Rep. Karen Bass with her gay LA deputy Darryn Harris during a visit to In The Meantime Men in South LA. (Photo by Karen Ocamb)
Heading into the COVID-crazy Fourth of July holiday, the nation is wrestling with the very meaning of freedom as even red states are mandating mask wearing, stay-at-home orders and small family gatherings. Many are now heeding Infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci’s blaring siren: “I would not be surprised if we go up to 100,000 [cases] a day if this does not turn around, and so I am very concerned,” Fauci told lawmakers.
America is in trouble. The Trump administration’s failure to keep the country safe from the highly infectious novel coronavirus has exposed an inadequate healthcare system that largely impacts the elderly and marginalized minorities, including LGBTQ people at high risk for contracting the new coronavirus.
Many are turning their frightened eyes to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden to heal the horribly divided nation this November.
“Today we’re facing a serious threat, and we must meet it — as one country. But this President gives us no direction. He pits us against one another,” Biden said June 30 in televised remarks.
For a running mate, Biden say he wants an experienced woman who could immediately assume presidential leadership, if needed; someone with whom he is “simpatico;” and someone who shares his priorities and values, which includes LGBTQ equality.
The New York Times identified 13 candidates, including out Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin.
Many politicos assume that California Sen. Kamala Harris has a lock on the spot. She is a highly qualified Black/Asian former presidential candidate who Biden knows through her relationship with his beloved late son Beau when they served as attorneys general. Biden was clearly hurt when Harris attacked him over segregation during a presidential debate but she apologized and they made up. Others are not as forgiving.
Several of the other candidates might fit the moment but no one matches the breadth of bona fides offered by California Rep. Karen Bass.
The Times frames Bass as a long shot since the Biden team “has reached an advanced stage of the vetting process” and Bass’ extensive record may require more vetting than is possible before Biden’s announcement date around August 1. Bass also lacked national name recognition.
That changed when she became the Congressional leader most identified with pushing for police reform after the world witnessed the 8 minutes and 46 seconds cellphone video showing a white Minneapolis police officer calmly kneeling on the neck of a Black man in his custody, pleading for air and his mother until he expired.
The video of that May 25 murder exposed the scourge of systemic racism and sparked mass marches supporting Black Lives Matter. People of all races, ages and identities demanded police reform and justice for the death of George Floyd, including 25,000 people who marched on June 14 with LGBTQ All Black Lives Matter from Hollywood to West Hollywood, spotlighting the murders of Black trans people.
“That was a slow, torturous murder, and the whole world saw it,” Bass told the New York Times. “I think it was just one murder too many.”
Karen Bass has been working to dismantle systemic racism, as well as other forms of social, racial and economic injustice, for decades. She is a community activist who was raised on civil rights activism in LA’s Jewish Venice-Fairfax district, volunteered for Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign in middle school, graduated from Hamilton High School in West LA in 1971, studied philosophy at San Diego University but switched her attention to healthcare, graduating from USC’s Keck School of Medicine Physician Assistant Program. She subsequently received her BA in health sciences from Cal State/Dominguez Hills and her Masters in Social Work from USC.
Bass focused that training on fighting the crack epidemic in South LA, where she founded the Community Coalition to fight for substance abuse prevention programs and better foster care and relative caregivers, like grandmothers.
She also fought the AIDS epidemic — all experience directly applicable to dealing with the ongoing Opioid crisis, as well as COVID-19.
“I went through the AIDS crisis from its very beginning. I watched all of Santa Monica Boulevard get wiped out near Vermont (Ave.). That whole area there. I watched everybody die within a matter of two years,” Bass told the Los Angeles Blade last March. “But I think that this [COVID-19 crisis] is really hard because you don’t have to have any physical contact….People are building the plane while it’s flying.”
Torie Osborn c 1980/90 (screen grab from National Coming Out Day video produced by Karen Ocamb)
Torie Osborn, the executive director of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center in 1989, met Bass at a meeting of progressive grassroots activists in a South LA church basement.
“This woman I didn’t know came up, introduced herself as Karen Bass from South LA, an anti-police violence activist and a physician assistant,” Osborn says. The two talked all day with Bass noting that the gay community’s experience of AIDS deaths was similar to what the Black community was experiencing during the crack epidemic.
“I had never heard anything like this before. She knew gay men. She clearly was an ally,” Osborn says.
Bass also talked about the LAPD battering rams used to level suspected crack houses. “They just had like a militarized response to the epidemic and she was really angry about it. And she said, ‘Do you understand that the genocidal attacks on my community are similar to the genocidal attacks on yours?’” Osborn says. “I never thought about the similarities between attacks by the state – for gays, it was the genocidal neglect of the Reagan years.”
At a June 10 hearing on the bill she crafted with Rep. Jerry Nadler and Sens. Harris and Cory Booker — the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 — Bass noted that “she had begun protesting police violence the same year that Mr. Floyd was born, in 1973,” the New York Times reported. She also recalled LAPD Chief Daryl Gates “calling a news conference to claim that the reason so many black people were dying of chokeholds in police custody was ‘because our neck veins were different.’”
Bass says the 1992 LA riots after the acquittal of four white police officers videotaped beating unarmed Black motorist Rodney King hit her personally.
“I just drove around feeling that all of the years of my involvement and all of the things I had tried to do had been a failure,” Bass recalled in 2011. “I failed the young people because they felt no outlet other than to destroy.”
Bass was talked into running for elective office by Miguel Contreras, the late chief of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. In 2005, she won the Assembly seat being vacated by Diane Watson. She was immediately given leadership positions of majority whip then majority leader by Speaker Fabian Nunez. She risked political support by helping gay Assemblymember Mark Leno push AB 19, the state’s first marriage equality bill.
Three years later, Bass was unanimously elected Speaker of the Assembly, making history as California’s first Black women Speaker.
Bass’s political skills were tested in 2008/2009 when the Speaker dealt with renown sexist Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — with whom Bass felt “fine” working since he was from the LA entertainment industry — as well as difficult Democrats, to get California, the epicenter of the foreclosure crisis, out of the Great Recession.
For that work, Bass, Senate leader Darrell Steinberg and the two Republican leaders — Assemblyman Mike Villines and Sen. Dave Cogdill — all received the annual Profile in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Library, the LA Times noted.
“She was great,” Villines recalls to LA Times columnist George Skelton. “If she were the VP, she’d be fantastic. She’s a normal person. Negotiating with her was easy. She would listen. It was never confrontational. I found her to be truthful and honest, someone just trying to get things done.”
There is a reason Bass has been mentioned as the most likely to succeed House Speaker Pelosi, if she steps down.
“Having had the great pleasure to serve with Congresswoman Bass in the State Assembly, before and after she became Speaker, I am not surprised that she is being considered by Joe Biden,” Leno tells the Los Angeles Blade. “Her talents and potential are obvious to all. Having authored the legislature’s Equal Marriage Rights bills, I know personally of her commitment to LGBTQ
equality. She is a fierce champion of not only our community but
to all those who are disenfranchised and struggling for equal treatment under
Another plus for Biden in attempting to heal the nation — Bass sincerely reaches across the partisan divide to get things done. She calls Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy a friend from their days in the Assembly. She successfully passed the Justice in Policing Act by a 236-181 margin with three Republicans — moderate Reps. Will Hurd (R-Texas), Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) — voting in favor.
“The Justice in Policing Act is a bill for human rights in our country,” said Bass, Chair of the 50-plus-member Congressional Black Caucus.
“She comes through it all with the greatest gentility and strength,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the New York Times.
Karen Bass with LA City Councilmember Mike Bonin, Rep. Ted Lieu and LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl at an event sponsored by activist Torie Osborn before the coronavirus exploded (Photo courtesy Osborn)
“The best change takes place with outside pressure on the kind of issues I work on,” Bass told The Times. “It’s not like the issues I work on have 10 legal firms and lobbyists and all that. If you don’t have wealth, you have people. The thousands of people out protesting are moving Congress to act.”
Though police reform efforts have stalled in the Senate, Sen. Tim Scott, the Senate’s only Black Republican who has his own bill, told CNN’s Jake Tapper on June 28 that he has spoken often with Bass.
“I give Karen Bass a lot of credit. She’s very serious about getting to a compromise,” Scott said.
It’s a trait Bass brought with her to the House in 2011, one of nine freshman Democrats in a GOP-run House. Another of the nine was Democrat David Cicilline, the former mayor of Providence, R.I., and the first openly gay mayor of a state capital. The two served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“She’s been a really important part of our freshman class,” Cicilline told Politico. “Her skills as speaker of the house have enabled her to understand the legislative process but also the importance of relationships in getting work done.”
Bass told a Politico town hall on June 30 that she does not negotiate in public but she’ll keep pushing to make Justice in Policing Act law, “especially when we have this moment where transformative change is possible. But we have to push, we have to keep pushing, and I’m ready to do that.”
Pushing for justice is at her core.
“So the values that I treasure really were a result of watching the Civil Rights Movement on TV, talking to my father about what growing up in the South meant, and then growing up during the ’60s and watching young people try to change the world, led me to making a lifetime commitment to working for social and economic justice,” Bass told Jewish Journal columnist Raphael Sonenshein in 2009.
And then there’s martial arts.
“When I was in my early 20s, I studied tae kwon do and hapkido. I earned brown belts in both of them. What it taught me was how to fight in a manner that is respectful; don’t personalize and get to the point. The goal of a martial artist is actually to not fight, [it’s] to prevent the fight. If somebody attacks you, you’re taught how to take their energy and use it against them,” Bass told LA Times columnist Patt Morrison in 2009.
“Remember those old Bruce Lee movies? When somebody who had watched a Bruce Lee movie would think they knew how to fight — with no discipline, no control — they would come in just flailing, swinging,” Bass continued. “You should have goals; it should be clear where the beginning, middle and end game is, and that’s what I felt I was taught.”
Those lessons helped Bass as Assembly Speaker. “The discipline, the control of emotions and picking your fights — not just fighting because it makes you feel good but fighting with a purpose.”
Karen Bass delivering eulogy at Rep. Elijah Cummings’ funeral. (Photo courtesy Congressional Black Caucus)
It’s a lesson reiterated by her beloved mentor, the late Honorable Elijah E. Cummings, whom she called “a warrior for all” in an op-ed Bass penned for the LA Blade last October.
“As throughout the entirety of his life, Mr. Cummings was not deterred by bigotry, he was not swayed by ignorance, and he was not stopped by indifference.
In fact, it was incidents at this time in his life that only strengthened his commitment to ensuring his community overcame these obstacles….
As the Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Mr. Cummings used his gavel to speak truth to power on behalf of the American people. We watched his heartfelt passion as he fought for the rights of children separated from their families, as he fought for everyone to have healthcare, and medications that are affordable, and as he fought for everyone to have the right and access to vote.
In 2016, we watched Mr. Cummings swiftly debunk the logic behind a bill which would prevent the government from acting against businesses or individuals who discriminate against LGBTQ+ people.
As he did almost daily here in Congress and in his community, he spoke as a guided moral light for all of those gathered to listen.”
Perhaps that moral light has been passed to a new generation. “She’s the real deal with a level of civil rights movement bona fides that few vice presidential nominees have ever had,” former L.A. Mayor and Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, who has known Bass since the early 1970s, told columnist George Skelton. “She’s had a leadership voice wherever she’s gone.”
Karen Bass, 66, and Joe Biden, 77, have another commonality, a shared grief. Like Biden, Bass suffered the tragic loss of her daughter Emilia, 23, a Loyola Marymount University student, and son-in-law Michael Wright, 23, in a 2006 car crash on the I-405 freeway.
Bass fits Biden’s bill for VP: she is a highly regarded coalition-builder; has executive legislative experience during a financial crisis; is passionate about foster care, healthcare and fighting against systemic racism; and her values stem from a long battle for human rights. And she’s nice.
“It’s almost like the Scripture says: She’s come for such a time as this,” Rep. Barbara Lee, who’s known Bass since the 1980s, told the New York Times. “This is a moment that the country needs her leadership, and she certainly has stepped up.”
What more could Joe Biden and a desperate country want?