WATERTOWN — Katherine M. Clark was smiling and shaking hands at the Perkins School for the Blind on a chilly November day when the look on her face momentarily shifted.
Standing outside, Clark’s eyes widened as students, teachers, and administrators greeted her with the deference and awe generally reserved for a full-fledged member of Congress.
But she is not there yet.
The 50-year-old Democratic nominee for the Fifth Congressional District is heavily favored in the Dec. 10 special election to succeed Edward J. Markey in the US House. Yet Clark, a state senator from Melrose who would become only the fifth woman in history to represent Massachusetts in the US House, still faces one last test.
Her Republican opponent, Frank J. Addivinola Jr., a businessman and lawyer with six graduate degrees and conservative views on the Affordable Care Act, guns, gay marriage, and abortion, says he is going to win. He says his political positions, and his campaign’s focus on the economy and job creation, are in line with the views found in the mostly suburban district, which runs from Winthrop to Woburn to Southborough to Holliston.
Addivinola, a 53-year-old doctoral student and owner of a test preparation business, easily won his party’s nomination in October, yet he faces a difficult path to Capitol Hill in a district that voted for Obama over Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race by more than 30 percentage points.
Clark is “as close to being a congresswoman as there is without having been elected yet,” said David Wasserman, analyst of US House races at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington, D.C.
Since the Oct. 15 primary election, the race has been decidedly low-key. Addivinola and Clark appeared in a forum together the Sunday after the primary election and are set to appear in a debate on NECN on Friday.
Addivinola has criticized Clark for not joining him at more events, but Clark’s campaign aides say she has been busy on the campaign trail and in her work as a state senator. Clark insists she is not taking anything for granted.
Those who go the polls for this contest that takes place in the middle of December will have a stark choice: On the most potent political issues, Clark and Addivinola stand in diametric opposition.
In interviews, Clark expressed repeated support for an activist federal government, which she said could be a force for immense good in individuals’ lives.
Addivinola called himself a “smaller government, traditional Republican” and repeatedly expressed concern about federal overreach on issues from gun control to health care.
He wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which has suffered in recent weeks from a notoriously botched roll-out of its website.
Clark pledged to work to make the law better and said the wobbly website “hasn’t shaken my confidence that government can do big things well.”
But pressed on whether the Affordable Care Act would be good for Massachusetts, which already has its own universal health care law, Clark simply said: “We’ll see.”
Clark supports abortion rights and focused much of her primary campaign, in which she topped six opponents, on issues like pay equity for women and access to contraception.
Addivinola opposes abortion rights: “I am not only prolife, I am prochild. And I am also prochoice: I always choose the child,” he said.
Clark is and has been a proponent of gay marriage. Addivinola said he believes “marriage is between a man and woman,” but supports civil unions and tax benefits for same-sex couples.
Addivinola, citing the Second Amendment, opposes the three most-discussed federal gun control measures: expanded mandatory background checks for purchases and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. Clark supports the enactment of all three.
Is there anything they agree on? There is at least one, far less weighty, issue: Both said they are devotees of the Market Basket grocery chain.
According to a spokesman for the Massachusetts secretary of state’s office, there will also be two other candidates on the ballot: independent James V. Aulenti of Wellesley and 66-year-old James O. Hall of Arlington, who listed his campaign designation on paperwork as Justice Peace Security.
Like their political positions, the Democratic and Republican candidates’ biographies are divergent.
Born in 1960, Addivinola grew up in Malden in the two-family home his grandparents had bought about 40 years earlier.
After initially attending a technical high school, where he was studying to become a plumber, he switched to Malden High School, then Northfield Mount Hermon, a private secondary school.
He recalled his time there as “a game changer” in his life and subsequently went to Williams College.
After graduating in 1983 with a bachelor’s degree, Addivinola went into real estate, buying houses and fixing them up. A decade later, he said, he got caught up in the slowdown of the early 1990s. According to public records, he filed for bankruptcy in 1993.
“I had people that didn’t pay me and I got caught in a squeeze,” he said, explaining the bankruptcy.
He returned to being a student in the early 1990s and has earned six graduate degrees in the last 20 years. They include a master of arts in biology from Harvard Extension School, a master of science in biotechnology from Johns Hopkins University, a master’s in business administration from University of Maryland’s University College, and a law degree from Suffolk University. He said he is working on a doctorate in law and public policy at Northeastern University.
For much of the time he has been a student, he has also been a teacher, leading classes on topics that range from biology to standardized test preparation.
Addivinola, who lives in Boston’s West End neighborhood, was on the ballot for an at-large seat on the Boston City Council in September, but said he did not campaign, instead focusing on the Fifth District race.
He has made two other bids for elective office — one for state Senate and one for Congress. Both were unsuccessful.
Though he does not live in the Fifth Congressional District, federal law allows him to run for the seat since he is a Massachusetts resident.
Born and raised in New Haven, Clark attended St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y.
During college, she was a summer intern on Beacon Hill for the Massachusetts Caucus of Women Legislators. One of the projects she worked on was interviewing women legislators about how they became involved in politics. That experience sowed the seeds of what would blossom into an elective career that has taken her from the Melrose School Committee to the cusp of Congress.
“Even though I did not really see a political career ahead of me at that point,” Clark said, “that really made an impact on the importance of having women represented in government at all levels.”
After graduating from college, Clark got her law degree from Cornell Law School. She then worked for a large law firm in Chicago before moving to Colorado, where she clerked for a federal judge and then worked in the office of the Colorado attorney general.
John Dailey, a deputy attorney general when he was Clark’s boss, recalled her as personable, enthusiastic, and a “very competent attorney.”
She moved to Massachusetts in 1995 to attend the Kennedy School of Government. Since then, she has worked primarily as a public-sector lawyer, serving as general counsel for the Massachusetts Office of Child Care Services and working as chief of the policy division in Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office.
After losing a race for state Senate in 2004, she was elected to the Legislature as a state representative in 2008, and won a state Senate seat in 2010.
Back in Watertown, toward the end of a quick tour of Perkins led by school president Steven M. Rothstein, Clark was shepherded into the school’s small museum. Rothstein motioned to a huge, colorful orb with the continents of the world.
“This is the globe that Helen Keller learned her geography on,” he said, before quickly hustling off to the next exhibit.
But Clark lingered for a moment, her right hand touching a small piece of history.