Welcome to Karen Bass’s Los Angeles

Cityside Column: The new mayor seemed delighted at her inauguration. As she attempts to lock arms with Angelenos, the real work begins

If anyone ever questioned the bravery of Karen Bass, such thoughts should have evaporated on Sunday afternoon, when the new mayor of Los Angeles chose to deliver her inaugural address after appearances by two living legends: poet Amanda Gorman and musician Stevie Wonder.

That’s not a decision one makes lightly, as headlining rock bands understand never to schedule a more dynamic opening act. Bass certainly knew that Gorman, who dazzled attendees at Joe Biden’s inauguration, and Wonder, a surprise addition, would raise the bar to near-impossible levels. Still, she put them on the bill.

Good on her. If Bass could trot out Wonder everywhere she makes an appearance to perform a pair of songs as she leads the city of Los Angeles, the joy and reflected goodwill he provides would have her go down as the greatest mayor in world history. But that’s not happening. Yes, Team Bass set up an adoring room at the Microsoft Theatre in DTLA on Sunday for her swearing-in as the first woman mayor of L.A. But on Monday, the job gets real.

Welcome to the Karen Bass era.

This is what a frazzled Los Angeles has long been waiting for. The city’s 42nd mayor, Eric Garcetti, deserves more praise than he gets credit for but he pretty much checked out during his final year in office. That’s understandable—mayors usually have a sell-by date, and the second of the traditional two four-year terms was extended by 18 months as the city shifted election dates to align with state and federal votes. Garcetti, who is so close to nabbing the U.S. ambassadorship to India—which still hangs in U.S. Senate limbo—probably wound up in office longer than he or the electorate wanted.

Bass entered the mayoral ring 15 months ago, survived a battle royale of a primary and rival Rick Caruso’s ad onslaught in the runoff to earn a decisive victory after voting ended on Nov. 8. Her campaign was middling but as a candidate, she proved to be truly unbeatable; a lifelong Democratic and child of Los Angeles who became speaker of the state Assembly and then spent a decade in Congress, she was perfectly positioned as the candidate ready to come home and help an ailing metropolis. The win is historic: Bass is just the second Black mayor in the city’s 241-year history. When Vice President Kamala Harris—also historically groundbreaking in her position as veep—on Sunday at 2:56 p.m. finished administering the oath of office with the words “Madam mayor,” the count on L.A.’s mayoral gender tote board flipped to 42 men and 1 woman.

Inaugurations are, of course, about symbolism and change and both were everywhere on Sunday. Appearances by Harris and California State Senate President Toni Atkins, as well as Gov. Gavin Newsom, seated in the front row, blitzed the message that in the Bass era, there will be direct ties to power and more importantly, to the money pots in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. In her poem, Gorman referenced “the way forward.” Another poet, Sophie Szew, expounded on shattered glass ceilings. The Chamber Choir of Hamilton High School sang, “I know a change will come.” The question is, what will it look like?

The era will begin with addressing L.A.’s homelessness crisis and the teeming tent encampments across the city. Throughout her campaign, Bass promised to declare a state of emergency on her first day in office. She reiterated the point Sunday, saying she’ll show up Monday morning at the city’s Emergency Operations Center. She was there today at 9 a.m.

“My emergency declaration will recognize the severity of our crisis and break new ground to maximize our ability to urgently move people inside, and to do so for good,” she speechified on Sunday afternoon. “It will create the structure necessary for us to have a true, unified, and citywide strategy to set us on the path to solve homelessness.”

Unity matters, and if Bass is ever to alter the status quo, then it will need to be more than a buzzword. The new mayor clearly understands this; a moment later, she turned her attention to the government of the county of Los Angeles, a body wherein she has no juice.

“I call on the County of Los Angeles, with its authority over health, including mental health and substance abuse, to lock arms with me. And we have already started these discussions,” she said. “Lock arms with me.”

I don’t know if Bass had an official name for this speech, but it should go down as her “Lock Arms” address; she uttered the phrase multiple times and hey, it’s a solid title. She wants to lock arms with the county. She wants to lock arms with the leaders of the other 87 cities in L.A. County. She wants to lock arms with all Angelenos.

She had other points, and in some ways, her inaugural speech resembled a State of the City address. Bass riffed on the need to grow the residential base, stating, “We must build housing in every neighborhood.” She turned to public safety, saying a new Office of Community Safety will consult with neighbors, store clerks, and dog walkers—seriously, dog walkers—to get a sense of each community’s unique needs.

There were references to creating jobs, the green economy, and providing basic city services, which came with an employment asterisk. Bass said the city has “hundreds of vacancies in the very departments that respond to community needs.”

As she became our new mayor, Bass seemed excited to be onstage. But also, kind of tickled. She smiled wide. She laughed a lot. There were hugs. She welcomed the adulation while seeming down-to-earth and relatable. She promised to lead.

On Monday, Los Angeles now will see what Mayor Karen Bass can deliver.

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