Rep. Karen Bass fought for Blacks and Latinos in South Los Angeles. Now, she’s on Biden’s VP shortlist.

Rep. Karen Bass fought for Blacks and Latinos in South Los Angeles. Now, she’s on Biden’s VP shortlist.

“The whole reason I went up there was to expand and strengthen programs, not to cut them down. I had to save $ 40 billion, ”she recalled in an interview. "It was devastating to me. But I struggled to cut back because the alternative was to completely shut down programs. "

The difficult decisions she made during this time, and which colleagues on both sides of the aisle admired, explain the quiet rise of five-year-old members of Congress in Congress and increasing speculation about their future as potential supporters for suspected Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

As Biden approaches a decision on his election as Vice President, Bass & # 39; Booster sees her as someone whose activism in Los Angeles in the 1990s could give progressive credibility to the ticket during a new wave of racial unrest in the country. It could also help reassure liberal skeptics who have now criticized Bidens' controversial criminal justice reform efforts in the 1990s. She has made history as the first black woman in the United States to serve as the spokeswoman for the Assembly in one state.

Bass is relatively unknown compared to the others on Biden's shortlist and has largely been spared the spotlight – and scrutiny – of a national political campaign. Biden's later running mate, especially if she is a black woman, will undoubtedly go through an immediate and rigorous test and go into a campaign characterized by aggressive personal attacks and misinformation.

In particular, her leadership in Sacramento during the Great Recession provides insight into how she weighed her ideological commitments against the raw needs of governance in the crisis. This test is particularly important given the economic upheavals, a global pandemic and intensified racist tensions.

Her approach to Sacramento, say those who worked with her at the time, was to create a sense of shared responsibility, revise the critics, and find a way to agree. In two years, she would leave Sacramento and travel to Washington as a congresswoman, where she is now chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and has been discussed as a possible future speaker for the house.

In many ways, the skills that have made Bass an effective politician are those that she has refined as an organizer of the community.

The 1980s and 1990s were a particularly difficult time in South Los Angeles. The crack epidemic, mass poverty and the urban epidemic tore apart the fabric of the community. Many believed that the government was not only not equipped, but also not interested in finding solutions. Bass founded the Community Coalition in 1990 with federal funds to escape the feeling of hopelessness that she felt about what was happening. Soon she went from door to door to ask the residents about their experiences.

"I thought people wouldn't talk to us. This was the culmination of the Crips and the Bloods and we went door to door and talked about drugs," she said. "I initially thought the problem was crack houses. Mine The premise was completely wrong, we ended up talking to a few thousand people and found that it was the liquor stores, the recycling centers, and the motels that supported the drug trade. ”

The tools she turned to were street protests, empowerment seminars, and public hearings at city council meetings. The organization started campaigning for fewer liquor stores in the region and advocated local land use policies. Over time, Bass also took over school financing, the care system and the financing of social programs.

Saul Sarabia, who joined the Community Coalition in 1999, described Bass as deeply principled and strict. It specifically aimed to bring the long-serving black residents of South Los Angeles together with the newer Latino arrivals, who were slowly becoming the new majority.

"At the time, she was very clear that the country's race history required that we be color conscious and not color blind. This was the liberal and conservative consensus on how to deal with races in the multicultural nineties," said Sarabia, who said recalled that his car was stolen on his first day at work, reflecting the conditions in the neighborhood at the time.

And there was a careful method of doing her work, Sarabia said. Educational seminars and panels were common in the organization, which was part of the expectation that the group would study and discuss previous social movements. Much of her work has focused on teaching new organizers how to work for themselves and their communities.

"Basically, one of their main commitments is that there is wisdom in these communities and that their knowledge should guide the work," he said.

Although black and Latin American voters are often referred to together today as key elements of the democratic coalition, the notion that they form a unified political force in multicultural neighborhoods such as South Los Angeles has only just started to take shape.

Activists like Bass led the charge, Sarabia said.

Fabian Núñez recalled the dramatic demographic change in South Los Angeles around the turn of the century when the number of Latino residents skyrocketed as the black population steadily declined. With few political leaders in Latino at that time and a growing sentiment against immigrants, the region's Latinos were exposed to rampant ill-treatment, discrimination, and workplace violence, said Núñez, an activist at the time who would become the California Assembly spokesman.

Bass distinguished Núñez by deliberately involving Latinos in their organizational efforts. He recalled one of his first memories of being surprised and impressed by the variety of an educational protest Bass had organized as director of government for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“Working towards social justice for Latinos and blacks at a time when no one paid attention to Latinos like Karen shows that she is someone who has always worked to bring people together. I could see that their work was real, ”he said.

In the early 2000s, Bass' s supporters encouraged her to take up an elected position, which she initially seemed to oppose. But she decided to run, she said, because many local leaders whom she had relied on as the organizer had been retired. In 2004 she was elected to the state assembly.

Her instinct to build consensus quickly earned her a good reputation in Sacramento. Her rise to the legislature was quick and in 2008 she was elected spokeswoman for the assembly.

"We face the challenge of putting our ideologies aside and doing what we have to do for the state of California," she said. "We should all be very careful that the clock is ticking and that we have to use our time to solve problems."

Dan Dunmoyer, then Secretary of the Cabinet of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), said Bass was gracious even to those with whom she disagreed – a political instrument that “nobody understands. . . in modern times. "

"She is really unique in this business. I have dealt with some of the best politicians in the world, Kevin McCarthys, Nancy Pelosis and all the governors. Karen is unique for an important reason and that is that she is amazingly personable at all times "Said Dunmoyer." It doesn't mean that you agree with her. It is like the velvet hammer for the Republicans of the world. It is very polished, it is very gracious. She is firm in her belief, but she is very kind. "

Bass's background as a community organizer largely isolated her from the criticism on the left that she wasn't sufficiently invested in progress. Liberal credibility backed her while making cuts that troubled Democrats in Sacramento and beyond, including sweeping cuts in public schools and home health services for older adults.

Bass recalled that after a vote to increase tuition by the University of California at Los Angeles, of which she was a member of the Board of Regents, she was at some point in the midst of protests. After the vote, the demonstrators recognized her and switched her car around.

“The students protested insanely. They started pounding on my car, ”she said. "I spoke to them as long as they wanted to speak to me. You were very upset. And I said to them: "That was my decision. What would you do? Should I cut food stamps or increase your tuition fees? "

Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat who was the provisional President of the California State Senate at the time, described her as "unshakable" during the negotiations that took place between him, Bass, the two Republican leaders of the legislature, and the governor. Bass continued to focus on math while trying to ensure that cuts were made in a way that could be reversed in better financial times, he said.

“Your job during this time was to convince members who had their own goals and ambitions to vote for things that were exactly the opposite of what they came to Sacramento for. Republicans don't come to Sacramento to vote for taxes. Democrats don't come to Sacramento to vote for spending cuts on very important programs, ”said Steinberg, who is now Mayor of Sacramento.

In Congress, Bass is known for the complicated – and sometimes undesirable – tasks that the leadership of the house is faced with. She is friends with Kevin McCarthy, the leader of the house's minority and staunch Republican.

She recently co-authored the George Floyd Justice in the Policing Act, which would ban chokeholds and set up a national police misconduct database. It passed the democratically run house, but was not taken up by the Republican-controlled Senate.

Bass sounded conciliatory when asked about Biden's record of the 1994 Crime Law, which encouraged states to build more prisons and tighten penalties for violent crime and drug trafficking. Critics say that the law that Biden advocated has contributed to mass detention.

“There were many black members of Congress who supported the law. I totally understand why even though I didn't support the Criminal Law, ”she said. “One of the main reasons I started the Community Coalition was because the community was asking for these kinds of guidelines. For me, the purpose of the organization was to show that there is another way, a better way. "

If she were selected as Biden's vice presidential candidate, Bass would also be subjected to an intense national scrutiny that she has never received before.

Some Florida Democrats have already publicly resisted a 2016 statement released by their office after Fidel Castro's death. "The death of Comandante en Jefe is a great loss to the people of Cuba," said the statement, in which critics of President Castro's battlefield state glorified brutal government.

When asked about the incident in a recent interview on MSNBC, Bass said that "it is certainly not something I would say again" and that her testimony was intended to support the Cuban people.

Bass declined to comment on the possibility of being tapped as Biden's companion. But she said she had direct experience of some of the most confusing – and interconnected – issues of the day amid a pandemic, a difficult economy, and a burgeoning movement for racial justice.

“I've been dealing with these topics for decades. And I want to jump out there and join in, ”she said.


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