WASHINGTON — In January 2002, as California Representative Nancy Pelosi became the first woman to serve as the number two House Democrat, Katherine Clark was just beginning her own career in elected office — on the Melrose School Committee.
Pelosi would rise quickly to break more glass ceilings as party leader and then as House speaker. At the same time, Clark also was ascending rapidly, to the Massachusetts State House and then to Congress in 2013, where she represents the district that includes many of Boston’s northern and western suburbs.
On Friday, Clark, 59, now of Revere, announced her bid for the same job that launched Pelosi into history — House minority whip — as part of a Democratic leadership shift triggered by Pelosi’s decision to step down from the top post. Unopposed so far and with Pelosi’s endorsement in hand, Clark would be only the second woman to hold the position.
Her likely ascension would mark another milestone for women politicians, and a return to the top tier of congressional leadership for Massachusetts, a state that has produced more House speakers than any other. Clark’s colleagues attribute her rise to sharp political acumen, skilled relationship building, and years of dogged work for Democrats on Capitol Hill and the campaign trail.
“I think that I have been able to earn the trust of my colleagues,” Clark said in an interview, reflecting on the efforts that brought her to this point. “It is about listening to people as much as talking, and hearing what members need, because those are the voices of their constituents, and putting that into action.”
Clark currently holds the number four position as assistant speaker, and made her long-expected bid official in a letter to colleagues Friday morning.
“Effective leadership is not about individual ambition, but our collective good,” she wrote. “I will use my voice at the leadership table to bring people and solutions together.”
Clark is part of a semiformal team running together for the top three House Democratic positions to replace Pelosi and her current deputies, lawmakers all in their 80s who announced they were stepping down Thursday to make room for a new generation of leaders as the party moves into the minority next year.
New York Representative Hakeem Jeffries, 52, is seeking the top Democratic position and announced his candidacy in individualized letters to each House Democrat on Friday. He would be the first Black lawmaker to be a party leader in Congress.
Clark is running to be the House minority whip. And California Representative Pete Aguilar, 43, announced his candidacy for the number three position, which will be caucus chair. He would be among the few Latino members of Congress to serve in top leadership.
There has been no announced opposition to the trio, who are expected to be chosen when House Democrats hold their leadership elections at the end of the month.
Pelosi gave the group her public blessing on Friday, saying the trio “reflects our beautiful diversity of our nation.”
“A new day is dawning — and I am confident that these new leaders will capably lead our caucus and the Congress,” she said in a statement.
The three individually announced their intentions only Friday. But as lawmakers anticipated the end of Pelosi’s two-decade reign, in part because of a vague pledge four years ago to step down this year, Clark and her de-facto teammates had been quietly maneuvering to be in position to move up.
Clark’s House Democratic colleagues credit her as a skilled behind-the-scenes politician, one who knows the value of building relationships. Many call her a friend, describing Clark as warm and engaged even as they note her political toughness.
She was first elected to Democratic leadership in 2018 in a contested race against Aguilar for the party’s vice chair position. In that role and as assistant speaker, to which she rose in 2020, Clark has been closely involved in working with House Democrats, particularly newer members, in work that has earned her a lot of good will. Though she is clear that she is a progressive, moderate lawmakers say she has been deft at balancing her own views with the need to include members of all political views in the party, especially in the narrow majority that Democrats have clung to the past two years.
Clark has also been a prolific campaigner and fund-raiser, traits that are seen as a requirement of party leadership. According to her campaign, Clark traveled to 19 states to stump for other lawmakers this election cycle, and raised more than $12 million for Democrats.
Representative Richard Neal, of Springfield, who has served in Congress for decades and been a close Pelosi ally, said Clark had the talent to be a powerful leader herself.
“She’s going to be smashingly successful,” he predicted Thursday.
The whip’s job involves counting votes and lining up support — or opposition — to legislation, and Clark stressed her goal is to keep Democrats united “to stop the Republican House majority’s dangerous agenda and take back the House in 2024.”
Clark has worked as a partner to Jeffries and given no indication she would challenge him for the speakership if the Democrats win back the majority. Still, many of her supporters believe she is capable of continuing to rise. The two most recent Massachusetts lawmakers to become House speaker, Tip O’Neill and John McCormack, both served as whip beforehand.
All of Massachusetts’ previous speakers and congressional leaders were men, as were most of its politicians. But Clark breaks that mold at the same time that the state is going through a remarkable transition to women leadership, with Democrats Maura Healey, Kim Driscoll, and Andrea Campbell making history in their election as governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general.
Clark said her experience as a mother of three and daughter of aging parents with serious health conditions is part of what motivates her and prepared her to serve in Congress. She repeats Pelosi’s frequent adage that “diversity is our strength and unity is our power.”
“To see women leaders, diverse leaders rising up in the highest echelons of Massachusetts politics and government is a sign that Massachusetts is continuing to make progress and to recognize that our government works best when we reflect the beautiful diversity of Bay Staters,” Clark said. “That lesson holds true for our country.”
Despite vacating their leadership posts, Pelosi and her two top lieutenants — Representatives Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Jim Clyburn of South Carolina — will be staying in Congress. Clark said she’s been keenly observing and learning from them during her past four years in Democratic leadership, and downplayed the idea of any awkwardness as they hand over the reins.
“I think it is going to give us a tremendous chance to keep learning from them, receiving mentorship and guidance,” she said, “even as we chart our own course and continue to develop our own leadership styles.”
Staff writer Jim Puzzanghera contributed to this report.