Is Karen Bass Ready to Become L.A.’s Next Mayor?

She almost beat Kamala to become VP. Now she’s the front-runner for an even harder job. Karen Bass has spent her life defying expectations. But is she tough enough to fix the city?
2047

THANKSGIVING in Karen Bass’s household is usually an extended-family affair. But last November, as the turkey roasted in the oven and her clan gathered in her Baldwin Hills residence—Bass’s stepchildren, her stepgrandchildren, her brothers, nieces, and nephews—the 68-year-old congresswoman and front-runner in this year’s mayoral campaign was nowhere to be found. She was, in fact, miles away from home. 

“I went for a bike ride on the beach,” she says.

The ride was part pleasure, part business. As the potential next mayor of Los Angeles, Bass wanted to see for herself what was happening in Venice, home to one of the most visible and persistent populations of homeless residents living in tents. As she rode through the neighborhood, Bass noted various concentrations of homeless people bivouacked by the roadside but was surprised by what she saw—or, rather, didn’t see—as she made her way along the Venice Beach bike path, where, for much of the past couple of years, a veritable city of tents had taken over the strand. “I didn’t see any encampments,” she says. “I saw four individual tents, and that’s pretty good.”

It is perhaps a sign of how deep a crisis L.A. is facing right now that a temporary reduction in the number of people sleeping on a once-popular and touristy stretch of waterfront property could be counted as a win. 

Homelessness is at the core of Karen Bass’s campaign. Indeed, with 94 percent of voters claiming it as their top issue, according to a 2021 L.A. Times and Los Angeles Business Council poll, fixing homelessness will obviously be a major component in every candidate’s platform. But Bass, a former community organizer and a six-term progressive representative of the 37th district (covering Culver City and South L.A.), has focused her campaign on tackling the reasons for homelessness rather than simply clearing tents from the city’s sidewalks and parks.

Bass, who raised far more than her closest rival in the second half of 2021, spent decades working on behalf of the poor and vulnerable and has publicly called out L.A.’s current homelessness situation as a “humanitarian crisis.” She has also dug deep into what she believes are its root causes: things like income inequality, housing unaffordability, 1990s-era welfare reform, and the lack of support for people released from jail or prison. “It just doesn’t seem to me that the way things have been handled so far—and I’m not faulting anybody for it—but it doesn’t appear to be a response to an emergency,” she says. “It appears to be a response to a problem. And that’s the difference.”

There’s no question that Bass’s electoral credentials are impeccable. She’s smart, empathetic, and well-liked among her peers and constituency. She’s also wonkishly immersed in the minutiae of the issues, charismatic in a low-key, soft-spoken sort of way, and has better name recognition than just about anybody else in the field. (In 2020, she was on the short list for Joe Biden’s VP candidate, until another California politician snagged the job.) In just about every way, Bass seems like exactly the right woman for precisely the right moment. Except for one thing—that moment may have been two years ago.

In 1992, at age 39, Bass and other local activists hold a rally for the Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment, an organization she helped launch in 1990, and which she helped lead for 14 years.
Bass; her late husband, Jesus Lechuga; and their daughter, Emilia, who died at age 23 in a 2006 car accident, along with her husband, Michael Wright. Says longtime friend Dr. Cheryl Grills of the impact on Bass, “I don’t think she’s ever gotten over it.”

Los Angeles politics—in fact, politics in every major city in the nation—have shifted dramatically since the last election cycle when Bass was reelected to Congress with a whopping 86 percent of the vote. Crime is now a top issue, with a 53.9 percent increase in L.A.’s homicide rate over the last two years and smash mobs seemingly running amok across the city. And while fixing homelessness remains a priority for voters, that same L. A. Times poll reveals that some 40 percent feel unsafe due to homeless people in their neighborhoods. Even more troubling for Bass, who wants to solve L.A.’s homelessness crisis by transforming the region’s approach to poverty,

57 percent of voters now believe government should focus more on short-term solutions rather than on long-term ones like building permanent supportive housing. In other words, voters are growing impatient with promises of large structural changes and may reject exactly the sorts of carefully constructed policy proposals Bass has made the centerpiece of her campaign.

This is not just bad news for Bass. Across the country, progressive candidates are finding themselves spun around by shifting political winds. Voters in 2020 may have been happy to rally behind broad promises for social justice and nuanced arguments for low-income housing. But in 2022, many voters just want to be able to stroll down the sidewalk without feeling as if their lives are in danger.

Some progressives are adapting to this new political reality. London Breed, the liberal mayor of arguably the most liberal city in the nation, San Francisco, was voted into office with the support of the Defund the Police movement. This past December, after months of spiking crime, Breed pivoted 180 degrees, announcing new policies to make her city “more aggressive with law enforcement.” Meanwhile, 3,000 miles away in New York, Democrat Eric Adams, a former Brooklyn borough president and police officer, made law and order his top priority right after moving into the mayor’s mansion in January.

Will Bass ultimately make that pivot? Is there even room for her to do so, with the field already growing crowded with other possible candidates—so far, a city attorney, two city councilmen, and several members of the business community, including a certain mall-owning billionaire whose name recognition rivals even Bass’s—some of whom are itching to paint Bass as a soft-on-crime liberal? 

The good news for Bass? She’s got lots of time to do it—three whole months before the primary and another five months before the general election.

Bass in 1992.

BASS GREW UP in the Venice-Fairfax area, the daughter of a mailman and a hair-salon owner turned stay-at-home mother. Right from the start, she was interested in progressive politics. As a teen in the late 1960s and early ’70s, she campaigned for Robert F. Kennedy, protested the Vietnam War, and walked the picket line when her teachers formed a union and went on strike. Then, shortly after graduating high school—Alexander Hamilton on Robertson Boulevard, then a hotbed of social action—she flew to Cuba and very likely blew her future chances of becoming Biden’s vice president.

Bass is hardly the only politician to have a youthful brush with the Venceremos Brigade, once a highly controversial leftist organization that filled chartered jets with student activists and sent them to visit Castro’s Caribbean Island. In fact, she’s not even the only Los Angeles politician who belonged to the group: former L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa also spent some time as a youth in Cuba. And Bass’s experiences there hardly sounds subversive. “We built houses during the day,” she told The Atlantic in July 2020, when Biden was still considering her as a potential VP. “And then we had what they called ‘cultural activities’ and we called ‘parties.’ There was great music, rum, dancing.” Still, given the importance of Florida in the 2020 presidential race—and Florida’s population of anti-Castro Cuban expats—it must have been a red flag to some in Biden’s campaign.

In any case, after Bass returned from Cuba, she earned a degree in health sciences from Cal State in Dominguez Hills and trained to be a physician’s assistant. By the 1980s, she was working at USC’s emergency room, where she saw up close the impact of the city’s crack epidemic. She was so disturbed by the effect the drug was having on South L.A.—and the criminalization of the community that resulted—that, in 1990, she teamed up with other Black and Latino activists to start the Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment, a nonprofit that sought to change the way the public, police, and politicians viewed the epidemic. In Bass’s view, crack was a health problem, not a criminal one.

“Politicians tripped over themselves trying to pass laws to be tough on crime,” she says. “But in passing those laws, they destabilized families and destabilized neighborhoods.”

Over the years, the coalition broadened its mandate, organizing rallies and press conferences on a variety of issues, pushing for stronger social safety nets and more support for families. After the 1992 riots, for instance, the group petitioned to stop the rebuilding of liquor stores that had been burned down during the protests, arguing that they had become magnets for drug dealing and loitering. L.A. City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson remembers meeting Bass around that time while interviewing for a job at the coalition. “All my life, people have been talking about the liquor stores that have problems,” he recalls. “We all knew where they were. And here this organization was quietly doing something about them.”

Bass with then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and California Democratic congresswoman Maxine Waters during a Women for Hillary rally held at West Los Angeles College in June 2016.

The quiet part of the group’s work made a deep impression on Harris-Dawson, who was accustomed to encountering local activists who burnished their personal brands while they tackled issues. “People did it, and they got notoriety or pursued notoriety,” he said. Bass was the opposite. “She was a person getting stuff done, who wasn’t famous or making an effort to be famous.” 

According to those who know her best, Bass has never been much of a spotlight hog, which, her friends and fans insist, is precisely the quality that would today make her a great mayor, or at least a very different sort of one.

“What L.A. does not need is someone who’s climbing a career ladder,” says Dr. Cheryl Grills, a clinical psychologist and professor at Loyola Marymount University who has known Bass for 30 years. “What L.A. does need is somebody who is more concerned with getting something accomplished for the people.”

Harris-Dawson puts it only slightly differently. “The city of L.A. doesn’t need a Don King at this moment. What it needs is someone who uses the power of the mayor to get people in a room and keep them in a room until we figure out the answer to tough questions . . . Karen’s a person who’s negotiated between homeowner groups and street gangs.” 

So far, at least, Bass’s demure political style hasn’t proved much of a hindrance. In 2004, at 51, she left the coalition and won a seat in the California Assembly. Representing West L.A., Culver City, and Baldwin Hills, she continued advocating for families and making foster children her signature issue. But just two years into her life as a politician, personal tragedy struck. Bass’s 23-year-old daughter, Emilia, by all accounts the center of her life, was killed in a car accident, along with Emilia’s young husband, Michael Wright. Bass also had four stepchildren with Emilia’s father, ex-husband Jesus Lechuga, but the death of her only biological child left a huge hole in her life. “I don’t think she’s ever gotten over it,” says Grills. “She used to tell me, ‘Cheryl, I’m walking through it.’ ”

After Emilia’s death, Bass threw herself into her work at the Assembly, rising to become majority whip, pushing through laws to improve the state’s foster-care system and expanding health insurance for children. 

Then, in 2008, she became Speaker of the Assembly just in time for the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. The day she was sworn in, negotiations to wrestle with California’s $42 billion shortfall began. Dealing with an intractable partisan deadlock, Bass was forced to cobble together a budget agreement that included both big tax increases (which Republicans loathed) and drastic spending cuts (which Democrats loathed). Nobody was happy, least of all Bass. “I got put in that hot seat for two solid years as speaker,” she says. “And I had to make horrible decisions. The State of California ran out of money. I had to cut health care and education and housing.”

The Assembly has term limits, so Bass’s tenure as speaker was short-lived. But, in 2010, another opportunity presented itself when Congresswoman Diane Watson retired and encouraged Bass to make a run for her seat. Piecing together a diverse coalition of support—raising nearly a million dollars from labor unions, health professionals, lawyer groups, and the entertainment industry—she ended up winning Watson’s seat in a landslide. And while Bass continued to politick for the issues that had to some degree defined her in the Assembly—namely, child welfare—she expanded her purview, working on everything from criminal justice to gun laws to LGBT equality, while also becoming a key player in Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, as well as Hillary Clinton’s 2016 run. During that later campaign, she launched a petition to have then-candidate Donald Trump psychologically evaluated for narcissistic personality disorder. She did not attend his inaugural.

At one point, there had been talk of Bass taking over Nancy Pelosi’s job. After the 2018 midterms, some Democrats were pushing for new blood in the leadership, arguing that Pelosi—then in her late seventies—had aged out of the position. Bass was floated as a replacement, but she rejected the offer and threw her support behind keeping the speaker.

With then-Vice President Joe Biden, goofing around during a tour of a dental hygiene lab in Culver City in 2015.

A year later, she was appointed chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, one of the most influential groups on the left side of the House.

Exactly how close she got to becoming Biden’s running mate is something probably only Biden knows. But in the summer of 2020, Bass’s name repeatedly popped up as a likely contender, if not a front-runner. But there were potential issues with Bass as a candidate beyond her youthful indiscretion in Cuba. Like the emergence of a video of her speaking at the opening of a Church of Scientology, during which she praised L. Ron Hubbard as a champion of civil rights. She would later defend her speech, claiming that she “spoke briefly about things I think most of us agree with,” but it must have been another red flag. After Biden picked Kamala Harris for VP, there was talk of Bass landing a gig as Secretary of Health and Human Services. But, again, she was passed over for another Golden State pol, former California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

IF BASS gets elected in November,  she will become Los Angeles’s first female mayor. She’ll also become its second Black mayor, after Tom Bradley broke that barrier back in 1973. In fact, Bass has fond memories of campaigning for Bradley even before then, during his first unsuccessful bid in 1969, while she was in high school.

She often wore a cowboy hat back then—“I was a teenager, OK?”—and during the campaign, she pinned a Bradley button to the front. “I remember my teacher coming up to me and saying, ‘Why do you support Bradley? Do you support Bradley just because he’s Black?’ ” Bass recalls. “But what impressed me was the coalition that Bradley built, which was Black and Jewish.” 

Photography: Art Streiber

Bass rolled out her plan to fix L.A.’s homelessness crisis at the shuttered St. Vincent Medical Center on January 14.

Photography: Art Streiber

Of course, a lot has changed about L.A. since Bradley left office in 1993, but mostly in ways that make coalition building more important than ever. For starters, L.A. is much more Latino—49 percent of the population at last count. While Latinos historically

vote less frequently than other groups, that demographic will likely have a decisive influence in November, especially if turnout is higher than normal, bringing more Latinos to the polls than usual. And, as it happens, turnout is expected to be sky-high this year.

This will be the first mayoral election held in a year when congressional seats are also up for grabs. It’s also the first election to take place in L.A. since the state adopted universal vote-by-mail rules. This combination, some estimate, could increase turnout in the primary by something like 30 percent, and in the general election by as much as 50 percent. “It has the potential to be a different election,” says Fernando Guerra, a political science professor at Loyola Marymount University, who studies local voting patterns. 

Whether Bass can tap into that population, molding it into a Bradley-like coalition of her own or whether Latino voters end up tilting toward a Latino candidate—like, say, City Councilman Kevin De León, who is part Guatemalan, part Chinese—remains the big question. Theoretically, it’s possible that Bass’s focus on homelessness may end up helping her with Latinos, a group that’s seen surges of homelessness in L.A. in recent years. Latinos now make up about 33 percent of the homeless population, while Black Angelenos are 38 percent and whites are 25 percent. 

But the challenge Bass has with Latino voters—with all voters, really—is that her plans to cure homelessness are decidedly not quick fixes. She’s promised to house at least 15,000 homeless people within her first year in office through a combination of temporary and permanent housing. But permanent supportive housing projects aren’t cheap and usually take forever to construct, thanks to L.A.’s infamously cumbersome permitting bureaucracy. The region’s decentralized layers of government, in which power is distributed to more than 80 mayors within the county, which has its own leadership structure, also tends to slow things down (as Mayor Eric Garcetti learned the hard way during his own much-criticized homelessness initiatives). 

So even if Bass gets elected and makes good on her promises, it’ll be well past the next election cycle before substantive and durable changes will be visible. Understandably, voters may not be willing to wait that long. Asked recently how the problem of homelessness made them feel, more than half the Angelenos surveyed said they felt “sad,” “disappointed,” or “sympathetic.” But Bass knows how fast such sympathy can evaporate.

“I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be angry,” she says. “What people have to put up with—not being able to walk down the street and all of the problems—of course, they are angry.”

And homelessness is hardly the only thing making voters angry these days. Crime is also fraying nerves, although that’s an issue Bass has been reluctant to take on quite as directly as some of her opponents.

“I’m asked ten times a day, what do I think about Defund the Police?” says the congresswoman who coauthored the still-unpassed George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. “I’m on record—radio, TV, print, hundreds of times—saying that I don’t support Defund the Police. It’s like I can’t fully be trusted unless I recite it several times a day.

“It would be a heck of a lot easier for me to get elected if I ran on a law-and-order platform,” she goes on. “But I want to run on a public-health platform, a humanitarian-crisis platform, an income-inequality platform, a pro-business platform. What I don’t believe in is the lock-’em-up strategy. To me, this is a replay of the ’90s, where people are angry, and they’re getting ready to do policy based on their anger and not based on looking at things holistically or historically. And when you do that, you come up with bad policies that tend to hurt low-income communities.”

There are small signs that hint at the possibility of Bass ultimately pivoting, the way Breed did in San Francisco or Adams did in New York. Recently, for instance, Bass quietly removed her name from a website supporting George Gascón, the controversial progressive L.A. County DA who has come under fire—and is now facing recall for the second time since he took office in 2020—for a range of criminal-justice-system reforms that many in L.A., including some of Bass’s rivals, consider invitations to lawlessness. City councilman and mayoral candidate Joe Buscaino, for one, has endorsed the most recent Gascón recall, arguing that the DA’s policies have “emboldened criminals, shunned victims’ rights, and have made our communities more dangerous for everyone.” But for the most part, Bass is sticking to her guns, doing her best to make this upcoming election more about housing people than incarcerating them.

Ideally, of course, L.A. should have a mayor who can do both things—fight crime and fix homelessness. But right now, eight months before the voters decide who gets to be the next mayor of L.A., nobody seems to be doing either. And that’s a recipe for a very unpredictable November.

See below Los Angeles magazine’s March Cover out now.


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