Consider Yon Rocket Ship, the Brief and Amazing Political Career of Katherine Clark

Friday, November 8, 2013

Few people ever go as far and as fast in politics as Katherine Clark has.

In the fall of 2001, she was elected to the Melrose School Committee on her first try for public office.  She’d lived in Melrose barely a year then.

On Dec. 10, barring an upset of incredible dimensions, Clark, a 50-year-old Democrat, will be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from the 5th Massachusetts District.

When she takes office shortly thereafter, the youthful Clark will have gone, in just under 12 years, from representing 28,000 people in one community to 700,000-plus citizens in 24 communities -- and from the obscurity of an unpaid school board post to the bright lights of the national stage and a $3,346-a-week congressional paycheck.

Of course, there were some interesting stops for the Cornell Law grad in between.  She was a key policy advisor to Attorney General Martha Coakley and a state rep in a district that included her city, Melrose, and half of the neighboring town of Wakefield, before moving up to the Massachusetts Senate in the Fifth Middlesex District, [Malden, Melrose, Wakefield, Stoneham, Reading and Lynnfield].

Clark was beginning her second senate term earlier this year when she declared an interest in succeeding Ed Markey in the event Markey ran for the U.S. Senate seat of John Kerry, who was emerging as President Obama’s preferred choice for Secretary of State.  Markey soon jumped at Kerry’s job, and Clark at Markey’s.  She was the first candidate in the Democratic primary, which proved to be a key advantage in a long race that eventually attracted six other candidates.

The primary election was held Oct. 15.  Clark won going away.  Her vote total of 21,983 put her 6,680 votes ahead of a very formidable, tested, regional candidate, Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian. In the order of finish behind Koutoujian were: Medford-Somerville state rep Carl Sciortino, Belmont state senator William Brownsberger, Framingham state senator Karen Spilka, Paul Maisano and Martin Long.  (Maisano and Long have backgrounds in business.)

The 5th Congressional District stretches from Winthrop and Revere in the east to Framingham and Ashland in the west, from Woburn and Lexington in the north to Waltham and Weston in the south.  It contains at least nine communities with populations larger than that of Clark’s Melrose.  Some of them, like Arlington, Framingham, Medford, Malden, Revere and Waltham, are much more populous than Melrose.  Also, politics in these places can be much rougher than the brand usually practiced in the Melroses of the world.  

So when a sophomore state senator from out of town manages to top the ticket in places where she’s never appeared on the ballot before, as Clark did in Arlington, Medford and Woburn, and to come in second where she's never been on the ballot before, as she did in Revere, Holliston and Winthrop, she’s showing a political IQ and a charisma that are almost off the charts.  

It has been said that a candidate for President of the United States demonstrates his capacity for the biggest, most difficult job in the world, in part, by running a successful campaign. If that is true, a Katherine Clark has done something similar in her soon-to-be-victorious march to D.C.  She designed and put together a large, expensive campaign apparatus.  She raised a ton of money.  She crafted a campaign theme and message that positioned her well in the field.  She enlisted a legion of newfound allies.  She spoke persuasively at countless rallies and debates. She provided constant inspiration to her campaign team.  She used her time and her physical/mental/spiritual capabilities to the max.  She executed the game plan.  Otherwise, she would have lost. 

We can believe Clark has the stuff to be a good congresswoman.

When Clark wins on Dec. 10, she’ll be moving to an elite level of Massachusetts politics.*  Today she's one of 40 state senators and of 200 state legislators overall.  By mid-December, she’ll be one of only 9 Massachusetts members of the U.S. House.  It has not been an entirely smooth progression.  Therein lay clues as to why Clark prevailed in that seven-person, 24-community Democratic primary.

In 2004, when she’d been on the Melrose School Committee just two years, Clark ran against the savvy, long-term Republican incumbent in the Fifth Middlesex senate district, Richard Tisei.  She didn’t win but did respectably well.  Most significantly, she demonstrated audacity, (fortune favors the brave), and the wits needed to wage a sprawling, prolonged, uphill battle against a powerful and popular incumbent. What Clark learned in 2004 obviously helped her to be an effective candidate when she ran for rep in 2007 and senator (again) in 2010.

In 2009-10, Clark put her talents at the disposal of her former mentor, Martha Coakley, in Coakley’s campaign for U.S. Senate.  On the night of the election, Jan. 19, 2010, when Coakley was sunk under the wave of the Scott Brown campaign, it fell to the telegenic Clark to be Coakley’s spokesperson to the broadcast media. 

Given the shock and gloom of the occasion, she handled the task better than anyone had a right to expect.  Clark was composed, gracious, upbeat, articulate and credible over the course of multiple, live, on-air interviews.  She never wilted, even a tad, in the heat of the television lights or the awkwardness of explaining the loss to the well-groomed media bulldogs. 

There were certainly pressure-packed occasions for Clark in the race for the Democratic nomination in the 5th District, but I can’t imagine many of them matching the media grinder she serenely entered on 1-19-10 for Coakley.

Ernest Hemingway famously defined courage as “grace under pressure.”  Clark has it.  If you want further proof, consider that she personally borrowed $250,000 and loaned it to her congressional campaign just before the primary, as she was allowed by law to do. When she’s a congresswoman, Clark will not have great difficulty raising the money to pay off that loan; had she lost on Oct. 15, the opposite would be true.

Courage like that helps to explain the velocity of Clark’s career.  If she maintains her current speed, it’s not unrealistic to see the governor’s suite or the U.S. Senate in her future.

*The Massachusetts delegation to the U.S. House has been a veritable breeding ground of House Speakers since the birth of the nation.  In the 20th Century alone, four Speakers were congressmen from Massachusetts: Frederick Gillett (1919-25), Joseph W. Martin (1947-49 and 1953-55), John W. McCormack (1961-71), and Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill (1977-87).

INTERESTING FACT:  Clark will be the first non-resident of Malden to represent the 5th Massachusetts District in 69 years.  Ed Markey held the seat from 1976 to this June, and the late Torby Macdonald had it before Markey, from 1955 to 1976.  Markey is, Macdonald was, a lifelong Malden resident.

ANOTHER INTERESTING FACT: Clark will be “returning” the 5th District seat to Melrose. The person who held it before Torby Macdonald was Angier L. Goodwin (1881-1975), one of the most prominent Melrosians of his day.  Goodwin served as Melrose’s mayor, state rep and state senator before going to the U.S. House (1943-55).

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