The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The woman Biden should pick to lead us to calmer days

Rep. Karen Bass on Capitol Hill on July 1. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Today’s racial turmoil, which was detonated by a Minneapolis instance of lethal police behavior toward an African American, is more serious than any since 1992. Then, after the verdict exonerating the police who beat an African American, Rodney King, six days of rioting engulfed a swath of Los Angeles, killing 63 and injuring 2,383. This far exceeded the calamity of 1965, when a traffic stop by a white LAPD officer of an African American driver spiraled into the Watts riots, which over six days killed 34 and injured 1,032.

Both conflagrations occurred largely in what is now the congressional district represented by Karen Bass, an African American Democrat now in her fifth term. Her public career, which has been shaped by her district’s memories of both disasters, suits her to be Joe Biden’s vice-presidential selection. Her impeccably progressive credentials would soothe her party’s fermenting left wing. Her even-keeled disposition — “She’s not someone who bristles,” says an admirer who has “never heard her raise her voice” — would appeal to the large majority of Americans who have had a surfeit of bristling from both ends of the political spectrum.

The daughter of a letter-carrier father and a homemaker mother, Bass grew up in the decidedly nonaffluent half of her district, which includes the posh Century City area. Her public career has revolved around what will be 2020’s two central issues: health care and criminal justice reform.

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Health care, which will be 2020’s most salient issue when statue-smashing has run its course, “obsessed” her, she says, when in her 30s two epidemics — AIDS and crack cocaine — ravaged African American communities. She says crack provoked benighted policies that “criminalized a public health problem.” Leaving her position as a clinical instructor at the University of Southern California’s Department of Family Medicine, she founded in 1990 the nonprofit Community Coalition (CoCo) to devise nonpolice measures for addressing crime.

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“We were completely wrong” — when is the last time you heard a politician admit that? — in thinking that crack houses were the heart of the problem, she says. CoCo discovered that liquor stores were centers of criminal activity. Two hundred of them burned in 1992, and CoCo helped ensure that the most problematic ones did not reopen. It also worked with older gang members to cut the homicide rate. Her focus today on criminal justice issues, particularly prison reform, would dilute progressives’ resentment of Biden’s large role in passing the 1994 crime bill.

Elected to the state assembly in 2004, in three terms Bass became majority whip, then majority leader, then speaker. When the Great Recession clobbered California in 2008, she was compelled to undertake the distasteful task of pruning about a third$40 billion — of the state budget. There, she got to know Kevin McCarthy, now Republican leader in the U.S. House, who has called Bass his favorite Democrat because of her collaborative talents. Faint praise, perhaps, but notable in today’s toxic political climate.

She was one of only nine freshman Democrats sent to Congress by the dispiriting (for her party) 2010 elections that elevated “tea party Republicans.” The highlight for the “Noble Nine” was dinner at Biden’s vice presidential residence.

In Florida, the most important swing state, some Democrats resent Bass’s too-respectful 2016 statement on Fidel Castro’s death, calling him “comandante en jefe” (commander in chief). Their anxiety would be assuaged by her service on the board of the government’s most cost-effective program, the National Endowment for Democracy, where she has supported 65 grants totaling $6 million for democracy movements in Cuba.

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Today, Bass chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, a former leader of which is South Carolina’s James E. Clyburn, now in his 14th term and third-ranking in the Democrats’ House leadership. Rarely has a presidential nominee owed to a supporter a debt as large as Biden’s debt to Clyburn. His political muscle made his state’s primary resuscitate Biden’s faltering campaign and propel it to victory.

Speaking by phone Monday from his district, Clyburn, who has not endorsed anyone, said “three big things” in Bass’s favor are her “legislative acumen” honed in California and on Capitol Hill, the fact that she “is no stranger to foreign affairs” and — “the biggest thing of all” — Biden would not need to worry about her “one-upping him,” because she has “no aspirations” to be president.

Bass will be 67 on Jan. 20, when Biden will be 78. Biden-Bass would be the nation’s oldest winning ticket, transitional leadership to get the world’s oldest party, and the world’s oldest democracy, to calmer days.

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