Metro

Katherine Clark’s rise in D.C. has Democrats looking ahead

Representative Katherine Clark has made a mark on issues and leadership.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Representative Katherine Clark has made a mark on issues and leadership.

CAMBRIDGE — Representative Katherine Clark was furious.

South By Southwest Interactive, the hip Texas tech festival, had canceled a women-led panel about harassment in the online gaming world after it had received threats of violence last month.

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The Melrose Democrat, who has made fighting cyberabuse one of her top priorities, fired off a strongly worded letter to the festival’s director urging him to reconsider.

Three days later, amid broader outcry, the festival reversed course, announcing it was adding a daylong summit to examine online harassment.

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And it invited Clark as a speaker.

The turnaround is seen as an example of Clark’s increasing clout in Washington, where, after less than two years, she’s quietly ascended the leadership ranks and become a go-to person for national Democrats to help recruit candidates across the country to run for Congress.

Democratic insiders, impressed by her grit and tenacity in Congress, have been buzzing about the 52-year-old lawyer’s future. In recent weeks party chatter, including informal conversations among long-time Democratic players, has even included talk about Clark as a potential candidate for governor in 2018, when Republican Charlie Baker is expected to run for reelection.

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In an interview Friday, Clark categorically ruled out a run for governor in ’18. Nonetheless, people change their minds and it’s easy to see why she has quickly risen high in activists’ perpetual list of candidates.

(Among the others on the list: Mayor Setti D. Warren of Newton, state Senator Daniel A. Wolf; and two people with stronger political pedigrees, Attorney General Maura Healey, who has ruled out a 2018 gubernatorial bid, and Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston, who has not.)

Democratic elected officials in the state have been deeply skittish about publicly taking on the very popular incumbent governor, but Clark offered a light knock in the Globe last month about the largely white and male makeup of an economic development council appointed by Baker.

Democratic activists grumble that Baker has gotten something of a free pass — with essentially no vocal opposition from Democrats — in his first 10 months in office, so Clark’s quote did not go unnoticed.

Observers say it was not out of character.

“When it comes to taking on anybody, she never flinches,” said Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. “Katherine has great instincts, but also has the political savvy and moxie to back it up.”

Clark has had a meteoric political rise — from state representative in 2008 to state senator in 2011 to US representative in 2013, when she took office after winning a special election to succeed Edward J. Markey, who had become senator. And Boston and Washington opinion-makers say she would have several strengths in a gubernatorial bid.

‘Katherine has great instincts, but also has the political savvy and moxie to back it up.’

Mary Anne Marsh, Democratic strategist, commenting on US Representative Katherine Clark 
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They say she has bipartisan accomplishments in Washington to point to, is a strong campaigner, and has a potent issue set — focused on those related to women and children. And while she represents only one-ninth of the state, she has a helpful geographic profile, as a representative for part of Middlesex County, the state’s largest by population.

Most important, they say, she has charisma and a liberal spark to generate enough enthusiasm to be a serious contender.

“She’s a candidate people could get excited about,” said strategist Scott Ferson, “not just, ‘Which sacrificial lamb should we throw against Charlie Baker?’ ”

Clark and her staff have denied that she's interested in running against Governor Charlie Baker.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Clark and her staff have denied that she's interested in running against Governor Charlie Baker.

Then there’s money.

Clark is also seen as having the fund-raising infrastructure to be able to raise a good chunk of the dollars needed for a statewide run. Her finance chairwoman, Elizabeth A. Pattullo, is a powerful fund-raising force who could help her raise big money fast.

Pattullo was one of the top 25 individual contributors in 2014, giving more than $300,000 to federal candidates and political parties, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

(While Clark had a half-million dollars in her federal campaign account at the end of September, Massachusetts law prohibits the use of federal funds for a state race.)

To be sure, challenges to an incumbent governor are often an uphill battle.

And at a Starbucks in Cambridge on Friday, Clark smiled and said she is running for reelection to Congress in 2016 and has no interest in a gubernatorial run: “I’m ruling it out for 2018.”

She said she’s focused on her job representing 24 towns and cities from Winthrop to Cambridge to Holliston and underscored what she’s managed to do in Congress as a relatively new member of the minority party.

She spoke about co-sponsoring a bipartisan bill, versions of which have passed the Republican controlled House and Senate, aimed at helping doctors treat newborns suffering from opioid exposure. And she has taken a lead in shining a light on cyberabuse — “It’s really appalling what women and girls have to put up with online every day,” she said.

And, despite coming from one of the more Democratic districts in the country, which includes liberal havens such as Cambridge and Lexington, Clark said she doesn’t always stick with the party line.

The congresswoman said she bucked guidance from Democratic leadership and supported making a federal research and development tax credit permanent because it is so important for innovation in her district and Massachusetts.

Still, she’s also moved up in Democratic leadership and is now one of 35 “senior whips,” who meet regularly to talk policy and strategy, and also wrangle votes from fellow party members.

The chatter about Clark as a potential gubernatorial candidate had not yet reached the highest levels of the House. Representative Steny H. Hoyer, the number-two Democrat there, who promoted her from assistant whip to senior whip, said he hasn’t heard anything from her about a might-be gubernatorial run, but he praised Clark and her potential in a telephone interview.

“I think she’d be a good candidate for governor: She’s very substantive, very smart, and very experienced,” he said. “I would, personally, like her to stay in the House because I think she is so good, and I think she represents Massachusetts well, and I think she’s going to be a very, very positive contributor to the work of the House. But that’s selfish on my part.”

Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos. Click here to subscribe to his weekday e-mail update on politics.
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