The Los Angeles political scene was rocked on Monday when Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas announced that he would not enter the 2022 mayor’s race. His three decades in elected office, and past comments indicating interest in the post, led many to expect that the giant of City Hall would throw his proverbial hat in the equally proverbial ring.
Ridley-Thomas’s decision to sit out the contest so he can fully focus on the homelessness crisis sparked a tidal wave of chatter and amateur tea-leaf reading, much of it related to one person: U.S. Rep Karen Bass.
Speculation abounds that the door to the mayoralty is swinging wide open for Bass, who represents California’s 37th Congressional District, and that the current moment presents a prime opportunity for her to return full-time to, and effect lasting change on, her hometown.
To be clear, Bass has not said she is running or not running, and her five-tweet thread last night on Ridley-Thomas’s announcement gave no hint to her electoral future. That said, there were recent media reports that Bass was considering entering the race, but would not run if Ridley-Thomas, whom she has known for nearly 40 years, were in the mix. So it took only about ten minutes after Ridley-Thomas’s public declaration for an informal Draft Karen Bass movement to ignite.
Mark Ridley-Thomas is a living legacy of life-long courageous leadership and selfless public service to the people of the city of Los Angeles. 1/ https://t.co/EWipBc8mvO
— Karen Bass (@KarenBassTweets) August 17, 2021
The subject begs a battery of questions, starting with, if Bass were to run for mayor, could she win? City Attorney Mike Feuer and District 15 council member Joe Buscaino are already in the race, and each has raised more than $700,000. Other high-profile figures including Council President Nury Martinez, Council member Kevin de León and mall developer Rick Caruso are known to be considering running.
Although there are no sure things in politics, and nothing tests a candidate like the months-long grind of a mayoral campaign, there is widespread belief that Bass would become the frontrunner the millisecond she entered the race. When asked about her potential candidacy on Monday during a luncheon hosted by the Los Angeles Currents Affair Forum, Ridley-Thomas stated, “I suspect if she were to run, it would send terror through the ranks of those who are so inclined.”
It’s easy to understand why. Bass is a six-term representative whose resume includes chairing the Congressional Black Caucus. Her profile rocketed into the stratosphere last year when she made the short list to be Joe Biden’s running mate in the presidential election. She was also discussed as a potential appointee to the United State Senate; although Kamala Harris got the VP nod and Governor Gavin Newsom tapped Alex Padilla to fill Harris’s vacated Senate post, it was hard to find anything but effusive praise for Bass, who was lauded for her intelligence, integrity, and deal-making acumen, among many other things.
More than one person I spoke with noted the rise of Black women to the mayorships in cities including Chicago (Lori Lightfoot), Atlanta (Keisha Lance Bottoms), Washington, D.C. (Muriel Bowser), Boston (Kim Janey), and St. Louis (Tishaura Jones). Los Angeles has had a Black mayor in Tom Bradley, but voters have never elected a woman to the highest office.
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Observers note that, even with the June primary less than ten months away, Bass could raise gobs of money fast. Not only does she have a base in Los Angeles, but she boasts deep connections in Washington, D.C., and maintains extensive ties in Sacramento—she made history there in 2008, when she assumed the role of Speaker of the California Assembly, becoming the first African-American woman to serve as speaker of any state legislature.
A mayoral race would be no cakewalk. The other declared and potential candidates are seasoned figures, each with a base, and City Hall watchers are almost drooling over what a Bass-Caruso showdown would look like. An expected crowded field means that no one probably scores more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary, necessitating a November runoff of the top two finishers.
It’s a gut-check process, and no one knows if she wants to endure it.
Beyond electability, there is another, perhaps more important question: Why would Bass want to lead Los Angeles? The power granted by the city charter to the Council dampens the mayor’s impact, and homelessness and police reform are possibly unwinnable challenges. Plus, Bass can continue to be a force in Washington, D.C. for years to come, if she wants.
Those are all truths, but so is the fact that there are few opportunities to lead the nation’s second-largest city. Additionally, running L.A. would be the quintessential coming-home story.
Bass grew up in the Venice/Fairfax area, graduated from Cal State Dominguez Hills, and worked as a physician’s assistant. She founded the social justice nonprofit the Community Coalition, which, her website notes, has a mission to “help transform the social and economic conditions in South Los Angeles that foster addiction, crime, violence and poverty.”
That mission guided her when she won a seat in the state Assembly in 2005, and then when she was elected to Congress in 2010.
Bass is 67, and while all agree that she has plenty left in the tank, were she to run for mayor, win and then win re-election, she would be 76 when termed out in 2030. Yes, that is putting about six carts before the horse, but it also indicates that being mayor of Los Angeles could be a capstone for a glorious career. And unlike Eric Garcetti and, before him Antonio Villaraigosa, figures whose mayoral terms were juiced with personal ambitions for bigger-platform jobs, Bass’s run would seem to be more about grand ambitions for Los Angeles itself.
There are also some choice opportunities approaching. The next mayor of L.A. will oversee a time of unprecedented rail growth. Someone who holds the office for two terms would receive international attention when Los Angeles hosts the 2028 Summer Olympics.
What is in the cards for Karen Bass? Perhaps only she and those closest to her know at this point. Maybe she doesn’t even know yet. But one thing is clear: If she dreams of being mayor of Los Angeles, she will never have a better opportunity than now.
A lot of people want her to seize that opportunity.
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