Karen Bass’s Korean Kerfuffle

A long-lost interview from the early 90s is setting Korean media abuzz over the mayoral candidate’s alleged comments following the L.A. Riots
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With less than a week remaining until voters choose the next mayor of Los Angeles, the Karen Bass campaign is scrambling to address a last-minute fracas that erupted after comments she allegedly made 30 years ago resurfaced in the city’s Korean media.

In a much-hyped segment that first aired on Oct. 12, Radio Korea, a popular Korean news outlet, reported that it had obtained long-buried documents that revealed Bass’s antipathy to the Korean community. Their initial report was based on the dusty documents from the Webster Commission report, a study of the Los Angeles riots. In the next few weeks, other Korean media outlets jumped in to fill in the details.

They uncovered a 1992 statement attributed to Bass in which she seemed to challenge the way that Korean liquor store owners treated their Black clientele. “She feels that some Korean Americans have viewed African-Americans as thieves. The owners follow them around in the stores while they are buying merchandise. She feels that many Korean Americans do not feel the need to learn English to run liquor stores; their attitude is that it doesn’t matter and that they can get away without learning the language in the African-American communities.”

The candidate had drawn fire for comments she made to the New York Times that same year—two months after the newly unearthed interview—when she called the destruction of the city’s liquor stores “a miracle.” Bass has since apologized for those comments. Now, her alleged comments in the unearthed interview have raised hackles in the Korean American community.

Days after the Oct. 12 story appeared it was picked up by Korean print, radio, and TV outlets across the world— Korea Times, Korea Daily, KNewsLA, Woori Radio, SBS—while none of the mainstream media outlets reported on the controversy. The Bass campaign has furiously pushed back against the charges as she denied she even said them at all.

According to an analysis by the Pew Research Center, L.A. is home to approximately 326,000 Korean Americans. With polls showing Caruso and Bass running neck-and-neck, alienating the large and politically active Korean community may have a tangible impact on the race.

On Oct. 28, during a roundtable discussion about AAPI concerns that Bass attended in Koreatown, a reporter from SBS—the most-watched Korean-language news source in L.A.—pressed the mayoral hopeful to weigh in on the charges.

“You know, I appreciate you raising that question,” she replied to reporter Joo-eun Ha as a roomful of reporters looked on. “That document is completely and 100% false. I never said that.” Her outright denial was the lead story on that night’s 8 p.m. broadcast of SBS America News and made headlines in Korean-language news outlets over the next several days. Still, the city’s mainstream media has largely ignored the controversy.

As Bass has repeatedly pointed out, there is no evidence that she uttered the words that have been attributed to her in the Korean press. The quotes in question were summarized in a report written by attorney Geoffrey L. Thomas, who had interviewed Bass as part of a citywide investigation he was conducting into the causes of the riots. On September 28, 1992, he sent his seven-page report, marked “confidential,” to his boss—former Pentagon attorney Richard J. Stone, who was then general counsel of the Webster Commission, which was formed to investigate police performance before and during America’s deadliest riot of this century; Thomas could not be reached by LAMag for comment. His 1992 report ended up in USC Libraries Special Collections Repository, where it languished in obscurity for decades until it was surfaced by a Korean activist who has been a vocal Caruso supporter.

In the mayoral race, older Korean Americans tend to lean toward Caruso, who was selected as a grand marshal at September’s Korean American Parade, held in L.A.’s Koreatown neighborhood; Caruso also scored the endorsement of the Korea Daily. But Bass is not without support in the Korean American community, particularly from the younger generation. She was recently endorsed by the Korean American Democratic Committee and Korean Times.

How the little-known document surfaced just as mail-in ballots were arriving at voters’ homes is a matter of conjecture in political circles. Of course, Bass is in a tight runoff against the mall mogul Caruso, which has gotten ugly in recent weeks, with Bass branding Caruso a “liar” and “GOP candidate,” while Caruso has hammered away at Bass as “corrupt,” “status quo” and a fan of Scientology. Caruso campaign manager Ace Smith has a penchant for hardball tactics, like leaking damaging stories about his political opponents.

The document was first obtained in October by Chang Lee, a Korean American activist and former chairman of the Korean American Chamber of Commerce. He soon thereafter provided it to Radio Korea and has been flogging it in the Korean media ever since. The 65-year-old developer, an enthusiastic Caruso supporter and a prolific fundraiser for the candidate, declines to say how he obtained the document containing the 30-year-old interview. But he makes no apologies for using it to attack Bass, who he says first appeared on his radar two years ago when the then-vice presidential hopeful apologized for her remarks to the New York Times that the burning of liquor stores in 1992 was a “miracle.”

“I was a victim of the 1992 riots,” he tells LAMag.

The Korean-born activist says that Bass’s apology from two years ago rankled him because it was the torching of a Mid-City gas station that belonged to his family in the early days of the riots that marked a turning point in his life.

“This is a derogatory remark, in my opinion,” he explains. “It’s a really strong statement—and the way it comes across to me is like ‘Hey, wait a minute.’ My parents worked 16 or 18 hours a day with barely enough time to sleep. When did they have time to learn English? Even with the language barrier, and my parents didn’t learn one word of English, they were able to make friends and be part of the community – what Karen Bass said is not right.”

Bass supporters insist that the attributed statement in the Thomas report couldn’t be Bass expressing her personal feelings in the interview but rather, these were the feelings that were widely prevalent in the Black community at the time. They call the memo a misrepresentation of her views at the time and point out that nowhere in the report is she directly quoted.

Here’s the back story: In 1992, Bass was the activist leader of the nonprofit Community Coalition for Substance Abuse, Prevention and Treatment, which was seeking to close liquor stores in South L.A., many of which happened to be Korean-owned. In her 1992 comment to the Times after the riots, Bass described how “like a miracle, a large chunk of the [liquor] stores we wanted to close were burned to the ground.”

In the unearthed memo, Thomas writes: “The Coalition’s opposition to the liquor stores is not based on who owns the stores but rather on the detrimental influence the stores have in the area. “Nonetheless,” it continues, “the Coalition’s anti-liquor store campaign impacts mostly Korean-Americans.

“Ms. Bass feels that some Korean Americans have viewed African-Americans as thieves. The owners follow them around in the stores while they are buying merchandise. She feels that many Korean Americans do not feel the need to learn English to run liquor stores; their attitude is that it doesn’t matter and that they can get away without learning the language in the African-American communities.”

Five days after Radio Korea broke the story, Lee staged the first of two press conferences at the JJ Grand Hotel in Koreatown demanding an apology from the congresswoman. After Bass responded that the remark attributed to her by the Webster Commission lawyer was made up, Lee doubled down and staged a second press conference at the unassuming 6-story hotel in Koreatown. “Shame on you, Ms. Bass,” was the title of his press release.

Bass communications director Sarah Leonard Sheahan sees the hidden hand of the Caruso campaign behind the commotion in Koreatown, calling the timing of the unearthed memo a nasty “campaign trick” by “Caruso and his friend” Lee, “who are peddling racial division as a campaign tactic.”

However, while Lee donated the maximum amount of $1,500 to Caruso’s campaign in August, he insists that he and Caruso aren’t friends.

“I am his supporter who wants a change in the city,” was how he characterized his relationship with the Italian American billionaire. A Caruso spokesman says the pair didn’t know each other before this year.

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