The Karen Bass Mayoral Campaign Is Doing Just Fine, But Just Fine Could Be a Problem

Cityside Column: The onetime unquestioned mayoral frontrunner has lost momentum. Can she get it back?

Late last summer, Karen Bass momentum began to percolate in Los Angeles. It started when word surfaced that the Congresswoman and vice presidential short-lister was considering running for mayor. “Draft Karen Bass” messages spread across social media, and when on Sept. 27 Bass announced that she would enter the race to succeed Eric Garcetti, many local liberals rejoiced.

The enthusiasm ticked up quickly. An October campaign kick-off rally at Los Angeles Trade-Tech College drew more than 600 people, and the excitement in the room was palpable. By the end of the year, Bass had far outraised every other candidate, pulling in nearly $2 million. Los Angeles even featured the candidate on the cover of our magazine.

Nearly four months later, Bass appears to have failed to capitalize on her hot start. Although she was picked as the favored candidate by 32 percent of respondents in a February poll conducted by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies and the Los Angeles Times, a follow-up poll this month plunked her at 23 percent, in a virtual dead heat with mall master Rick Caruso.

It’s not just numbers, but also a decidedly non-scientific “feel” thing. Whereas early on political chatterboxes wondered what big moves she would take next in the campaign, and even what eight years under Mayor Bass might bring to Los Angeles, now the attention is on Caruso and how he has seized control of the electoral narrative.

With mail-in ballots arriving at homes next month, and election day landing on June 7, the Bass fire has lost heat. I’ve watched a lot of Los Angeles elections, but I’ve never seen someone who had so much of an early advantage do so little with it.

I don’t want to overstate things and say that Bass is cooked. Far from it. Almost everyone I know who follows this stuff expects her to finish in the top two in June and advance to the November runoff, and in a one-on-one contest—against Caruso or anyone else—she’ll have wide appeal in a decidedly Democratic city. She maintains a sparkling CV: founding the social justice nonprofit the Community Coalition back in the ’90s; serving as speaker of the state Assembly; six terms in the House of Representatives, where she chaired the Congressional Black Caucus.

It’s also not as if she has face-planted or made some type of gaffe that dooms her candidacy. She has continued to move forward, just with little oomph. Overall the Karen Bass campaign has been just fine—but given the expectations, and the gazillion times she was described as the “frontrunner,” just fine could be a problem.

Some of this should be expected. Campaigns have peaks and valleys, and as long as Bass reaches the runoff, then no one will remember a spring lull. There’s also the truth that Caruso’s surge has been propelled by spending an estimated $9 million on TV and digital ads in the last two months, while Team Bass has yet to drop even a dime on commercials.

Yet there have been stumbles. In some early appearances Bass spoke so quickly that I wondered if she had bet a friend that she could utter twice as many words per minute as her competitors. A January press conference to unveil her homelessness platform came off capable if unspectacular, and a key tenet of her strategy, that the crisis deserved a FEMA-type response, was voiced by another mayoral hopeful, City Attorney Mike Feuer, back in 2017.

There were more concerning if quieter upheavals. In December, media reports noted that a pair of knowledgeable, veteran political consultants were no longer with her campaign. In February, respected campaign manager Jamarah Hayner also departed, and while no one within or outside Bass circles publicly fretted, this kind of change so close to an election never looks good.

Observers point to multiple elements that could contribute to the Bass slowdown. Though she has been in Congress since 2010, she hasn’t faced a competitive election in years, and may not be habituated to this kind of race. Also, don’t discount the aid she could have received from City Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas. His decision last summer not to run for mayor opened the door to a Bass candidacy, and his connections and knowledge of the political and electoral landscape, not to mention his work on issues such as homelessness, were expected to help shape key elements of her campaign. Yet his suspension from the council following his indictment by federal prosecutors last year on bribery and conspiracy charges—which he has forcefully denied—made it impossible for him to play a role. It’s a loss, even if no one would dare allude to it.

If there is a silver lining, it’s that there is time to right the proverbial ship. Relatively few Angelenos seem informed about the approaching election, and the recent poll echoed other surveys in finding that a ghastly nearly 40 percent of likely voters remain undecided. Caruso will continue to launch ads like the guy at a basketball game with a T-shirt cannon, but the money raised by other candidates mean he won’t have the airwaves to himself much longer. Bass, Feuer, and councilmembers Joe Buscaino and Kevin de León each could receive about $1 million in city matching funds in the near future. That will help.

Bass will also likely benefit from an independent expenditure committee built on Hollywood support.

There are indications that Bass is ready to ramp up. Her war chest is stocked, and last week she traveled to Boyle Heights to kick off a campaign to woo Latinos, who make up an estimated 25 percent of likely voters. She was eager and energetic, and brought out a cascade of popular figures who spoke on her behalf, among them former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and labor icon Dolores Huerta. This and other moves could pay dividends in June and November.

This is go time, and with every candidate about to ratchet things higher, Bass is in a fine place. That said, if she hopes to be the next mayor, she’ll need to be more than fine.