Why you should care
Because she brings leadership chops to Democrats’ coming shake-up.
To those who are triggered by every tweet, who considered decamping to Canada to escape Donald Trump’s presidency, Karen Bass feels you. But the four-term congresswoman for California’s 37th District has seen worse. As a 14-year-old campaign volunteer for Robert F. Kennedy, she listened to the radio when he was assassinated the night of the California primary. She endured police harassment alongside activists such as the Black Panthers. When crack cocaine ravaged her home city of Los Angeles, she dove into devastated neighborhoods, advocating for the individuals society seemed content to lock up and discard.
Fast-forward to 2016 and Trump’s election, which Bass calls “a major step back.” But the 64-year-old is quick to add: “I came up as a fighter, and all I did was just get back into fight mode.” Her swath of Los Angeles, stretching from Culver City and Ladera Heights to the University of Southern California, has about as many ski slopes as Trump fanatics, so sniping at the president is not exactly a political risk. But Bass is going a step further by mobilizing a new generation of activists at some of her town hall meetings — paid for out of her campaign budget, rather than taxpayer funds. It’s a way to invite her predominantly Latino and Black constituents to join her in pushing back.
She’s not an ideologue; she’s a practical realist.
U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson
And while there are plenty of ambitious politicians ahead of her in line, the former state house speaker could be in the mix when House Democrats are tasked with replacing a slate of leaders soon to turn 80. “Karen Bass is absolutely a future leader of the caucus,” says Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu, who represents a neighboring Los Angeles–area district. “She is well-liked,” Lieu adds. “People take her seriously. And when she speaks, people listen.”
As a child, Bass remembers struggling to be heard over the din of her three brothers, but it was good training for politics, she tells OZY: “Dealing with guys.” In high school, watching the civil rights movement play out on the evening news led her to volunteer for Kennedy, and later she latched onto the antiwar and international solidarity movements as she saw an America in crisis. “I went to Cuba at a pretty young age,” she says. “I was in search of a different society. Isn’t there a way to deal with the problems we have in our country in some kind of a different way?”
Her greatest challenge, though, would land right at her doorstep when LA was leveled by the crack epidemic. After witnessing the horrors up close as an emergency room physician’s assistant, Bass launched the social justice nonprofit Community Coalition in 1990. Unable to stop the mass incarceration she feared, Bass says she found progress in effecting neighborhood improvements such as closing liquor stores and helping to elect and support sympathetic leaders. But thanks to California’s strict term limits, good leaders never stayed long, so when her home seat in the assembly opened up in 2004, Bass decided to run.
Just two years later, Bass was about to be named majority leader when she got the stunning news: Her only child, 23-year-old Emilia, and her son-in-law had been killed in a car wreck. She pressed on (she also has four stepchildren), but the pain has not dissipated. “I know how to do my work with a knife in my back,” she says.
In 2008 Bass outdueled eight men to be elected speaker by her peers, becoming the first Black woman in U.S. history to lead a state legislative body. Almost immediately, however, recession-hammered California was forced to slash its budget. Bass tangled with Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, trying to make sure priorities such as education and mental health were protected, while taking heat for hiking her staff’s salaries. She admits it was a challenge to be heard above a supernova chief executive whose media presence can “take all the oxygen out” of the room — sound familiar? — but says they frequently teamed up to cajole lawmakers into voting for a budget compromise.
In Congress, Bass has focused on criminal justice reform, foster care and relations with Africa. Her voting record is reliably liberal, but she’s also attracted criticism from the left for opposing a 2014 measure blocking local police departments from receiving surplus military gear — an issue that later became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement. (Bass has supported more recent anti-militarization efforts.)
Georgia Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson lauds Bass’ work across the aisle to renew the African Growth and Opportunity Act, and believes she can rise to greater political heights — though he imagines her more as a committee chairperson than a bomb-throwing firebrand. “She’s not an ideologue,” Isakson says. “She’s a practical realist.”
Ask Bass what’s next for her and she responds that “it’s possible” she’ll pursue a leadership position with the same collaborative mindset she used in Sacramento. Ask what’s next for Trump and you’ll learn that Bass doesn’t want to impeach him, despite having reservations about his fitness for office. Think about it: Impeachment would distract from the midterms, and were it to succeed, Vice President Mike Pence would step up with a similar agenda. Since the loudest voices seize the most airtime, tactical moderation means Bass may garner less star power — but it could also mean a brighter future.