“The whole reason I went up there was to expand and strengthen programs, not cut them. I had to cut $40 billion,” she recalled in an interview. “It was devastating to me. But I fought to cut because the alternative was to dismantle programs altogether.”
The difficult decisions she made during that period, which drew admiration from colleagues on both sides of the aisle, help explain the five-term congresswoman’s quiet rise in the ranks in Congress and the intensifying speculation about her future as a potential running mate for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
As Biden nears a decision about his vice-presidential pick, Bass’s boosters see in her someone whose activism in Los Angeles in the 1990s could bring progressive credibility to the ticket during a fresh wave of racial unrest in the country. She could also help assuage liberal skeptics who have been critical of Biden’s now-controversial efforts on criminal justice reform in the 1990s. She has already made history once as the first Black woman in the United States to rise to the role of assembly speaker in any state.
Bass is relatively unknown compared with the others on Biden’s shortlist and has largely been spared the spotlight — and vetting — of a national political campaign. Biden’s eventual running mate, particularly if it is a Black woman, will undoubtedly attract immediate, harsh scrutiny, entering a campaign that has been marked by aggressive personal attacks and misinformation.
Her leadership in Sacramento during the Great Recession in particular provides a window into how she has balanced her ideological commitments against the raw needs of governing in crisis, a test that carries particular relevance now amid economic upheaval, a global pandemic and heightened racial tensions.
Her approach in Sacramento, say those who worked with her at the time, was to create a sense of shared responsibility, outwork the critics and find a way to agree. In two years she would leave Sacramento and head to Washington as a congresswoman, where she is now chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and has been discussed as a possible future speaker of the House.
In many ways, the skills that have made Bass an effective politician are those she honed as a community organizer.
The 1980s and ’90s were an especially fraught time in South Los Angeles. The crack epidemic, mass poverty and urban blight were tearing at the fabric of the community. Many felt government was not only unequipped but also uninterested in finding solutions. Bass founded the Community Coalition in 1990 with federal grant funding, she said, to escape the sense of hopelessness she felt about what was happening. She soon began going door-to-door to survey residents about their experiences.
“I thought people weren’t going to talk to us. This was the height of the Crips and the Bloods and we were going door-to-door talking about drugs,” she said. “I thought initially the problem was crack houses. My premise was completely wrong. We talked to a few thousand people eventually and discovered it was the liquor stores, the recycling centers, the motels that were supporting the drug trade.”
The tools she turned to were street protests, empowerment seminars and public hearings at city council meetings. The organization began to agitate for fewer liquor stores in the area and lobby local leaders on land-use policies. In time, Bass also took on school funding, the foster-care system and funding for social programs.
Saul Sarabia, who joined the Community Coalition in 1999, described Bass as deeply principled and rigorous. She was explicit in her aim to bring together longtime Black residents of South Los Angeles with the newer Latino arrivals who were slowly becoming the new majority.
“She was very clear at that time that the racial history of the country required that we be color-conscious and not be colorblind, which was the liberal and conservative consensus about how to deal with race in the multicultural 1990s,” said Sarabia, who recalled that his car was stolen on his first day of work, a reflection of the conditions in the neighborhood at the time.
And there was a careful method to her work, said Sarabia. Educational seminars and panels were common at the organization, part of an expectation that the group would study and discuss past social movements. Much of Bass’s work focused on teaching new organizers how to advocate for themselves and their communities.
“One of her core commitments is, fundamentally, that there is wisdom in these communities, and that their knowledge should guide the work,” he said.
Though Black and Latino voters are often referred to in tandem today as key parts of the Democratic coalition, the notion that they made up a unified political force in multicultural neighborhoods like South Los Angeles was only just beginning to take shape.
Activists like Bass led the charge, said Sarabia.
Fabian Núñez recalled the dramatic demographic transformation happening in South Los Angeles at the turn of the century, as the number of Latino residents skyrocketed while the Black population steadily declined. With few Latino political leaders at the time and a growing anti-immigrant sentiment, Latinos in the region faced rampant workplace abuses, discrimination and violence, said Núñez, then an activist who would himself become the speaker of the California State Assembly.
Bass stood out to Núñez for intentionally including Latinos in her organizing efforts. He recalled being surprised and impressed by the diversity of an education protest Bass organized while he was the government affairs director of the Los Angeles Unified School District, one of his first memories of her.
“To have people like Karen working toward social justice for Latinos and Black people at a time when nobody was paying attention to Latinos, that tells you she is someone who has always worked to bring people together. I could see that her work was real,” he said.
By the early 2000s, Bass’s supporters were encouraging her to pursue elected office, which she seemed to resist at first. But she decided to run, she said, because a lot of local leaders she had relied on as an organizer were being termed out. In 2004, she was elected to the State Assembly.
Her instinct for consensus-building quickly earned her a favorable reputation in Sacramento. Her rise in the legislature was rapid, and in 2008 she was elected the speaker of the Assembly.
“We face the challenge of putting our ideologies aside and doing what we need to do for the state of California,” she said. “We should all be very mindful that the clock is ticking and we need to use our time to solve problems.”
Dan Dunmoyer, at the time Cabinet secretary for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), said Bass was gracious even with those she disagreed with — a political tool that “nobody understands . . . in the modern era.”
“She’s really unique in this business. I’ve dealt with some of the best politicians on the planet, the Kevin McCarthys, the Nancy Pelosis, all the governors. Karen’s unique for one key reason, and that is that she is stunningly likable at all times,” Dunmoyer said. “It doesn’t mean you agree with her. She’s like the velvet hammer for the Republicans of the world. She’s very polished, she’s very gracious. She’s firm in her convictions, but she’s very nice.”
Bass’s background as a community organizer largely insulated her from critiques on the left that she was not sufficiently invested in progressive causes. The liberal bona fides gave her cover while making cuts that distressed Democrats in Sacramento and beyond, including deep cuts to public schools and in-home health services for older adults.
Bass recalled that at one point she found herself the target of protests after a vote to increase tuition by the University of California at Los Angeles, of which she served on the Board of Regents. After the vote, protesters recognized her and surrounded her car.
“The students were protesting madly. They started pounding on my car,” she said. “I talked to them for as long as they wanted to talk to me. They were very upset. And I said to them: ‘These were my choices. What would you do? Should I cut food stamps or raise your tuition?’ ”
Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat who at the time was the president pro tempore of the California State Senate, described her as “unflappable” during the negotiations, which were held between himself, Bass, the legislature’s two Republican leaders and the governor. Bass remained focused on the math while trying to ensure cuts were done in a way that could be reversed in better financial times, he said.
“Her job during that period was to convince members who had their own goals and ambitions to vote for things that were the exact opposite of what they came to Sacramento to do. Republicans don’t come to Sacramento to vote for taxes. Democrats do not come to Sacramento to vote for spending cuts to very important programs,” said Steinberg, who is now the mayor of Sacramento.
In Congress, Bass is known for pulling off complicated — and sometimes undesirable — tasks confronting the House leadership. She is friendly with Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader and a staunch Republican.
She was recently the co-author of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would ban chokeholds and establish a national police misconduct database. It passed the Democratic-led House but has not been taken up by the Republican-controlled Senate.
“The protests created the political will to make that [bill] happen,” she said.
Bass sounded conciliatory when asked about Biden’s record on the 1994 crime bill, which encouraged states to build more prisons and toughened sentencing requirements for violent crimes and drug trafficking. Critics say the law, which Biden championed, contributed to mass incarceration.
“There were many Black members of Congress who supported the law. I totally understand why, though I did not support the crime bill,” she said. “One of the main reasons I started Community Coalition was because the community was demanding those types of policies. To me, the point of the organizing was to try to show there was a different way, a better way.”
If she were picked as Biden’s vice-presidential nominee, Bass would also be subject to intense national scrutiny unlike any she has received before.
Already, some Florida Democrats have publicly bristled over a 2016 statement her office released after the death of Fidel Castro. “The passing of the Comandante en Jefe is a great loss to the people of Cuba,” said the statement, which critics in the presidential battleground state said glorified Castro’s brutal government.
Asked about the incident in a recent interview on MSNBC, Bass said that “it was certainly not something I would say again” and that her statement was meant in support of the Cuban people.
Bass declined to comment on the possibility of being tapped as Biden’s running mate. But she said she has direct experience with some of the most confounding — and interrelated — issues of the time amid a pandemic, a struggling economy and a burgeoning movement for racial justice.
“These are issues I have dealt with for decades. And I want to jump out there and be involved,” she said.