Will Karen Bass’s Past Tank Her Shot at Becoming Biden’s VP?

The congresswoman has leapfrogged into contention with Kamala Harris to become Joe Biden’s pick for Vice President, but everything from Cuba connections to Scientology praise could get in her way

James Clyburn, the influential South Carolina congressman and Joe Biden confidant, is palpably annoyed. “It bugs me that people want to pit these two Black women against the other,” Clyburn complained to the Washington Post over the weekend, referencing the emerging narrative of a potential vice presidential slugfest between his colleague and good friend Representative Karen Bass and Senator Kamala Harris. “It is messier than it should be.”

Clyburn, the Majority Whip and a singular voice within Biden’s inner circle, is hardly the only Democrat ticked off by the seemingly endless pageant that has a select group of dynamo women battling to become Biden’s pick.

Bass and Harris may be two of the most powerful African-American women in U.S. politics, but their similarities pretty much begin and end with the state they represent. Unlike Harris, who rose to prominence as San Francisco District Attorney and later California Attorney General, Bass began as a grassroots activist and founder of the Community Coalition, with a mission to tackle drug addiction and poverty in South L.A. She quietly served in the state legislature from 2004 to 2010, rising to Speaker in the last two years, and was easily elected to Congress in November 2010. Despite representing the 37th House District—a massive swath of Los Angeles that spans from the 110 Freeway to the Westside—Bass has kept a much lower profile than her Bay Area compatriot. Though she’s popular with House leadership, until a few weeks ago when she made Biden’s short list for VP, Bass was neither famous nor on the national radar.

Harris’s trajectory, on the other hand, has been a clean space launch from DA to AG to Senator to presidential candidate. She is now, arguably, the front-runner in the race to be Biden’s VP. But that race is officially a marathon slog—and with no winner expected to snare the trophy before August 15, anything can happen.

How did Bass leapfrog onto the VP finalist list?

Turns out being a congenial team player who happens to head up the Congressional Black Caucus at a moment when race is dominating the national conversation is a game changer. About two weeks ago, Bass, 66, suddenly sprinted to the front of the pack with boosts from congressional colleagues—including Nancy Pelosi—and other Democratic kingmakers like former California Democratic Party chairman John Burton.

Then the big shoe dropped: Cuba—the Third Rail of U.S. politics and presidential elections.

First reported were her ill-chosen words upon the death of Fidel Castro in 2016, she opined, that “the passing of the Comandante en Jefe is a great loss to the people of Cuba.” Ouch! But politically survivable.

Far more damaging was news that that Bass first visited the island while, in college, at age 19, in 1973 with the Venceremos Brigade, a group popular with leftwing student radicals and social progressives that organized and ferried Americans to Cuba to cut sugar cane and build homes—in defiance of the U.S. Embargo and policy. She would take eight trips with the Brigade during the 1970s alone; her fascination with and ties to the island have been steadfast ever since. In recent years, Bass has backed visas for Cuban doctors working in L.A.’s underserved neighborhoods, ending the US Embargo, and normalizing relations with Cuba.

Indeed, as chronicled in the L.A. Times, the Los Angeles Police Department under Daryl Gates famously infiltrated the Brigade (identifying Bass as a “leader” in 1973). One of the twelve LAPD undercover officers encouraged and trained some in the group, including Bass, to use firearms, previously unheard among the group. Bass was one of a hundred-plus plaintiffs who joined a ACLU lawsuit against the department, that eventually prevailed.

As a reporter covering Cuba-Miami since 1991, I can’t figure why Bass’s Venceremos Brigade history is such a bombshell. Her frequent-flyer status to the island has hardly been a secret. Bass has been well known in the American expat scene in Havana for decades and counts dozens of friends, including some Party officials, on the island. When she accompanied President Barack Obama to Cuba for his historic 2016 trip restoring relations with Cuba, she even tweeted a pic of herself in a red bandana from her Venceremos days.

That said, there is really no way to soft pedal the fact the Brigade was cofounded by the Castro government and Students for a Democratic Society, and was born of the marriage of the student Left and the Cuban Communist Party, then much under the influence of the Soviets. At the moment, another cozy relationship with a communist is getting ink. On Tuesday, Politico dredged up a eulogy Bass penned to honor the passing of Communist Party organizer Oneil Marion Cannon in 2017.

While having had a radical past isn’t a big deal in California politics, it has long been a disqualifier in any presidential race.

One word, as veteran journalist Tim Russert oft intoned: Florida, Florida, Florida.

On Saturday, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the Trump administration’s go-to Cuban-American surrogate, blasted Bass: “She will be the highest-ranking Castro sympathizer in the history of the United States government.” The tone and vitriol was more incendiary on popular Cuban exile radio stations in Miami and blogs like Babalu. 

Important Democratic power players in Miami like state senator Anette Taddeo, a Colombian, urgently warn that Bass would be “a game changer” that could cost Biden Florida; Cuban-American pollster Fernand Amandi, who knows how to crunch the numbers of every Cuban-American vote, agrees.

Certainly, the Dems could respond to such red-baiting by pointing out that Republicans have been struck mute by Trump’s slavish devotion to Vladimir Putin. But in any case, Bass’s supporters believe that Biden is now popular enough in the state to survive an onslaught by the anti-Castro opposition. A new generation of Cuban-Americans is much less likely to share the anti-Castro obsessions of their parents or grandparents.

Bass has no illusions about her Cuba baggage and talked candidly with me on the subject, just hours after she left the John Lewis memorial in the Capitol, where she spoke with Biden there.

Regardless of her Cuba issues, I told her I am skeptical that the Dems can carry the state. Bass agreed that the state is a thorny challenge and noted that “the new wave of Venezuelans”—all fiercely anti-communist—“are also now a factor.” She added that Biden’s camp had told her of an internal Florida poll showing him up 15 points over Trump. I said I found that hard to believe and she offered a warm laugh and an ambiguous “whatever!”

My two cents is that a Biden-Bass ticket would have to bank on a national landslide sufficient to lose Florida. But, by all accounts, Biden’s campaign is prepared to wage an all-out battle for the Sunshine State and its game-changing 29 electoral votes.

Despite Trump’s declining fortunes in Florida, winning the state will be a tall order, and not because there are a lack of sufficient Democratic votes to prevail in a clear, clean election. Consider the fact, that it is more partisan now than when I covered the infamous Bush vs. Gore fiasco of 2000. While Democrat voters outnumber Republican ones in the state, it is governed by an intensely partisan GOP, including Trump-acolyte governor Ron DeSantis; its two senators, Rubio and former governor Rick Scott; and a Secretary of State, Laurel M. Lee—a worthy rival to Katharine Harris—who ultimately decides which ballots are counted.

While the Scientology flap isn’t a deal breaker, being a former Brigadista likely is. The possibility of leaked photos of a young, naïve Bass posing for pictures with Cuban officials (and they do love taking photos of visiting Americans) could tank the Biden ship.

But Castro isn’t the only controversial tyrant getting in Bass’s way. The congresswoman has also been criticized for ill-advised comments about Scientology guru L. Ron Hubbard at the 2010 inauguration of the Ideal Org building in Hollywood. In a video surfaced by right-wing website the Daily Caller, Bass says, “….That is why the words are exciting of your Founder L. Ron Hubbard, in the creed of the Church of Scientology: That all people of whatever race, color or creed are created with equal rights.”

Bass was the speaker of the California State Assembly at the time, but Scientology whistleblower Tony Ortega says the building wouldn’t have been in her district, as Bass has claimed. The congresswoman has defended her attendance with the requisite political politesse, saying she was just seeking some commonality with a church not her own.

While the Scientology flap isn’t a deal breaker, being a former Brigadista likely is. The possibility of leaked photos of a young, naïve Bass posing for pictures with Cuban officials (and they do love taking photos of visiting Americans) would tank the Biden ship.

For now, while Bass is enjoying the support of a host of powerful Democratic insiders, Harris is still the one to beat. But the 55-year-old Senator is facing her own headwinds stemming from her record as SF’s district attorney. During the primaries, progressive activists pointed to her law enforcement record as proof that she was too conservative for the party. Ironically, in a general election, her GOP critics will undoubtedly argue the opposite. In an incident that is now largely forgotten, Harris provoked a firestorm in California in 2008, when she passed on the death penalty for MC-13 Salvadoran gang member Edwin Ramos for the murders of a father and two sons in a drive-by shooting that Ramos said was a case of mistaken identity.

Four years prior, she’d raised right-wing hackles when she announced she wouldn’t seek the death penalty for gang member David Harris for the assault-rifle murder of popular San Francisco police officer Isaac Espinoza.

Still, it may prove to be a helpful counter-narrative to the “Kamala is a cop” tag that has scored traction among some Black activists.

While the showdown between Harris and Bass has rubber-necked political junkies it’s aggravated Democratic power players—and both women.

Last week at John Lewis’s memorial in Selma, Alabama, Bass and Harris went off on their own for a private schmooze. “It was all good,” Bass later told an interviewer. “[Harris] said ‘We ain’t doing that.’ It was fine.” Bass added: “I’m not the anti-Kamala.”

No matter who snags the VP slot, Bass is looking at a huge career upgrade. If Kamala gets the nod, her Senate seat opens up if the Dems prevail on November 3. Or come 2024, a 94-year-old Dianne Feinstein will almost certainly not run again.

Senator Bass? Sounds about right to me.

Ann Louise Bardach, a PEN Award-winning reporter, is the author of Without Fidel and Cuba Confidential.

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