An East Lansing native, Clark majored in political science at the University of Michigan, “something I was interested in but I never really thought it would be a career.” She called herself a progressive activist in those years and “worked my ass off for Al Gore.” Then the election happened and the United States embarked on an eight-year slog under George W. Bush.
“A lot of us really got our hearts broken,” Clark, 32, said of the 2000 election. “Growing up in the ‘90s, there was a lot of ‘your vote doesn’t matter.’
“Then that election happened. When it comes down to hanging chads in Florida, the argument that your vote doesn’t matter kind of went out the window. That had a big impact on me.”
Since then, Clark’s involvement with Democratic politics only grew deeper. She’s worked as an organizer in Michigan for both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns and in Massachusetts as a deputy organizer for Elizabeth Warren, the influential first-term U.S. senator whose name has surfaced as a 2016 presidential candidate. Her first paid campaign job was in 2006 with Jim Marcinkowski, a Democratic candidate in Michigan’s 8th Congressional District who, like all other Democrats since 2000, was unable to defeat the formidable Republican from Brighton, Mike Rogers.
Soon after Rogers’ retirement announcement in March, Clark was recruited by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Washington based fundraising arm for House Democrats, to go back to work in her home district. She’s in full swing as the campaign manager for Ingham County Treasurer Eric Schertzing, one of four Democrats seeking to replace Rogers.
“It’s unusual in the extreme, I think, for the (DCCC) to place a campaign manager in their home district,” Clark said. Such a quality isn’t necessarily high on the recruiting checklist, she said. But ever since Rogers announced his retirement, Democrats in Washington have eyed up the 8th, which includes all of Ingham and Livingston counties and northern Oakland County. It’s perhaps the party’s best chance since 2000 for taking the seat, which has been redistricted to benefit Republicans. Schertzing will have to beat three other Democrats from Lansing — Susan Grettenberger, Ken Darga and Jeffrey Hank — in an August primary to advance to the General Election and face off against either former state Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, R- Rochester, or state Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills.
“It wouldn’t be a target for them if it wasn’t an open seat,” Clark said of the DCCC. “It’s a huge opportunity that is a big priority for Democrats this cycle.”
Clark said the focus for now is on the August primary. She believes Schertzing is the strongest Democrat in the field, the best known in Ingham County after being elected treasurer four times.
Schertzing identified himself recently on an episode of “City Pulse Newsmakers” as a social liberal and a fiscal conservative, playing up his priority for finding consensus on both sides of the aisle. While Clark knows less of Darga and Hank, she recently saw Grettenberger speak at a public event.
“I don’t think we have substantial policy differences with Susan,” she said. “Eric is the stronger, more viable candidate.”
In July 2012, while working on Obama’s reelection campaign for the nonprofit Organizing for Action, Clark got a call from a friend in Massachusetts who was working for Warren’s campaign, which had just undergone a “big internal shakeup.” Warren was polling behind Republican incumbent Scott Brown.
“When I got that call, it was a chance to go big,” Clark said. “I had been obsessed with Elizabeth Warren for some time.” Within a month, she moved to the East Coast.
While her job as deputy field director didn’t bring her much interaction with Warren, Clark said, “She is wonderful. Not every candidate is a dream to work with. She is the real deal. What you see is what you get.”
Warren, a former Harvard Law School professor, is perhaps best known for her work on consumer protection advocacy. She was chairwoman of a congressional oversight panel to oversee the Troubled Asset Relief Program and was an assistant to the president for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau before being elected to the Senate. Along with Hillary Clinton, Warren is also rumored by pundits as a possible Democratic presidential candidate in 2016.
“I would support (Warren) if she ran,” Clark said. “It looks to me like Hillary is going to be the candidate, but it’s 2016. It seems close but it’s actually a ways off.”
Over the course of 45 minutes at a Lansing coffee shop, we go on to talk about the “very big deal” of Michigan’s losing multiple senior members from its congressional delegation due to retirement. Clark declined to say which Republican — Bishop or McMillin — she’d rather face if Schertzing advances to the General. (“If there’s something I don’t have great insight into, it’s the inner dynamics of Republican primaries,” she said.) She also spoke of how Schertzing reminds her of U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, also from Lansing, because he’s a “work horse, not a show horse. He’s not a flashy guy, the type to give barnburner speeches.” Some of the issues she predicts will be focused on include college affordability, raising the minimum wage at the federal level, equal pay for equal work and the “totally regressive” Ryan budget that “keeps popping up.”
Clark doesn’t have plans to become a candidate herself, preferring to stay behind the scenes. But we end the conversation on one of her ongoing frustrations — and one of the main reasons Democrats weren’t able to defeat Rogers: Money in politics.
“When people are freaked out by Citizens United and some of these Supreme Court decisions, they should be freaked out. In my mind, money is not speech, it biases the system in favor of the wealthy. It’s a real problem,” she said. “Something that has motivated me is that the only way to counter that is with people. If people get out and vote, that’s the most important thing.”