convinced her otherwise. A single line item in a single bill, Tsongas told her, could potentially have an impact on millions of people.

So Clark got into the race, choosing pay equity as her main message, and eventually earned key endorsements from Martha Coakley and EMILY’s List. She won a seven-person Democratic primary by 9 points, took the general election by 35 points, and headed off to Washington.

Not that things looked particularly promising when she got there. Those congressional lapel pins that each representative wears have a number inscribed on the back, noting where that particular member ranks in seniority (and, presumably, clout) among the 435 legislators. Clark had done some math before she got there and guessed her number might be somewhere around 432.

“I was number 474,” she deadpans. “I was like, how could that be? In negative numbers? Do they retire the numbers of great members of Congress?”

As they say, nowhere to go but up—and up Clark has gone, quickly. Her good friend Cheri Bustos, a representative from Illinois, says much of the rise boils down to one thing: “In this business, if you know you can trust somebody, that goes a long way.”

Representative Katherine Clark pausing for a moment of reflection. / Photo by Matt Kalinowski

“I need to ask you what I think might be a sexist question,” I say to Clark on the phone one afternoon. I’m hoping for a small laugh, but there’s just silence on the other end of the line. I continue, a little nervously.

The question is sexist, I explain, because it’s probably not one I’d ask a man in her position. That said, as I’ve told people whom I’m writing about, several of them (all women, for what it’s worth) have said the same thing to me: They really like Clark’s gray hair.

“So,” I ask, “how much do you think about your hair?”

The laugh finally comes. “Probably more than I should,” she says. “It is kind of a thing.”

Clark’s dark brown hair started turning gray when she was in her thirties, and, like a lot of women, she began to color it. This went on for many years until finally, around the time she launched her second term in Congress, she decided she just didn’t want to deal with the hassle anymore—the appointments, the anxiety over a windy day—and so she let it grow out.

It became, as she notes, a thing. Some people told her she was making a mistake because she needed to look youthful. Others suggested it would somehow undercut her power. Still others wondered if she was sick. Constituents, she says, actually started to call her office to comment on or inquire about it. Her response to the hubbub? When it comes to their hair—or presumably anything else—women should be allowed to do whatever they want.

I mention all of this for two reasons. First, you too might be captivated by Clark’s follicles. Second, it speaks to something that Clark talks about a lot: The world—particularly the world of power—is not the same for a woman as it is for a man.

That reality is never more clear than inside the Capitol, which Clark describes as a near-constant reminder of who’s been running the country for most of the past 240 years. She tells me about sitting inside august committee meeting rooms, surrounded by portraits of past committee chairs—nearly all of whom were dudes. White dudes. “You just sort of look and say, ‘Where are we in this?’” she says.

The inequity isn’t always symbolic, either; sometimes it’s practical. Clark reminds me that it wasn’t until 2011 that a women’s restroom was finally installed just off the House floor, complementing the men’s room that had been there forever; prior to that, female representatives were expected to head back to their offices or—who knows?—maybe to their districts if they needed to pee. Of course, that’s assuming they could get to the House floor in the first place. Clark says that, especially before she let her hair go gray, she was sometimes stopped by security outside the House chamber and told that “spouses aren’t allowed on the floor.” This was in the 21st century, not the 19th.

Of course, ultimately the Capitol is a mere microcosm of the larger world, where a range of burdens—including family responsibilities—tend to fall differently on women than on men. Even women in Congress. On that matter of taking care of her aging parents, for instance? Clark says that near the end of their lives, both her mother and father faced health issues—Judy had Alzheimer’s, Chan suffered a stroke—and they moved to the house next door to Clark and her family in Melrose. On Friday evenings, returning home after a week wrestling with national affairs in Washington, Clark would pull in and be faced with a dilemma familiar to many middle-aged women: “Being in that driveway, with three children and a husband waiting for me there, and two parents—a mom who’d really lost her moorings with reality and a dad who’d lost his physical ability to help her—and feeling so torn about which one to go to, which one to help.” There were no easy answers and rarely reassurance that she’d chosen correctly. “There’s a lot of guilt that you’re not doing it well,” she says.

For Clark, this is where the personal and the political intersect. She wants more women at the proverbial table not just because women comprise 50.8 percent of the population and should have an equal share of power, but because they bring different experiences, different perspectives, and different ideas to that table. Without women raising them, many subjects simply never get considered.

Specifically, she talks about issues that have made up the bulk of her legislative work: pay equity, childcare, sick care, family leave. These aren’t just soft, gosh-wouldn’t-it-be-so-nice-if-we-could-do-something-about-this problems, she argues; they’re vital to how the country functions. “These are economic issues that, if we don’t address them, we are not going to rebuild our economy,” she says. She tells me about a town hall she held in Cambridge in 2019 that was attended by a group of childcare workers, many of whom worked full time yet still needed government food assistance. “That’s how little we value that work,” she says. “At the same time, it’s such an expensive commodity for families. So how do we address these issues that are baked into our economy—an economy that is really built on the unpaid work or the low-paid work of women?”

Clark has coped in Congress in part thanks to the support of a faction of fellow female representatives—a group dubbed “The Pink Ladies” after they showed up to the State of the Union address one year all wearing pink outfits. The six women in the group, all Democrats, range in age from their forties to their seventies, and on the ideological spectrum from moderate to progressive. But they’re united by other things. All came to Congress within a year of one another. All are mothers of sons. All but one live in the same DC-area apartment complex. Their communication is nearly constant—there can be dozens of texts per day—but the topics go far beyond the latest amendment to the agriculture bill. “We have total trust in each other,” says Pink Lady Bustos, a moderate who represents a district won by Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020. “We talk about everything from kids to husbands to policy.”

Clark calls the friendships she made within the group the happiest surprise of her time in Congress. “We have text chains that really are the place you can go where you can not always be brave,” she says. “You can express your fear, your anxiety, your self-doubt, and always know that there is this circle of women that will lift you up.”

It’s well within the realm of possibility that Clark could become the next House Speaker— but it’s also entirely possible that she won’t.

The next two years will be a test for Democrats in DC, who control both chambers of Congress and the White House for the first time since 2009. They’ll also be a test for Clark, whose diplomatic skills will be crucial in holding together the moderate and progressive wings of the party, and for America when it comes to both race and democracy itself.

Clark says her agenda is clear. First, she wants accountability for the people behind the January 6 siege—including any members of Congress who aided or abetted the insurrectionists. If there’s proof, she’s in favor of expulsion and prosecution.

She also believes there finally needs to be a reckoning with what she sees as the underlying cause of the insurrection, of Trumpism, of the moment we’ve reached: “The through line of our history is white supremacy, and Donald Trump tapped into that over and over again.” What she and her fellow Democrats are intent on doing, she says, is putting equity at the center of everything—recovering from the pandemic, rebuilding the economy, reacting to climate change. And doing that will require some things to change.

“Especially in Congress, we have this veneer of civility that we take very seriously,” she says. “We really need to pull that back and pull back the curtain and look at white supremacy unblindingly. And do what we can.”

Yes, there is a certain irony in a woman known for her civility now saying that, at least on this particular issue, the tone has been too civil. But that’s the point we’ve reached. And Clark seems to understand that.

“I do feel like January 6, 2021, is a demarcation,” she says. “And much like the time of the Civil War, we have a choice to make—and it is not a given. Will we continue as a democracy and work toward that more perfect union, or will we not?”

Over the course of America’s history there have been eight House speakers hailing from Massachusetts, including John McCormack in the 1960s and Tip O’Neill in the 1970s and 1980s. All were white. All were men. It’s well within the realm of possibility that Clark could join their ranks—but it’s also entirely possible that she won’t. For starters, Democrats will need to retain control of the House—no sure thing. What’s more, there’s likely to be a push for the House to have its first non-white speaker (House Democratic Caucus chair Hakeem Jeffries is a potential contender).

I ask Clark if she wants the job. “I know this is going to seem like a dodge, but I’ve really never foreseen any of this,” she says. “The thought of looking to another leadership post is not where my focus is. My focus is, this is where I am. Let’s use it to the maximum extent to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people.”

She’s right: It does sound like a dodge. It is a dodge. Which isn’t to say it isn’t sincere.

I tell Clark that, at least from the outside, her career has seemed to proceed so neatly—with a competent woman rising from one position of power to the next. But surely there have been moments along the way that have been particularly trying, right?

“Absolutely! Absolutely!” she says. She tells me two stories.

One happened during her first run for state Senate in 2004, the only time she lost. She was speaking at a VFW when her then-two-year-old son saw her at the front of the room and made a beeline for her, crying out, “Mommy!” She picked him up and kept speaking, but inside was freaking out. Why am I doing this? Is this really going to work?

The other moment came during a run for Congress. Clark’s father was holding a sign for her at a campaign event in Malden when a woman came by and said how “disgusted” she was that Clark would head for DC and leave her children at home. “Those judgments—you get used to it,” Clark says. “You try not to look at them as personal. But they resonate because it taps into your inner doubts.”

Of course, that’s precisely why she wants to keep moving forward—to push back against the reactionary forces that only seem to be growing. It is—who knows?—the kind of thing that just might help a woman make a name for herself.