Clark officially entered what so far is a three-person field — Representatives Tony Cárdenas of California and David Cicilline of Rhode Island already are running — with a letter to her colleagues on Tuesday morning.
Clark’s swift and quiet rise up the ranks of power in the House since arriving in late 2013 has reportedly earned her the nickname “the silent assassin,” and a win could put her on a path to climb higher.
“Effective leadership is not about individual ambition,” Clark wrote in her letter, “but collective good.”
The assistant speaker position, which is held by Representative Ben Ray Luján, a New Mexico Democrat who is running for Senate, is the fourth-ranking spot in the House leadership. Clark currently holds a lower leadership position as vice chair of the Democratic caucus. She is expected to be reelected in November and Democrats are forecast to hold the House majority.
Members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation have a storied history of ascending to the highest ranks of power on Capitol Hill — but nearly all of them have been men, including the eight House speakers from the state and every committee chair from Massachusetts except for Edith Nourse Rogers, a Republican who led the Veterans Affairs committee from 1947 to 1949 and 1953 to 1955.
“She would be the first woman, and have done it in the shortest amount of time — especially coming on the heels of getting elected to the district in a state that’s still woefully pitiful when it comes to electing women,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Boston-based political consultant. “You can’t underestimate the effectiveness of Katherine Clark.”
Clark has become a prolific fund-raiser for the party. Her allies describe her as a listener more than a talker with a deep understanding of different constituencies within the Democratic caucus, a progressive from a safe blue district who spent much of the 2018 cycle traveling the country to recruit — and then to elect — members in swing districts.
“She looks out for them,” said New Hampshire Representative Annie Kuster, a Democrat from a fairly moderate district, who described Clark speaking up in leadership meetings to remind her colleagues which votes would be difficult for members in competitive districts to take.
Clark, a former state lawmaker, won a 2013 special election to fill Edward J. Markey’s House seat after he was elected to the Senate. She has made headlines at certain points in her tenure — including in 2016, when she and the late Representative John Lewis led a 25-hour sit-in on the House floor to pressure Republicans to act on gun control measures. But over the past few years, she has focused on getting new Democratic candidates elected and quietly building alliances.
Now, she’s hoping that work will draw enough loyalty from new members — as well as her longtime colleagues — to elevate her further in the House. “She’s got a whole freshman class who’s indebted to her,” Marsh said.
Representative Sylvia Garcia of Texas, a first-year lawmaker from a safe Democratic district in the Houston area who is backing Clark’s bid, said she was impressed when Clark reached out to her before the midterms, even though she wasn’t facing a tough race. “She’s committed to work on the issues that are important to candidates, to women of color,” Garcia said.
In Washington, Clark has become a connector and convener for new Democrats, which has helped her build support for her leadership ambitions while flying somewhat under the radar.
She helped Representative Mary Gay Scanlon, a new member from Pennsylvania who is backing her bid, find a roommate in Washington. She attended the wedding of freshman Iowa Representative Abby Finkenauer this summer on Zoom. She convenes regular policy dinners for members featuring special guests — which she has continued to hold virtually during the pandemic. Since they can’t dine together, attendees all get a recipe for a signature dish and a cocktail.
Clark has the backing of Representatives Grace Meng of New York, Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, among others.
She faces two strong competitors for assistant speaker. Cárdenas, who is in his fourth term, was the first to announce his candidacy. He is the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s political action committee, which has notched numerous high-profile wins in recent years, and he has pointed out that Luján’s departure could leave House Democratic leadership without a Latino member.
Cicilline, who is the chair of the House Democratic Policy and Communication Committee and the first openly gay member of House leadership, announced his candidacy this month. He has been in Congress the longest of the three — since 2011 — and arguably has a higher national profile from cable news appearances and because he is chair of the House Antitrust Subcommittee, which has given him a platform to lambaste big technology companies.
Barney Frank, a former Massachusetts congressman and chair of the powerful House Financial Services Committee, said members who take leadership posts face more political heat but reap rewards for their district or their state.
But he cautioned that, because the assistant speaker post is fairly new, there is limited precedent showing how it benefits whoever wins.
“Majority leader and whip are important because the assumption is that you’re going to move up,” Frank said. “It’s too early to tell whether that will be the assumption with regard to assistant speaker.”