Black caucus leader Karen Bass finds herself in high demand

Black caucus leader Karen Bass finds herself in high demand
© Greg Nash

Rep. Karen BassKaren Ruth BassHere are the 95 Democrats who voted to support impeachment 'Orange is the New Black' author to Congress: Reform 'patriarchal' criminal justice system Top Democrat: Mass incarceration in US is 'an embarrassment' MORE (D-Calif.) is finding herself in high demand heading into 2020.

The new leader of the powerful Congressional Black Caucus received a phone call from Joe BidenJoe BidenPoll: Biden leads 2020 Democratic field by 15 points, followed by Sanders and Warren Booker takes swipe at Biden criminal justice reform plan Panel: Has Joe Biden been wrong on everything for 40 years? MORE, the former vice president and  current front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, just the other day.

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She caught up with Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) John RyanDemocratic strategist predicts most 2020 candidates will drop out in late fall The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump hits media over 'send her back' coverage The Hill's Campaign Report: Second debate lineups set up high-profile clash MORE (D-Ohio), another White House hopeful, during a plane ride from Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. And Bass regularly chats up Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisPoll: Biden leads 2020 Democratic field by 15 points, followed by Sanders and Warren Democrats, advocacy groups urge Pompeo to abolish new 'unalienable rights' commission Biden announces plan to counteract mass incarceration MORE, a fellow California Democrat, and Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerBooker takes swipe at Biden criminal justice reform plan Democrats, advocacy groups urge Pompeo to abolish new 'unalienable rights' commission Biden announces plan to counteract mass incarceration MORE (D-N.J.) during Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) meetings in the Capitol.

Bass and Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandDemocrats, advocacy groups urge Pompeo to abolish new 'unalienable rights' commission Harris, Nadler introduce bill to decriminalize marijuana Gillibrand says she doesn't regret calling for Franken to resign MORE (D-N.Y.) have teamed up on an infrastructure-jobs bill. And Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenPoll: Biden leads 2020 Democratic field by 15 points, followed by Sanders and Warren Warren introduces bill to cancel student loan debt for millions Democrats, advocacy groups urge Pompeo to abolish new 'unalienable rights' commission MORE (D-Mass.) phoned Bass last fall to congratulate her after her election to the top of the Black Caucus.

One top-tier presidential candidate who has not reached out to her: Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersPoll: Biden leads 2020 Democratic field by 15 points, followed by Sanders and Warren Warren introduces bill to cancel student loan debt for millions Democrats, advocacy groups urge Pompeo to abolish new 'unalienable rights' commission MORE (I-Vt.).

“Phones work pretty well,” Bass said with some pique in a wide-ranging interview in her office on Capitol Hill. “But in my opinion, I think there’s been little outreach. And with Sanders, he might feel he knows us. I don’t know. I mean, I’ve talked to him one time in my life, maybe twice.”

That revelation comes amid a barrage of headlines about how Sanders, who is second but trailing far behind Biden in the primary polls, is struggling to make inroads with African American voters, who make up a huge part of the Democratic electorate in Southern states like South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi.

When a reporter pointed out that the lack of communication with Sanders was unusual given that Sanders and Bass are progressive members of the same party, Bass replied sarcastically: “Ya think?”

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The Sanders campaign did not respond to a request for comment. But the senator has been courting the black community, appearing recently at a march in Selma, Ala.; a Baptist church in North Charleston, S.C.; and at the Rev. Al Sharpton’s forum in New York, where he told the crowd of activists he’s been “fighting for economic, social and racial justice” for decades.   

Bass, a 65-year-old former health care worker, is quick to stress that while a handful of individual CBC members are making primary endorsements, the group as a whole would refrain from doing so — and so would she.

Still, the race to attract black voters around the country, and particularly in the South, has found the presidential hopefuls clamoring for the attention of Bass and other prominent African American leaders — forthcoming endorsements or none.

It’s little surprise that Bass is in demand. The Black Caucus has grown this year to 55 members, the most since its founding in 1971, and now exerts more influence over the strategic direction and policy priorities of the House Democratic Caucus than it ever has. The CBC boasts two top leaders in Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesWendy Davis launches bid for Congress in Texas 3,100 to be released from prison under criminal justice reform law House Democrats delete tweets attacking each other, pledge to unify MORE (N.Y.), and five CBC members hold powerful committee gavels, including Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersLawyer says suspect in mob boss killing believed he was on mission from Trump Hillicon Valley: Trump seeks review of Pentagon cloud-computing contract | FTC weighs updating kids' internet privacy rules | Schumer calls for FaceApp probe | Report says states need more money to secure elections Here are the 95 Democrats who voted to support impeachment MORE (D-Calif.) and Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsHouse Oversight schedules Thursday vote to hold Kellyanne Conway in contempt Trump tweets, rally chant dominate Sunday shows as president continues attacks Sunday shows - Fallout over Trump tweets MORE (D-Md.).

“She is very inclusive and organized and has been able to balance all of the different interests within the caucus,” Cummings said of Bass.

Even some Republicans see Bass’s CBC post as merely a launching pad to larger leadership roles for the five-term Californian.

Fifteen years ago in Sacramento, Calif., Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump applauds two-year budget deal with 0 billion spending hike On The Money: Trump, Congress reach two-year budget, debt limit deal | What we know | Deal gets pushback from conservatives | Equifax to pay up to 0M in data breach settlement | Warren warns another 'crash' is coming Overnight Defense: Iran's spy claim adds to tensions with US | Trump, lawmakers get two-year budget deal | Trump claims he could win Afghan war in a week MORE, then the GOP leader in the state Assembly, pulled aside the then-freshman state lawmaker and told her she would one day become Speaker of the California Assembly. A few years later, his prediction came true.

Now the House Republican leader in Washington, McCarthy is predicting that Bass will be elected to Democratic leadership.

“I told her one day she would be Speaker, but she didn’t believe me. And she became Speaker,” said McCarthy, who has supported Bass’s long-running efforts to protect and nurture foster children. “She’s got a lot of natural ability. ... Even though we have a difference of opinion, we can always talk. We can always work through and find common ground.”

Rep. Norma TorresNorma Judith TorresHere are the 95 Democrats who voted to support impeachment Hispanic Democrats: ICE raids designed to distract from Trump ties to Epstein Migrant children report sex assault, retaliation for protests at border facility MORE (D-Calif.) has seen Bass’s leadership first hand. Torres served under then-Speaker Bass in Sacramento and has been urging her House colleague to run for leadership in Washington after she relinquishes her CBC gavel at the end of 2020. 

“I really admired her work, and I think that someday she will be a good Speaker here, too. She was great in the state, and she could lend a lot of advice on how to deal with our president, having had that experience in Sacramento,” Torres told The Hill.

“I’ve encouraged her to do all of that; I’ve encouraged our leadership to look to her for advice, because she really brings a lot to the table.”

Bass, for her part, is not shying away from the notion of one day rising through the leadership ranks. The Los Angeles liberal said she’s “always interested in leadership,” but is “not angling for any particular job.”

“I don’t know what is next,” she said.

McCarthy offered some tongue-in-cheek advice for his friend across the aisle: “I think she would be minority whip or minority leader,” he said with a smile.

In the meantime, Bass is eyeing an ambitious legislative agenda that puts a premium on efforts to expand health care access, protect voting rights, improve the criminal justice system and boost the financial well-being of African Americans, who suffered disproportionately from the housing collapse of 2006 and the global recession that followed.

“We took a very big step back in terms of homeownership,” she said. Now, she told The Hill, the black population wants Congress to address wealth creation.

If there is one goal Bass hopes to accomplish during her two-year term as CBC chairwoman, it’s raising the profiles of her members and highlighting their victories, from criminal justice reform to securing more money for scholarships for historically black colleges and universities.

She’s even adopted a slogan for the campaign: “No more hidden figures.”

“We want CBC members to be elevated in terms of their contributions here,” Bass said. “And so the goal is, by December 2020, black America will know who the Black Caucus is, why the Black Caucus is considered the conscience of the Congress, and how the caucus uses its power to impact positively not just the African American population, but basically, the country.”

“I just think that CBC members have not really focused on promoting or talking about what they’ve done,” she continued. “In our business, if we don’t make a point of telling people what we do, then they say we did nothing.”