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US Rep. Katherine Clark elected second ranking House Democrat, continuing her national rise

Katherine Clark, who began her political career 20 years ago on the Melrose School Committee, has emerged as the second ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives after being elected minority whip Wednesday.

The election of 59-year-old Clark was part of a generational change in the House, as octogenarians Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip James Clyburn turn the reins over to a new trio. Clark will be joined by New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, 52, as minority leader and California Rep. Pete Aguilar, 43, as caucus chair.

“We as a team and as a caucus reflect the diversity and the strength of the American people, and that is where we are able to come together around shared values and reflect back to American families that they are the priority,” Clark said after the leadership votes.

Outspoken on issues including gun law reform and reproductive rights, Clark has also made improving access to child care a priority. She visited Boston last week to celebrate early education workforce funding with Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and Sens. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren.

From the Melrose School Committee, she advanced to higher levels of office through a series of special election wins, becoming a state representative in 2008, a state senator in 2011 and joining Congress in 2013. Now a Revere resident, the progressive Democrat represents a district spanning many of the suburbs to the north and west of Boston.

Clark is currently the assistant speaker, the fourth-highest ranking Democrat in the House. UMass Boston political science professor Erin O’Brien said Clark’s quick rise through the ranks has been impressive, and the product of an “insider” strategy for building influence that involves learning what other Democrats want and need.

“Some members can’t vote a certain way because of who their constituency is, and good leaders know that. They don’t ask them to take votes that are really hard for their district,” O’Brien said. “In the modern era, the insider strategy might be a little less sexy, until you’re at the top of the ranks. She’s now the number two Democrat.”

With Republicans taking control of the House in the midterm elections, Clark’s advancement represents a silver lining for the influence of the all-Democrat Massachusetts Congressional delegation. As Democrats move into the minority, Reps. Richard Neal and James McGovern are poised to lose their powerful posts as chairs of the Ways and Means Committee and Rules Committee.

In ascending to the whip post, Clark has “positioned herself well to become majority leader” if Democrats retake the House down the line, O’Brien said. She said that as whip, Clark will have the opportunity to get to know other lawmakers and help them out by delivering on their priorities or protecting them from tough votes.

“If she does that well, someone does you a lot of favors, you tend to like them,” O’Brien said. “Being whip comes with some real advantages for becoming majority leader, just because it’s hard to vote against someone who’s done good things for you. That’s just human nature.”

In D.C., Clark is already known as a relationship builder who reaches out to, campaigns for and forges bonds with her fellow Democrats, often behind the scenes. The Hill in 2019 referred to Clark as “the most powerful woman in the Capitol you’ve probably never heard of,” writing that her quiet climb had led some colleagues to refer to her as the “silent assassin.”

“Effective leadership is not about individual ambition, but our collective good,” Clark wrote in a letter to Democratic lawmakers earlier this month, announcing her bid for whip. “It is about truly listening and understanding what each member needs to be successful. I will use my voice at the leadership table to bring people and solutions together.”

In her letter, Clark said Democrats need to “be disciplined about our mission and message to beat back the GOP while advancing our shared values.” She said she will “listen to all corners of the Caucus, be results-oriented, and be resolute in my commitment to our values.”

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