The next member of Congress from Massachusetts’ Fifth District, a ribbon of suburbs from Revere to Framingham, will enter an environment marked by ideological rigidity, partisan voting, and special-interest pressures. It will be hard for a new representative to get his or her bearings, let alone develop the kind of relationships that enabled Ed Markey, who held the seat for 37 years, to be an effective lawmaker even in periods of Republican control.
The five candidates who are running in the Democratic primary to succeed Markey are all solid, well-credentialed politicians who cut their teeth in an entirely different atmosphere on Beacon Hill. Voters must decide which contender's style of leadership best translates to the Capitol. The candidates provide a range of legislative approaches, from the ebullient, unabashed "Massachusetts liberalism" of state Representative Carl Sciortino Jr. of Medford, whose funny "coming out" ad is already being touted on MSNBC, to the fiscally moderate, professorial state Senator Will Brownsberger of Belmont, whose openness to new ideas could make him a bridge to centrist Republicans.
Of them all, however, the one who has best articulated a strategy for navigating the bitterly divided House is state Senator Katherine Clark of Melrose, whose warmth and intelligence are complemented by a sharp understanding of the issues and a shrewd legislative game plan. The Globe is pleased to offer her its endorsement in next Tuesday's Democratic primary.
Clark, who is 50, has been in the Legislature since 2008, having previously served as the chairwoman of the Melrose School Committee and in various public-advocacy legal positions in Massachusetts and Colorado, from which she moved to the Bay State in 1995. Rather than downplay the fact that she spent her early adulthood in another state, Clark wisely touts it as a credential — a means of understanding how people think in other parts of the country, which could help to build new coalitions in Congress.
Clark has clear goals. Most of all, she wants to be the congresswoman who brings universal pre-kindergarten to the children of America. She knows it will be a long fight, and that she must draw conservatives to her side. But she's ready to begin that work on day one. In addition, she speaks sensibly about reaching out to members of Congress from the "wind corridor" that runs through the central part of the country, boosting support for government backing of wind power, which would help Massachusetts' own energy industry.
Clark shares the liberal values of many Fifth District Democrats, but has shown herself to be a strategic thinker; her willingness to support a "grand bargain" to trim the long-term federal deficit, even if it includes some provisions that are disappointing to liberals, is a sign of maturity. After all the debates and committee hearings and mark-ups of bills, a member of Congress must decide whether, on balance, a piece of legislation moves the nation forward. Clark's refusal to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good suggests she would be a productive lawmaker.
Sciortino, 35, is bright and engaging, but lacks that kind of maturity. He has pledged, for instance, to vote against any bill that includes President Obama's proposal to change the formula for cost-of-living adjustments to Social Security — even if it were coupled with defense cuts, increased tax revenues from the rich, and other Democratic priorities, and would take a giant bite out of the deficit. Such absolutism plays well on the campaign trail, and is a facet of the boffo ad in which he spars with his Tea Party-supporting father. If there were Academy Awards for political commercials, the Sciortinos should share the Best Actor award — especially since their affection for each other comes through as clearly as Sciortino Jr.'s unyielding commitment to liberal values. It's an honest pitch. This son certainly has the star power to win over even his grouchy, conservative dad. But in Congress, he seems more likely to be a feisty back-bencher than a legislative mover.
Two other candidates are vying with Sciortino to be the most liberal in the race, Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian of Waltham and state Senator Karen Spilka of Ashland. The 52-year-old Koutoujian, a former assistant district attorney and state representative, touts his longstanding work to reduce sexual assaults and prevent gun violence, among other causes. He offers a wide-ranging platform, including a vigorous defense of the Affordable Care Act. But like many politicians with roots in law enforcement, he's most animated when talking about public-safety matters — important issues, to be sure, but ones he can influence most successfully in his current job.
Spilka, 60, has claimed a large number of union endorsements and carries an unimpeachable pro-labor record. She has also worked hard to attract more high-tech businesses to Massachusetts, easing unemployment in her district in Boston's western suburbs. An advocate for mental-health care, among other health-related causes, she's been an effective state senator. But her campaign is based largely on her record, which was pieced together within the friendly confines of Beacon Hill. She seems less prepared than some of her opponents to make the leap to Washington.
Brownsberger, 56, should be Clark's main competition for the Democratic nomination, because he, too, promises to be an effective member of Congress. Brownsberger is one of the few politicians of any state who approaches issues with a clean slate and open mind: He studies problems with an academic intensity that leads him to some places that other Democrats don't go. On Beacon Hill, he's grappled with health plans, pensions, and other dollars-and-cents issues, which he seems to understand better than most other members. That's no small thing. He's helped the state save money while still offering generous benefits to its employees and retirees. In Washington, one could imagine him gravitating toward less-partisan issues, working across the aisle on the types of complicated long-range policy matters that appealed to Markey.
His belief that fellow Democrats should share some blame for the rancor in Congress is also likely to endear him to GOP colleagues. He's right to avoid the reflexive Republican-bashing that more partisan Democrats enjoy. But it's also possible to be too accepting of opposition tactics that should be strongly condemned. Brownsberger could well emerge as a moderate leader around whom both Democrats and Republicans can rally; or he could prove so thoughtful and even-handed in his judgments that he's not a force in pushing legislation forward. In any case, he's not as assertive about his congressional priorities as Clark, who conveys less sheer knowledge but a stronger sense of mission.
Voters have much to choose from in this experienced, varied field. But Clark's clear-eyed, results-oriented approach to leadership sets her apart.