Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: American House Creative Services
Deputy Speaker Katherine Clark is quick to describe the challenges facing members of Congress: a relentless schedule, frustrating deadlocks in the legislative process, long periods away from family, regular threats, extreme political polarization, a regular diet of bad food at the airport – the list goes on. And yet, if she could go back nine years ago, when she first ran in Massachusetts’ fifth congressional district, she’d do it all over again. “When I meet constituents that we have been able to help find housing, access health care, it is worth it,” she says. “These policies and these changes that we are fighting for in our caucus – reshaping this bridge to put the American people at the top – it’s really right… I can’t imagine a better sense of accomplishment and mission than the work that we do at this time.”
Clark began his political career 20 years ago in a suburb north of Boston, with the Melrose School Committee. She was then elected to the House of Representatives and the state Senate before winning a special election in 2013 to replace current Senator Ed Markey in Congress. Since then, she has risen through the ranks of the Democratic Party fairly quickly, serving on several committees, as vice chair of recruiting for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), as vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus, and now as the fourth highest ranking member of Congress. Because of her”habit of making friends throughout careerand laser-focused on building consensus, Clark has often been touted as the potential successor to Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
She divides her time between DC, where she is roommates with New Hampshire Representative Annie Kuster, and Massachusetts, where she lives with her husband, Rodney. Here’s how she does it.
On her morning routine:
I wake up around 6:30. I hate to be cliché, but the first thing I do is pick up my phone and watch the news that has already started the day. My routine varies a bit depending on whether I’m at home or in DC, but the absolute mainstay of my morning is a minimum of two cups of coffee. Usually I’m more in the four cup range. I’m the type to skip breakfast or maybe have a banana. On my ideal morning, I go for a run or a walk, but that also varies a lot. In Washington, the day usually starts at eight o’clock, so I left the house before I could. My commute is extremely short, but I’m mostly emailing, texting, and talking on the phone with co-workers and staff from waking up to bedtime.
On her daily life as an assistant speaker:
I’m spending more time at Capitol and in-person meetings, but we still mix up a lot of virtual meetings. It’s a busy schedule. What’s really important to me in the role of Deputy President are the conversations I have with my co-workers, whether it’s a quick text message or catching them on the floor coming out of a meeting. My leadership theory is that the success of an individual member will lead to the success of our caucus and the success of American families.
On stress management:
When I’m home, it’s definitely walking my dog. I am also completely addicted to my iPhone camera and take endless photos with it. I would like to think of myself as a bit of an amateur photographer, although it’s really just a way to stop all the happenings in the world and focus on something beautiful or funny that you can take a picture of quick and just do a little diary of life outside of politics and the real challenges we face as a country and a world.
On his Congressional cohort:
I didn’t really expect when I came to DC at 50 to meet a whole new group of friends, but it has been delightful. Talking to other moms about how they treat their children, their teenagers, their aging parents – these conversations have been very helpful. How do we manage family and career and do our best to succeed in both, when it sometimes seems like an impossible task? Meeting a group of members outside, walking around, having the chance to talk safely and connect with each other has really helped through these pandemic shutdown days. These habits have continued. The group includes my roommate here in Washington, Rep. Annie Kuster from New Hampshire, and we often go with Rep. Julia Brownley, Grace Meng, Suzanne Bonamici, Chellie Pingree. We’re also on a text string!
Relaxation at the end of the day:
My days are really long. Typically, dinner was stolen from various functions I might have attended. I usually come home between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. Even though the days are so full, it’s often hard for me to just fall asleep, even though I’m exhausted. So I try to read at night and often wake up around 3am with the book next to me. I’m trying to stay a current member of a book club – we read David McCullough The American Spirit right now. I also love binge TV which allows you to turn off your brain and relax. For example, I just finished the new season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
On the one thing that motivates her:
There is a photo of the late Rep. John Lewis outside Rep. Steny Hoyer’s Capitol office. I often walk past and always touch him just to remind me of him, why we are here, why we do the work we do on behalf of American families. This photo of John is a reminder to be brave, to do the right thing, and to lead with love.
On the ups and downs of public service:
Sometimes people feel like being in Congress is more glamorous than it actually is. Lots of shopping, lots of flights, lots of bad and expensive food at the airport. There are also amazing opportunities, like being able to go to the White House or having a Zoom meeting with women who are in the Ukrainian parliament. Their stories and calls for help were so moving and powerful. We have the ability to help them, to push through what may seem like a small item on a budget, but can help millions of people have a better life. It makes all of it – the hardship, often being away from your family, living with threats to your own safety, the relentless schedule – really worth it. The American people should know that we are fighting for them. Although this work can be exhausting and demanding, it is also an incredible privilege to be able to serve in this time of great challenges.
At one point, she felt she was failing:
There was definitely a period when I was first elected to Congress and it was extremely difficult. I had children at home – then 17, 13 and 11 – and both my parents, who lived next door, were very sick. My mother had Alzheimer’s disease and my father had had a debilitating stroke. Trying to manage care for all five of them, being there for them and my husband, while commuting between DC was extremely difficult. Often I would come back from weekends in DC and sit in my driveway, not knowing which house to go to and who to take care of first. I often felt like I was letting everyone down. It also kind of fueled my fight for families to get a fair chance, because I realize as hard as it was, I had a supportive spouse, I could miss work if I needed it, and we had the resources to get help when we needed it. This is not true for most families in this country. These years and how difficult they were fuel my desire to help American families meet these challenges in their lives.
Ambition is a word that I used to hear as something pejorative. As a woman, I was very uncomfortable thinking of myself as ambitious — even as I ran for state legislature, for Congress, for leadership positions in Congress. Over the years, I’ve come to say, “I’m ambitious. I’m also ambitious that we bring women’s voices to government, ambitious for American families, and I’m ambitious that we fulfill the qualities we talk about in this country: equality, freedom, and justice for all.
On one thing she still wants to accomplish:
Universal Pre-K. We will get there.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.