In August, when reports surfaced that U.S. Rep. Karen Bass was considering running for mayor of Los Angeles, a grassroots support movement began. It quickly metamorphosed into a full-on “Draft Karen Bass” push, propelled by a furious wave of online activity. When on Sept. 27 she announced that she would indeed enter the race to succeed a termed-out Eric Garcetti, local progressives were jubilant. Bass later told Los Angeles that the swell of support “had everything to do with me making this decision.”
The enthusiasm has only built since then, and Bass’ mayoral kick-off rally on Saturday gave her supporters a moment to come together and celebrate. If before there was Bassmentum, this was Bassapalooza.
It was intriguing from both a close-up and stepped-back perspective. The other four leading candidates for mayor have had varying degrees of success at crafting a message and building an identity of leadership. City Attorney Mike Feuer, councilmembers Joe Buscaino and Kevin de León, and business executive Jessica Lall each have the backing of voter blocs who believe in their ability to tackle the challenges facing L.A., starting with the behemoth that is homelessness. Each is making their mark—and perhaps more importantly, raising money—at in-person events and digitally.
But to date, none has demonstrated anything close to the fervor sparked by Bass, who three decades ago founded the South Los Angeles-based social justice nonprofit the Community Coalition, was later elected to the State Assembly and became Speaker of the body. She is now in her sixth term in Congress and has chaired the Congressional Black Caucus. Her reputation shot into the stratosphere last year when she was on Joe Biden’s shortlist of vice-presidential running mates.
More than 600 people thronged the Los Angeles Trade-Tech College campus on Saturday afternoon to show their love for Bass. One speaker exhorted the crowd to whip out their phones and engage in some insta-online fundraising, and 15 minutes later revealed that nearly $20,000 had been pocketed. Dozens of handmade signs were held aloft, almost as if there was a poster contest (there wasn’t one). As the crowd filtered out after 90 rah-rah minutes, there were plates of shortbread sweets with white and blue icing reading “KB4LA,” a testament to the idea that it’s not really a rally until someone bakes cookies.
A coterie of high-profile elected officials, community leaders and others took turns speaking, some whipping up the enthusiasm, others droning on for too long. Actress Tiffany Haddish was among the former, connecting with an adoring crowd and describing her youth in a series of foster homes, then detailing how Bass worked to improve foster care. “She has accomplished so much,” gushed Haddish.
The business leaders who mounted the stage garnered a polite if unenthusiastic reaction; the applause was much louder for Congress member Judy Chu, who was flanked by a battalion of politicians endorsing Bass. District Attorney George Gascón was in the house, as was Supervisor Holly Mitchell, District 8 Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson and another member of Congress, Diane Watson. Former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, dressed head to toe in black, did a few minutes on stage, describing how a modern-day version of the coalition that once got Tom Bradley elected mayor—Westside residents, Jews and African-Americans—could push Bass to the top of the heap. He called her “a woman that never ever forgot where she came from.”
Over the past couple decades, I’ve watched scores of local candidates try to whip up excitement, attempting to convince the electorate that they have the prescription for what ails a council district or even the entire city. But something unique is at play in the early stage of the Bass campaign—the last time I saw this much emotion for one individual, and a belief that the moment was right to change Los Angeles, was when Villaraigosa won his first mayoral election in 2005. Sure, AnVil would turn out be a disappointment in his two terms leading L.A., but when he ran, flashing that Cheshire cat grin, the city embraced his message and the opportunity to give Los Angeles its first Latino mayor in more than a century.
Bass has hooked into a similar emotion, and there’s a similar enthusiasm with the chance to make history. The Trade-Tech crowd was giddy about the opportunity to elect Los Angeles’ first woman mayor, and second African-American.
Bass’ address was concise, about 15 minutes, built around the concept that job one, two, three and four will all be working to address the homelessness crisis that has more than 41,000 people in city limits living without permanent shelter. She said the opportunity to change the status quo can come in part from federal money available. It wasn’t a particularly memorable speech but it was heartfelt and she connected with the crowd, most notably with the line, “Los Angeles, you have called me home, and I am ready to serve.”
This doesn’t mean everything is perfect or that Bass’ path will be strewn with rose petals. On Saturday there was no escaping the absence of Mark Ridley-Thomas, one of her closest political allies, who 72 hours before was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges including bribery. Ridley-Thomas, whose decision not to run for mayor opened the door for Bass, had been expected to play a lead role in her campaign. She doesn’t need him to win, but he would have been an important strategist and helpful in myriad ways.
Ultimately, the gathering felt less like a campaign event and more like an inauguration, which is ridiculous, considering that it is eight months until the June primary, and a November runoff will almost certainly be required. And the race will require an intensity and heat that Bass probably hasn’t experienced since her first run for Congress—she is deemed by many to be the frontrunner, and when you’re in the lead, opposition research teams dig and mud flies. These races can get nasty.
But the extraordinarily diverse crowd at Trade-Tech presented the type of energy and belief not often see in local elections. The mayor’s race will be a marathon, not a sprint, but right now the candidate and her team have reason to feel Basstastic.
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