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Year of the Political Woman: Mass. Senator Katherine Clark

Katherine Clark started her political career on the Melrose School Committee in 2001. She then served as a state representative from 2008-2010 before becoming a state senator representing the Fifth Middlesex district. 

Senator Clark’s legal career includes service as a prosecutor, General Counsel for the Massachusetts Office of Child Care Services, and Chief of the Policy Division for the Massachusetts Attorney General. Currently, she serves on the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy Advisory Board at the University of Massachusetts Boston and as a Member of the Advisory Council for the Department of Early Education and Care. Among her many awards are the Massachusetts Municipal Association Legislator of the Year and Boston Area Rape Crisis Center Beacon Award.

In speaking with me, Senator Clark described the decisions and career moves that led her to success as a state legislator, and gave hearty encouragement for other women considering running for office. 

When did you first know you wanted to run for office?

I never really saw myself running for office. I moved to Melrose, Massachusetts, and I loved my new community. There was an opening on the school committee, and I thought that would be a great way to get to know Melrose and the schools – I have 3 sons – so I put my name in.

What was that election process like?

There were nine people running for nine spots, so it was a perfect first election, but just really good practice to research the issues and the school budget and take part in debates on some local cable TV coverage, and it was very exciting. I really enjoyed serving those 6 years on the committee.

Who encouraged you, and how?

I definitely got lots of encouragement from other women. For the school committee position, it was mostly neighbors and a good friend who had lived in Melrose for some time.

When I was considering running for state representative, I was working for [Massachusetts] Attorney General Martha Coakley. I had given her a commitment that I would stay for a number of years when I accepted the job. I went to her and told her that the seat had opened, and asked what she thought. She didn’t even hesitate. She said we needed more women in state government and I should do it.

With my other mentors and role models, they made the process so much easier. I always had someone to call.

Women really, really scrutinize their own resumes and tend to feel like they’re just not ready, or they haven’t done all the things they should have done to prepare for running for office, and women just need that push. Maybe you haven’t held elected office before, or feel that you have some piece missing, but you have the skills. If you have the commitment and the passion for it, you’re ready. And [for me], it was just people saying “You’re ready, you have something to offer.” Also people to help raise the money, which is the least appealing part of the process, but people get you started in that as well.

How did you decide to run for state representative specifically, as opposed to other elected positions at the local or national government level?

It really came through being general counsel for state agency for a number of years, then moving to AG’s office, so I interacted with the state legislature on many, many issues. I loved working in the legislative environment, and I thought this would be a great and different way to contribute to the policy issues that I cared about. The legislative process is exciting and after watching it and doing a lot of testifying, I thought it would be great to be in the role of decision maker and move the issues I cared about forward. So much of it is seizing the opportunities that arise. I’m being flip about 9 people running for 9 seats [on the Melrose School Committee]… that was an opportunity. When the state representative seat came open, it was really about deciding to take that chance, and when the state senate seat came open, another opportunity. Take the risk, move beyond your comfort zone, represent the priorities in my community.

What previous work experiences have been most helpful to your work as a representative and senator?

That’s a good question! It’s hard to prioritize them; I think that having a legal background has been very helpful, and having worked in different facets of government, in the AG’s office in Massachusetts and in Colorado for a while, it gives you a good glimpse of the breadth of issues that state government interacts with. Also being general counsel for a state agency, where I had to deal with state contracts and the federal block grant that we administered, I was able to see the connection to the budget at the state and federal levels, and really hear the impact when the state government acts. When we send down a mandate to a local school system, you know how that feels because you don’t have the money in your budget to pay it. Working at a local level, a state agency, and at the Attorney General’s office gave me a good well-rounded perspective on how state and local government fit together.

What advice would you have for female attorneys who are considering running for office: what activities should they seek during law school, what skills should they build, what connections should they make?

Do it! We need women’s voices, and… looking at women in federal government, women in congress, women in state legislatures, we need to do better, we need to elect more women. Whatever your party or political beliefs, wherever you fall, if you’re thinking about it, then take the leap! We need your voice, we need good women attorneys to be involved. There’s nothing like working on a campaign to make connections, to see what it’s like in your local world, to find a good fit. Just about any activity you do in law school will be helpful. It really comes down to being an advocate on an issue, and being able to see the other side of an issue as well, and being able to anticipate those arguments that come at you. Women lawyers make great elected officials, and I encourage others to look at it. If you’re not interested, ask another woman who might be!

(Photo credit: Ken Lund, used under Creative Commons license)

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