On the day that Nancy Pelosi moved a big step closer to a return as House speaker, Representative Katherine Clark clinched a key leadership spot in the House Democratic caucus Wednesday, a prime role that could help her climb further up the ranks in the coming years.
Clark, the three-term incumbent from the Massachusetts Fifth District, north of Boston, won a contested race to be House Democrats’ vice chair, 144 to 90, to become the sixth-ranking member of next year’s leadership team. She bested a centrist-oriented colleague from California, Pete Aguilar, in a closed-door meeting in Washington.
The first woman from the Commonwealth to hold such a prominent post, Clark said she wants to use her position to ensure that House leadership listens to and better incorporates the views of the whole caucus, including the diverse new crop of freshmen just elected, in setting the policy agenda.
“I see it as an opportunity to be able to strengthen the range of voices that we hear from within our caucus. The closer we remain to our constituents in setting those priorities, the better off we’re going to do for the American people,” Clark told the Globe earlier this month.
The ongoing rebellion against Pelosi — of which another Massachusetts delegation member, Representative Seth Moulton, is a leader — has revealed frustration in the caucus about how long Pelosi, 78, and her top two deputies have held on to power.
Clark announced early on that she is backing Pelosi for speaker, and Pelosi prevailed in the caucus vote, though 32 Democrats opposed her.
The vote made it clear that Pelosi will have her work cut out for her to win the speakership itself when it comes to vote by the full House in January.
Frustration with the Old Guard seems unlikely to dissipate even if Pelosi pulls off a return to House speaker. A leadership change will happen sooner or later.
“Pelosi’s always been about — you’ve got to fight your way in,” said Erin O’Brien, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Now that Clark is in, “she’s someone who could be moving on the fast track to leadership top-top levels.”
Her ascension comes amid the broader wave of Democratic women swept into office in the 2018 midterm elections, propelled there by anger — in large part from women voters — against President Trump and whose success on Election Day led the way for Democrats to win the majority in the House.
Clark’s in-the-trenches work to help Democrats win back the majority helped pave the way for her leadership win. She served as the vice chair of recruitment for House Democrats’ campaign arm, then as co-leader of its effort to flip more than 90 Republican-held seats to the blue column.
A top priority for Clark is helping the incoming freshmen —
many of whom have never held elected office — be effective and to help equip them to run as strong incumbents in two years.
“We want to expand the majority” in 2020, she noted.
Her ideas include setting up more formal mentoring programs for new members and helping with communication plans to make sure these members remain connected to their districts.
Clark also wants to help elevate the newly elected women, many of whom she grew close to during the campaign.
“Much like I have helped really support women who are running for Congress, I really want to support and get their input into shaping the agenda even though they will be freshmen,” Clark said. “We all have an equal vote when we go on the floor, and I think we really have to work having an equal voice in our caucus in setting priorities.”
In an endorsement letter sent to all House Democrats Wednesday ahead of the voting, Representative John Lewis, a civil rights icon and Democrat from Georgia, cited Clark’s 2018 campaign work “recruiting and mentoring what has proven to be the most talented class of congressional candidates in my memory.”
He also praised her drive to advance causes she cares about, including curbing gun violence.
He detailed how, after the 2016 Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Orlando, she approached him, wanting to do something, and they hatched the idea for a dramatic sit-in on the House floor.
“If you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have an obligation to do something about it. And that’s what Katherine did,” Lewis said.
Repeating her mantra “that women can’t win if women don’t run,” Representative Niki Tsongas of Lowell said she admires Clark “for putting her hat in the ring” and said she thinks Clark “is especially well-suited to bring women’s voices to all we value as a country.”
Tsongas was the first woman in a quarter century to represent Massachusetts in Congress when first elected in 2007.
“She has shown her capacity to work hard, traveling the country without fanfare to support extraordinarily talented candidates she helped recruit from coast to coast. And she has shown her willingness to be out front on Democratic priorities, like addressing the opioid epidemic and gun safety, where it is clear the American people are demanding action,” said Tsongas, who is retiring at the end of the year.
She will be replaced by another woman, Democrat Lori Trahan.