The Strange Days of the Karen Bass Transition Period

Cityside Column: Even as excitement over the mayor-elect grows, some curious employment decisions raise eyebrows

Karen Bass just survived what may be the weirdest Los Angeles mayoral election ever. Having a pair of non-City Hall figures in the runoff was something completely different, but things hit another level when her opponent, mall master Rick Caruso, obliterated spending records by dropping approximately $109 million. Everything got further tricked up by the outta-left-field secret recording scandal that erupted in the final weeks of the campaign.

So it makes sense that a Bizarro World election is being followed by an equally strange transition period. Only on Tuesday, less than two weeks before she will be inaugurated, did Bass announce her first key hire, naming Chris Thompson as chief of staff. This set off a furious round of text messages among City Hall watchers, many asking a variation of, “Have you ever heard of this guy?”

Many have not, but some smart folks have, and the consensus is that Thompson, who is now a senior vice president for the body organizing the 2028 L.A. Olympics, is a good manager with political chops developed during his decade in Senator Dianne Feinstein’s office. Still, there is copious head scratching as to why Bass didn’t select someone who has spent years inside City Hall, working closely with council members and department general managers. Any new mayor with an ambitious agenda is abetted by having a chief of staff who already boasts close working relationships with key power players, and knows how to navigate the building and avoid its political trapdoors.

Tapping Thompson came after another curious move: Last week, Bass sent a letter to everyone working for outgoing Mayor Eric Garcetti, offering them the opportunity to keep their gig for as long as four months. The message read in part, “During this transition period (through April 2023), there will also be the opportunity to express interest and interview for regular employment from Team Bass.”

It’s nice that those who have not yet jumped ship can have a job through the holidays, but this isn’t how things traditionally get done. Usually, when a significant elected post is up for grabs, a transition squad is locked and loaded, and ready to be installed within days of an election—particularly if polls and Magic 8-Balls pointed strongly to a candidate winning, as they did for Bass.

Granted, the 2022 election cycle brought additional oddities, including having to wait a week for hundreds of thousands of mail-in votes to be tabulated. The window until takeover time was tiny. Still, as a number of political observers have quietly harrumphed, even a few days after Nov. 8 it seemed clear that Bass would end up as the 43rd mayor of Los Angeles. This presented the political equivalent of being able to walk and chew gum at the same time—there was no need to wait for Caruso to concede before Bass really ramped up her regime.

In an ideal world, handshake agreements would have been made, and a day or two after the AP called the contest on Wednesday, Nov. 16, and the celebration had somewhat subsided, Team Bass would have issued a press release revealing some important hires. The chattering class could have been muted had transition announcements come that Friday, or even a couple days before Thanksgiving.

This is not to be overly critical—all of this, including the bonus employment period for Garcetti staffers, is more unusual than it is long-term problematic. A few months from now, once a full team is installed, these stumbles will likely be forgotten. If Bass delivers a killer inauguration speech next week, doubts will be swept away by the excitement and the possibilities that come with the arrival of a new mayor.

We don’t get these opportunities often. Garcetti first took the oath of office nearly nine-and-a-half years ago, in the summer of 2013, and while it may be hard to fathom now, the city at the time was thrilled with the potential presented by a young, tech-savvy mayor as Los Angeles emerged from the ravages of the Great Recession. And it was eight years before that, way back in 2005, when a charismatic Antonio Villaraigosa, Los Angeles’ first Latino mayor in more than a century, energized the citizenry with his belief in the potential inherent in L.A. Sure, the guy would ultimately, deeply disappoint, but his “Dream With Me” inauguration speech was fantastic.

Bass comes to this moment with just as much potential, and perhaps more. Not only did she fell a billionaire, she will be the first woman mayor in Los Angeles history, and though she refused to make gender much of an issue during the campaign, this is huge for the city. And as has been stated 143,000 times, she will be just the second Black mayor Los Angeles has had.

As I wrote the other week, Bass’ campaign was never more than good, and sometimes less than that, so maybe an unspectacular transition period is predictable. But Bass was such a perfect candidate for this city at this time that she was able to soar over any inadequacies, especially given the differences between her and Caruso. She was precisely what Los Angeles wanted, and the proof came when the votes were counted.

The election was strange and the transition period has, to date, been far from perfect. Still, this is the very early stage of a very long story and, despite the hiccups, excitement is starting to build. Los Angeles is waiting for Karen Bass to show what she’s got in store for us.

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