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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 BassBlack Republican advocates his case for CBC membership Tim Scott: Could be 'very hard' to reach police reform deal by June deadline Police reform negotiations enter crucial stretch 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 Biden 64 percent of Iowans say 'time for someone else' to hold Grassley's Senate seat: poll Philadelphia shooting leaves 2 dead, injures toddler Ron Johnson booed at Juneteenth celebration in Wisconsin 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) RyanJ.D. Vance emerges as wild card in Ohio GOP Senate primary 9 Senate seats most likely to flip in 2022 Biden faces dilemma on Trump steel tariffs 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 HarrisThe U.S. and Mexico must revamp institutions supporting their joint efforts Harris signals a potential breakthrough in US-Mexico cooperation Watch live: Harris delivers remarks on vaccination efforts MORE, a fellow California Democrat, and Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerDemocrats introduce resolution apologizing to LGBT community for government discrimination Zombie Tax punishes farmers to fill DC coffers Rand Paul does not support a national minimum wage increase — and it's important to understand why MORE (D-N.J.) during Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) meetings in the Capitol.

Bass and Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandGillibrand: Military must make changes beyond sexual assault cases COVID-19 long-haulers press Congress for paid family leave Ocasio-Cortez, Gillibrand and Moulton call for more high-speed rail funding in infrastructure package MORE (D-N.Y.) have teamed up on an infrastructure-jobs bill. And Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenCentrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting Democrats have turned solidly against gas tax Overnight Health Care: Takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision | COVID-19 cost 5.5 million years of American life | Biden administration investing billions in antiviral pills for COVID-19 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 SandersCentrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting Democrats facing tough reelections back bipartisan infrastructure deal The Hill's Morning Report - ObamaCare here to stay 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 JeffriesDemocrats seek staffer salary boost to compete with K Street Congress tiptoes back to normality post-pandemic White House to Democrats: Get ready to go it alone on infrastructure MORE (N.Y.), and five CBC members hold powerful committee gavels, including Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersThe tale of the last bipartisan unicorns Tulsa marks race massacre centennial as US grapples with racial injustice Fauci may have unwittingly made himself a key witness for Trump in 'China Flu' hate-speech case MORE (D-Calif.) and Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsDemocrats plot next move after GOP sinks Jan. 6 probe Lawmakers press AbbVie CEO on increased US prices of two drugs Overnight Health Care: AstraZeneca may have included outdated data on vaccine trial, officials say | Pelosi says drug pricing measure under discussion for infrastructure package | Biden administration extends special ObamaCare enrollment until August 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 McCarthyGOP increasingly balks at calling Jan. 6 an insurrection House Democrats' campaign arm raises almost million in May Five takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision 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 TorresHouse Democrat says she sleeps with gun nearby after clashing with El Salvador's president Harris, Hispanic Caucus meet on Central America House Democrats call for paid legal representation in immigration court 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.”