In the dwindling days before the Democratic National Convention, South Los Angeles Congresswoman Karen Bass has emerged as a top-tier contender to be likely presidential candidate Joe Biden’s running mate for the White House.
Perceived by national pundits as a Biden “short list-er,” Bass, 66, is in her fifth term in Congress representing the 37th Congressional District, which includes South L.A., Crenshaw, Baldwin Hills, Miracle Mile, Pico-Robertson, Century City, Cheviot Hills, West Los Angeles, and Mar Vista.
She is up for re-election in November. But while she’s risen to the top of the Black congressional leadership in those years, observers say her low-amp, bridge-building approach has become an ideal fit for a Biden ticket.
Bass has been relatively silent on her prospects, but the Democratic lawmaker told the Associated Press this week that “I have historically, for the last four or five decades, focused on building coalitions and building bridges between ethnic groups, between political ideologies. I’m a very goal-driven person; I am focused on getting stuff done. And I am willing to work with whoever, whenever, however.”
Pundits say Bass, along with former national security adviser Susan E. Rice, has risen to the top of Biden’s list of formidable contenders, which also includes Sen. Kamala Harris — briefly a contender for the top of the Democratic ticket herself — and wounded combat veteran Sen. Tammy Duckworth, of Illinois, according to in-the-know media reports.
Another former presidential candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, is also thought to be on the short list, as well as Florida Rep. Val Demings and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.
The Washington Post cited that Bass has turned up the heat in anti-President Donald Trump rhetoric recently, which may indicate she’s serious about the VP slot. The New York Times credited her rise in part to “an intensive lobbying drive by her fellow House Democrats” that left the former vice-president’s search committee “impressed.”
Bass’ contender status, in general, appears to be fueled by a robust, though controversy-free career and a reputation as a bridge-builder — though tenure in Congress was devoid of any presidential aspirations of her own. Her consensus-forging skills are regarded as crucial considering the polarized state of U.S. politics these days — and it helps that she is well liked, experts and observers say.
“She relates to people well, and has exhibited a remarkable degree of resilience in her own life,” said L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who has known Bass for decades, from when he was a school teacher and when she was a physicians assistant. “She is not overly ambitious. She did not seek this. It sought her.”
Former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, a close friend of Bass’, told the Associated Press that she’s been “properly vetted.”
Nuñez endorsed Bass to succeed him as speaker, he said, because of her ability to forge consensus amid sharp divisions and the Legislature then faced tough budget talks. “The country needs healers,” he said.
Bass grew up in L.A.’s Venice/Fairfax area, with three brothers. She attended Hamilton High School, Cal State Dominguez Hills, and the University of Southern California’s School of Medicine Physician Assistant Program. She declares that she “proudly worships at First New Christian Fellowship Baptist Church in South LA.”
She served as a clinical instructor at USC’s program, parlaying her nearly decade of experience as a physicians assistant.
All the while, threads of community activism and social justice ran through her pursuits, even after 2006, when she lost her 23-year-old daughter and son-in-law died in an auto crash. (Biden, too, suffered tragedy when in 1972 his wife and daughter died in a highway wreck.)
Working in an emergency room, Bass had seen enough of social inequities that were leading communities of color to shoulder the burden of violence and public health disparities. In the early 1990s — as gang warfare and drugs blanketed South L.A. neighborhoods — she established the non-profit Community Coalition, with a goal of engaging residents and address issues of social injustice.
Propelling her crusade in part was the explosion of liquor stores in South L.A. neighborhoods, where they’d become a kind of breeding ground for drug deals and violence. She led an effort to get rid of them.
When Los Angeles City Council member Marqueece Harris-Dawson started working at the coalition in 1995 at age 25, he didn’t know Bass. But he knew the liquor stores he’d been told to avoid his whole life were closed.
“It was very meaningful for me because you hear a lot of political talk, particularly post-1992,” he told the Associated Press recently, referring to the year of the Los Angeles riots that followed the trial of white police officers in beating of Rodney King. “Those things never get done. Here was Karen, quietly setting up goals (and) knocking them down.”
Those goals would lead her to the state Assembly, where she would become the first Black woman to ascend to the role of Speaker, in 2008.
Bass’ Assembly tenure coincided with the Great Recession, and it was underpinned by her own legislative pushes on foster care legislation and healthcare reform.
Both issues remained with her as she made her way to Congress, where as chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus she’s also pushed hard on criminal justice reform and amid the nation’s recent social unrest she called for greater law enforcement accountability.
“She’s very much somebody who was out ahead of her time trying to forge multi-racial coalitions,” said Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State Los Angeles.
California’s continued blue-ness has coincided with Bass’ rise — forging a bastion of progressive support, Regalado said.
While she may have been relatively lower-profile on the national scene, she’s really not any more. Her profile heightened after the death of George Floyd, when she led a push to reform law enforcement.
“I think that has effectively changed,” Ridley-Thomas said on Bass’ more subdued pre-COVID rise. “That’s yesterday’s news.”
The Biden campaign has not spoken in detail on the veepquest and its likely contenders. But the New York Times reported Friday that Bass has risen to the top of the list along with Rice, according to Democratic officials briefed on the process. And CNN declared that she had “gained real traction in the late stage of the search.”
Ridley-Thomas, among others, think Bass would be a solid, unflappable fit.
“She was who she was before the pandemic,” he said, “and she was who she was before the epidemic of social unrest.”
Overall, Bass has played the veep buzz in her own self-effacing manner.
“I want to do,” she told CNN this week, “whatever the vice-president (Biden) calls on me to do.”
Observers note her lack of “political baggage,” but conservatives could turn up the heat over a 2016 statement she made over the death of Fidel Castro: “The passing of Comandante en Jefe is a great loss to the people of Cuba,” she said.
In an interview on MSNBC, she walked back the comments, which came in the final years of President Barack Obama’s presidency, as the administration was seeking restored diplomatic relations with the communist island nation.
“I have talked to my colleagues in the House about that, and it’s certainly something that I would not say again,” Bass said. “I have always supported the Cuban people, and the relationship that Barack Obama and Biden had in their administration in terms of opening up relations.”
Jack Pitney, professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College, was dubious on how big of an issue that could become — even with Trump and supporters intent on calling out “radical left” and jumping on leaders they see with “socialist” leanings.
It could alienate Cuban voters, particularly in Florida, a vital swing state. However, “nationwide, it isn’t that big a deal anymore,” said Pitney.
Bass herself does not appear to consider it a deal-breaker. “I absolutely feel that there is a pathway that I would not be a liability in whatever role I play on the campaign,” she told the Associated Press. “And, you know, Florida is also a very big state.”
Social media buzz was also set off on Friday when the Daily Caller reported that Bass praised the controversial Church of Scientology in 2010, during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for its revamped facility on Sunset Boulevard. Bass was quoted as saying “The Church of Scientology I know has made a difference, because your creed is a universal creed and one that speaks to all people everywhere.”
According to a Church of Scientology press release, the event included L.A. City Coucilman Paul Koretz and former county Sheriff Lee Baca, who touted the reconstruction of the facility as a great moment for L.A. and who praised the organization for helping to keep crime down.
Just so you all know, I proudly worship at First New Christian Fellowship Baptist Church in South LA. pic.twitter.com/1sEpF5KpRF
— Karen Bass (@KarenBassTweets) August 1, 2020
“Ten years ago, I attended a new building opening in my district and spoke to what I think all of us believe in — respect for one another’s views, to treat all people with respect, and to fight against oppression wherever I find it,” Bass said in a statement in response, posted on Twitter on Saturday morning. “I found an area of agreement in their beliefs — where all people, of whatever race, color or creed are created with equal rights, which is what my remarks were about.”
She added: “Since then, published first-hand accounts in books, interviews and documentaries have exposed this group. Everyone is now aware of the allegations against Scientology. Back in 2010, I attended the event knowing I was going to address a group of people with beliefs very different than my own, and spoke briefly about things I think most of us agree with, and on those things — respect for different views, equality and fighting oppression — my views have not changed.”