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The Second-Most Powerful Woman in Congress Is Also One of Its Most Low-Key Members

Katherine Clark has a rare knack for old-fashioned coalition-building. Perhaps this is the year she gets her due.

Rep. Katherine Clark leaving a meeting of the House Democratic Caucus on May 15, 2019.
Rep. Katherine Clark leaving a meeting of the House Democratic Caucus on May 15, 2019. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty

CCongress is finally back in session, and Katherine Clark is already drawing up plans: plans to advance her bill to combat workplace sexual harassment; plans to pressure the Senate into working on gun safety reform; plans to make a concerted push for an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump.

If that seems like an ambitious agenda, the Massachusetts Democrat, who currently sits as the second-most powerful woman in the House of Representatives, has shown a rare knack for good old-fashioned coalition-building — and she’s been able to keep her ideological integrity without alienating her more moderate party cohort.

Yet, despite her pedigree, Clark receives relatively scant media attention. Perhaps that’s because she rarely seeks the spotlight, preferring to work behind the scenes for her party. (It was the rare occasion when she did take a public stand, when she led a sit-in to protest Republicans’ obfuscation of gun safety reform laws in 2016, that helped Clark catch her party leadership’s attention.)

Perhaps this is the year Clark finally gets her due. She talked with GEN about the Democratic agenda, the 2020 election, and whether we’ll one day address her as “Madam Speaker.”

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

GEN: How can Democrats retake the Senate and the White House in 2020?

Katherine Clark: I think it’s the same path we had in 2018. It’s looking out for [people’s] economic interests, looking out for their security, and looking out for ways to build opportunity. As we see income divides still on the rise, a Republican party committed to carrying the water for special interests, and a president who seems to have no low, we have to be clear that we stand with those families at home. That’s who we work for, and I think that’s what the American people want in their House members, their U.S. senators, and in the White House.

A group of your freshman colleagues made a splash with their progressive policies. But others worry the party is moving too far to the left, and question how realistic these proposals really are. What do you make of these tensions within the Democratic caucus, and the party in general?

Our strength is our diversity. That means not only our racial, religious, ethnic, and gender diversity, but of opinion and where we are on the ideological spectrum. The strength of this caucus is the diverse opinion that they bring and our focus on making sure that health care, infrastructure, climate change, and gun safety are on the front burner in Congress. The rumors of dissent and cracks are just that: They are rumors.

You’ve endorsed Sen. Elizabeth Warren for president. Why her out of the nearly two dozen Democrats who are still in the running?

Listen, we have an abundance of wonderful candidates. I’ve endorsed Sen. Warren because she’s putting the right issues out front. Our success in taking back the House last year was because we had authentic candidates who were talking about the issues American workers and families care about — and that’s Elizabeth Warren. She puts people first. She does have the plans, but she also has the authenticity and the ability to relate to people that’s causing a great deal of energy around her campaign.

There’s been the question of electability when it comes to Warren and some of the other women running for president.

I think 2018 and the midterms moved us right past that conversation. We saw women stepping forward, women who have never ran for office saying they were called to serve their country at this time. And we not only saw great [female] candidates emerging, but women who came out around the country to support them — to register voters, to join groups, to knock doors, and take democracy back. I think we’re more than ready for a woman president.

You’ve said that you came in support of impeachment because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to bring legislation to safeguard elections as Special Counsel Robert Mueller was testifying before Congress. You’re the highest-ranking Democrat to do so — why did you break with the rest of the leadership?

That was a tipping point for me. I saw that Bob Mueller was testifying and saying that as he spoke, Russia was attacking our election system. We have a president who has not taken this threat seriously, and who can only see things through the lens of his own political ambitions. He is putting himself over the security of the fundamentals of our democracy, which is that right to vote unimpeded by a foreign adversary.

To have Mitch McConnell not even put a bill up made me think that we have to use every tool that we have to show the American people the facts of this presidency and this administration. If opening an impeachment inquiry give us more leverage to get witnesses to come, testify, and put the facts before the American people, then that’s what I think we need to do.

Impeachment is such a contentious issue and there are questions over whether this is something the American public wants. Some argue this could end up hurting newly elected lawmakers in districts that were just flipped, because their constituents are more interested in kitchen table issues — not impeachment.

It’s not one or the other choice. We have to continue on both tracks, as we have been doing. We have a constitutional role of oversight and holding administrations accountable, and we need to do that. We’ll continue with that work. But our priority is also the 270 bills that we have passed since taking the majority, and the dozen or so major pieces of legislation that are being blocked in the Senate. That doesn’t mean we fold up and go home. We keep mounting the pressure. We’re going to continue to push for protections for people with pre-existing conditions, for lower prescription drug costs. Not only rebuilding our roads and bridges through an infrastructure bill, but also looking at how we support renewable energy, rebuild our electric grid, and bring broadband to the rural parts of our country.

What are some other legislative priorities for the rest of the year?

Gun safety reform is a priority. We had 53 Americans lose their lives in mass shootings over the recess, and hundreds of others were critically injured. We’re going to keep the pressure on Mitch McConnell to pass the bills that have been sitting at the Senate since February.

You’re also re-introducing legislation to combat several types of online harassment, including swatting, doxxing, and sextortion. Why is this bill so important to you right now?

It was five years ago that Gamergate brought to light the dangers of online crime. Today, online violence happens more often and our laws have not kept pace with the threat of these modern crimes. I’ll be re-introducing my Online Safety Modernization Act to update the criminal code and give law enforcement to investigate and prosecute online crimes.

What we’re talking about are criminal penalties for serious crimes. This is not a discussion or political speech that gets heated. We’re talking about sextortion, doxxing, non-consensual pornography. And as a swatting victim myself, we want to make sure to include swatting. We’re seeing it on the rise as a tool of harassment that can have deadly consequences. It’s important that we talk about that these are crimes, not just speech we don’t like. They are real threats — particularly for women, girls, and people of color.

You’ve risen through the ranks pretty quickly and there’s been speculation that you’re eyeing higher leadership roles. Would you pursue the speaker role if Nancy Pelosi eventually steps down?

I can tell you this: I am thoroughly enjoying being in leadership, being at the table. I’m committed that we not only hold our majority in the House as my top priority, so we can continue to bring these issues, but work on getting a Democratic president and Senate as well. We will see how the leadership issues play out as we go into 2021.

Journalist covering politics, elections, immigration, feminism, and more. Puertorriqueña.

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