‘I Feel My City Is in a Crisis’: Karen Bass Opens Up About Her Mayoral Run

In a conversation with Los Angeles magazine on Friday, the U.S. Rep discussed how she’ll tackle what ails L.A.

On Monday morning, U.S. Rep. Karen Bass announced that she will run for mayor of Los Angeles in 2022. The short statement declaring her candidacy upended a race that is growing more interesting by the day. Already declared for the June primary are City Attorney Mike Feuer, City Council members Joe Buscaino and Kevin de León, and business leader Jessica Lall.

Bass’s announcement came after months of expectation, with support percolating, particularly online, ever since rumors of a candidacy surfaced during the summer. The six-term Congressional representative has long been popular in the city, and her profile soared last year when she was on the short list to be a running mate for Joe Biden, and then when she was discussed as a potential nominee for the U.S. Senate seat that came open when Kamala Harris became vice president.

In a conversation with Los Angeles Friday morning, Bass described how her candidacy came about, and why the need to address the homelessness crisis propelled her to run.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

This was a quick jump into the race.

Once I made the decision—which was a decision that was made rather quickly. It wasn’t like I was thinking about this for years—I had to get started. I am here, I am still in D.C. I thought I was leaving this morning, but we are waiting to see what’s going to happen. We were just notified a few minutes ago that President Biden is coming to meet with us. That means we may or may not leave today.

But even though I was here trying to bring these resources back to L.A., I did want to get started with the campaign, so that’s why I made the announcement this week. In the coming weeks you’ll see that we’ll do a more traditional campaign kickoff.

It’s my hope to build a campaign that is very inspirational, that unites the city, and that frames our issues, as these are issues that the whole city needs to come together and address, just like we did after the ’94 earthquake. I remember in that earthquake when the 10 Freeway fell.

That was when Mayor Richard Riordan stepped up, getting it rebuilt in months, which people didn’t think could be done.

Exactly. And I think when you have a crisis like that, you have to think outside the box. But the city did come together. That construction went on 24-7. It was very disruptive. I remember neighbors complaining. But we all stood together, and we withstood that. We came together because we know that freeway ran through the heart of our city.

“When you are facing the kind of crisis we are, it’s the time to come together, not the time to turn on each other.”

And of course the equivalent of that today is the homelessness crisis.

That is definitely the point I’m making. We have a crisis. This time it’s a human crisis. And I feel my experience here in D.C., and focusing on foreign policy and traveling the world, going to crisis areas, primarily in Africa, when you are facing the kind of crisis we are, it’s the time to come together, not the time to turn on each other.

How much impact did the “Draft Karen Bass” movement that played out in recent months impact your decision to enter the race?

It had everything to do with me making this decision. I wasn’t sitting back in D.C. going, Ooh, what’s my next move? What’s my next position?

I’m walking away from a lot in leaving a Congressional seat. Now granted, no one knows about redistricting, and I would never take voters for granted. Some people say, “You could stay there as long as you want.” Look, I’m rehired every two years. I go through an evaluation every year and a half.

I don’t take it for granted that voters sent me back six times. But I did have fair odds, put it that way, of being re-elected.

I’m tossing everything up in the air because I feel my city is in a crisis.

When I came here the Tea Party took over. And if we thought that was bad, we had the four years of Trump. And so we can’t assume that the divisiveness of D.C. could not take place in L.A. It can. So that’s what’s driving me to come home.

But the grassroots push had 150 percent to do with me making a final decision.

In 1990 you founded the social justice nonprofit the Community Coalition in response to the gang crisis and crack epidemic facing South Los Angeles. Do you see serving as mayor being a chance to sort of bring your career full circle, come back to where you started?

Full circle is the absolute theme. [Laughs] Because I feel like we’re facing a life-and-death crisis again. It’s citywide and impacting everybody. It’s life and death—people die on the streets every day.

In the early 1990s, I felt like South L.A. was coming apart. I feel like one of the reasons we have the problems on the streets today is because of the way we responded to the crisis in the 1990s.

Some of that response was on a federal level. We even had language for it at the time: It was called devolution. That meant the federal government was divesting from cities and states in terms of the social safety net, and programs began to be cut. The theory was the federal government was going to get out of the business, and the states and cities and counties would pick it up. That was the theory.

When I look at the homeless population, I don’t think they’re all the same. Some people are suffering from addiction. Some are suffering from mental illness. You have people who were recently released from prison. You have former foster youth. You have veterans. There’s different categories of people who fall into homelessness.

And then of course the other thing that has happened to L.A. so dramatically is the cost of housing, where people can no longer afford to be housed. So there is gross income inequality.

So how do you start to address all this?

The problem with political campaigns is that political consultants tell you, based on polling, “Say this slogan,” and then those slogans get translated into policies, and those policies are rarely meant to solve the problem. They’re meant to get people elected.

The policies might bring about immediate relief, but they really don’t solve the problem. And this is a problem that’s so profound that we have to look for immediate solutions, because no one I believe wants to be in encampments. And no one wants to live near an encampment, and no one wants to drive by an encampment. We have to think of an immediate response, but we need a medium and a long-term response at the same time.

Given that I made the decision to run less than a month ago, I’m not telling you I have my ten-point plan that will solve the problem. But I’m definitely working on a comprehensive response now.

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