Bullied Pulpit

A state in financial free fall. A shifty governor. A budget that bludgeons the poor. Welcome to the hard-knock world of Assembly Speaker Karen Bass

For the past year Assembly Speaker Karen Bass has led a political life fraught with irony. A lifelong activist, Bass won an assembly seat in 2004 representing California’s 47th District, which encompasses both a slice of South L.A. and the Hillcrest Country Club, then was sworn in as Speaker last yearjust as the state sank into insolvency. In the struggle over the 2009-10 California budget, she fought to make the holes in the social safety net less gaping, only to witness Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger use line-item vetoes to cut foster care, AIDS prevention, health insurance for underprivileged children, and services for kids with special needs. This month those cuts, as well as many the Speaker did approve, will take effect. Bass is 55 and divorced but still active in the lives of her four former stepchildren. She spoke at her Mid Wilshire offices about the governor’s interpersonal skills, the human costs of California’s collapse, and what drives her.

When you took your assembly seat in 2004, the state unemployment rate was less than 6 percent, home values were still skyrocketing, and stocks were reaching a record high. Did you imagine you’d take the oath as Speaker four years later during an economic catastrophe?
Let me tell you, when Alan Greenspan sat before Congress last year and said he didn’t know the economy would collapse, I most certainly didn’t. I went up to Sacramento to protect and expand social programs. If I knew we were going to be facing an economic crisis, I would have gone up anyway to protect and defend—instead of protect and expand. Frankly, since I have taken over as Speaker, that’s what I’ve been trying to do.

Were there any major programs you managed to push through before the bottom fell out? 
We did have one boom year out of my five-and-a-half years in office. That was 2006, and I was able to get $80 million for foster care—the largest increase to the foster care system since who knows when. The majority of California inmates today come from the child welfare system, so if you can get your arms around this population, you can prevent people from being incarcerated. Also, a lot of kids who are in foster care are there because their parents are either involved in substance abuse, have mental health issues, are incarcerated, or all of the above.

So then governor used his line-item veto to cut hundreds of millions from the final budget, including $83 million from foster care.
It’s such short-term thinking. By cutting $83 million, we’re really taking a $120 million cut, because we lost additional federal funds. 

Senate leader Darrell Steinberg is suing to restore, among other things, the cuts to foster care, but if he loses, what are the likely consequences? 
The caseloads of social workers in the foster care system will go up, and when you do that, you will have kids who will die because they will fall through the cracks. You saw that woman who decapitated her four-year-old son? That’s during “good” times. The two little boys who were found dead? This is with relatively low caseloads. If you increase the caseloads even further, it doesn’t take much to see what will happen.

Do any of the budget compromises you had to make keep you up at night? 
A lot of them. I’ll give you one that I thought was absolutely absurd. If you are a quadriplegic and you need a home-care worker, we’re now going to require you to be fingerprinted because we don’t want you taking your wheelchair and going to another county and getting an extra bath.

It sounds like you haven’t been preserving social programs so much as performing triage. 
This year has been one of the most painful in my life—not from a personal point of view but from a professional one. It’s very, very painful that I’m tearing up the very thing I went up to protect. But putting it into perspective, the governor had proposed the near elimination of in-home supportive services. He had proposed a drastic change in CalWorks [the state welfare program for poor families with young children] from five years to two. He was proposing billions in permanent cuts to education. I feel good that we were able to protect those programs. If they had been completely eliminated, it would have been very hard to re-create them. 

Do you think most politicians in Sacramento are fully aware of the impact these cuts in social services will have on those who receive them?
One of my frustrations at sitting in the room at the negotiating table, and I said this to the governor, is that I think some politicians in Sacramento are disconnected from the daily lives of poor folks. I think they have a hard time understanding how these changes that might seem little are really massive. It’s not like I had this personal experience in th sense that I was on welfare, or my family was, but I chose to do organizing in South Central and learned there about the daily lives of people who are impoverished.

Can you give an example of one of these misconceptions you had to confront?
It’s very easy to say, “Well why can’t the mothers getting welfare just make an appointment with at the welfare office, and if they don’t make an appointment and come in and have their case reviewed — well, we should just cut off their check.” Well, if you don’t have transportation in L.A.; if you don’t have childcare; if your mail may or may not get to you because people are always breaking into the mailboxes…. When I tell them that, they’ll answer, “Well, then just call them at home.” Well how do you assume they have a phone? “Well, everybody has a cellphone.” No, everybody doesn’t.

So sometimes I would go into Big 5 negotiations [between Bass, the governor, the senate majority leader and the Republican minority leaders] and try to paint a picture and say, “You cut the welfare check of this mother because she hasn’t come in for an appointment. So she winds up on skid row, and then child welfare comes and takes her kids away because she can’t provide a roof for her kids. So now her kids are scattered all over L.A. County, and then she has to go to court. She has no transportation and no money to catch the bus, an you have set up a sit where you spiraled her down and she won’t be able to come back.” After that, the response was better.

Do you see any alternative scenarios in which you wouldn’t have had to do such drastic pruning? 
If we didn’t need a two-thirds majority to pass a budget and to raise taxes, we definitely would have had to make some cuts, but there is no way in the world we would have had to make the cuts that we did. Having said that, the tax structure in California is outdated and too much geared toward a manufacturing economy. Much of the revenue for the state is based on personal income tax on the top 1 percent, and when the wealthy do well, we have boom times, and when they don’t, we have a bust. We need more stable revenue.

In his bodybuilding and film careers, the governor seemed to have such clear goals. Why does he seem so all over the place in Sacramento?
I think he came into office with very clear goals. I thank that what happened is that right after he came in, he found out is that the state is a heck of a lot more complicated than he thought. I mean, this is a complicated place. It’s not a movie. You can’t say “cut” and do it another way. And the State of California is the largest state economy in the country — the world’s sixth seventh or eighth, whatever you want to quote these days. So you just cant walk in and say, “Here I am.”  That’s what you do in a movie. So he walked in and he had to face institutional barriers, like the 2/3 majority you need to pass a budget, like the initiative process.

What’s your take on Schwarzenegger as a negotiator? 
The governor is much more comfortable negotiating with men and likes to do the guy thing—the challenging and baiting, how guys will kind of come after each other. That doesn’t work well with me, nor does it apply to me. With me he is very respectful and cautious. he seems much more comfortable bantering with the guys. There were times that he would say things that were very upsetting to me, and I don’t necessarily think he was doing that to banter or challenge me – what’s coming to mind was his descriptions of people who were not working because they were not motivated.

Do you think the governor’s own American experience informs his views of recent immigrants? 
He feels like he came here with the classic immigrant experience of working his way up and pulling himself up by his bootstraps. “Well, I didn’t have anything, and people came over and they would bring me an iron, they would bring me this and that.” Still, it’s hard to imagine the experience of the Salvadoran—who’s washing dishes and taking the bus and baby-sitting and working two or three jobs—and Arnold’s experience as similar.

Along with the bootstrap pulling, does the governor ever display that Kennedy sense of social obligation to the less fortunate?
I do think that kicks in. I do think that he is a very moderate Republican. He is not hardcore, and I find that he vacillates. So for example, he knows a lot about foster care and is very sympathetic and supportive – and then cuts $80 million. No, I do think the Kennedy side is very influential…

But not always determinative?
Yes, it’s not always determinative, that’s the best way to state it.

So you’re L.A. born and raised? 
Yes, my father worked as a letter carrier here for 37 years. Like so many African Americans of the period, he migrated to L.A.—in his case from Texas post-World War II. My mother, very unusual, was born here in 1916, when there were very few African Americans [in L.A.]. She lived in Watts, which at that time was predominantly white and Latino, so she grew up speaking Spanish. And her mother, fascinatingly, worked in the movie industry.

What did your grandmother do? 
She was a teacher for actors, but she performed and acted as well. My uncle used to tell me these stories about the Tarzan movies, when they had the scenes of all the black people. The studio would send out their drivers with these big trucks to South-Central, and they’d just pick up people off the street.

When did you realize you were going to be an activist? 
In the ’60s, when I was in middle school. I was so jealous watching the civil rights movement on TV. The whole world was changing, and I was so anxious to grow up so I could participate. I graduated from Hamilton High in 1971. In ’69 and ’70, the teachers went on strike, so I rode my bicycle up to UCLA and would sit in Angela Davis’s classes, and that got me interested in philosophy.

Is that what you studied at San Diego State? 
That was my major. I’m not sure how much studying I did. I was too busy protesting the war in Vietnam. I stayed for two years, then went back to L.A. and went to nursing school. I worked in the medical field because that was steady employment. My true love was after work, which was the political work I was involved in at a community level.

Did your parents encourage your activism? 
My parents were terrified because they thought I would get killed or go to jail. But my father was the one who introduced me to politics. We had our debates. It wasn’t so much that he disagreed—he was just fearful of challenging society.

What was behind that? 
My father’s life in the South had been so bad that he would never talk about it. He should have been a professional football player, but he was older than Jackie Robinson. When he first came to L.A., he worked for RTD, now MTA, but the racism there was such that he couldn’t take it. And then there was the McCarthy period. When I was a kid, we first lived at 49th Street and Central Avenue. I remember two white guys coming to the door who were FBI agents. They were in suits, and that was the first time I’d ever seen white folks outside of TV. I had to have been about eight. They traumatized my family, and the reason they were there—this really colored my father’s view of politics and why he didn’t want me to get involved—was that somebody he worked with at the post office had signed a petition somewhere.

Who were your early political allies in the trenches? 
A number of us grew up together—Antonio [Villaraigosa], [Mark] Ridley-Thomas, María Elena Durazo, Gil Cedillo. Antonio was in East L.A., and I was in South L.A. Now they talk about black and brown and multiculturalism. Everything we did back then was like that. We would come together for citywide protests or citywide events. Like in 1976, with the bicentennial. Some of us organized a protest about everything we thought was wrong about the United States.

Why did you start the Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment in South L.A.? 
In the ’80s, crack cocaine took off as an epidemic, and I became obsessed by it. It was the first time that a drug impacted across class lines in the African American community, and it was also the first time in history a drug trend impacted both genders equally. It was really beginning to reshape the landscape in the inner city. I wanted to find a way to address the drug problem that did not involve massive incarceration—that could get at the root causes—and at the same time I wanted to build an organization that would help create, recruit, and train a next generation of activists. We’ve been around for 19 years.

Does the coalition show up at your office to protest what you’re doing in the legislature? 
Absolutely. They’re organizing a protest right now. They are nice enough to call me up and tell me when they’re going to be protesting. 

Would you be out there with them if the job didn’t preclude it? 
No question. One thing that’s a little funny, if you don’t mind me going off the record—OK, I’ll say it on the record. I would have been protesting, but even when I was making these decisions, I was still in contact with the groups that protest to tell them to continue, because I understand better than ever how important those protests are. So it is quite interesting to be in a position like this.

You term out of the assembly in 2010. What’s next? 
I don’t have an immediate office to run for, and you know, elected office has been nice, but I haven’t fallen in love. What I love is public policy, so I’ll be involved in policy no matter where I am. What I love is public policy so I’ll be involved in policy no matter where I am. A lot of people think, “Oh she’s going to work for the Obama administration.” I met Obama when he was running for the Senate. He had won his primary right when I won my primary. I was very involved in his campaign and I work as close with the administration as I can. And I don’t know that I would want to go back necessarily and work for the administration. So I’ll be involved in policy. Or if there is an opportunity to run for something, I would consider it — if a member of Congress retires or whatever. One never knows, the only thing I do know is that Obama is picking a number of people, so you never know. 

So you’re not so future focused yet?
My belief has always been to work very hard at what I’m doing and then opportunities will open up. I think it’s really dangerous to be in your job and be focusing on what your next job is going to be while you’re in the job because it colors the decisions that you make.

You’ve just given the description of probably 99 percent of politicians in the country.
I don’t care. There are a lot of people who are telling me, have to be careful about what your doing because if you want to do this or you want to do that. I cannot lead that way. 

Are you surprised so many politicians can?
Yeah. I don’t think it’s good.


Photograph by Marla Rutherford