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 BassHillicon Valley: Google buying Fitbit for .1B | US launches national security review of TikTok | Twitter shakes up fight over political ads | Dems push committee on 'revenge porn' law Democratic lawmakers call on Judiciary Committee to advance 'revenge porn' law Lawmakers come together to honor Cummings: 'One of the greats in our country's history' 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 BidenMost Americans break with Trump on Ukraine, but just 45 percent think he should be removed: poll Democrats release two new transcripts ahead of next public impeachment hearings Press: Ukraine's not the only outrage MORE, the former vice president and  current front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, just the other day.

ADVERTISEMENT

She caught up with Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanThe Hill's Campaign Report: Late bids surprise 2020 Democratic field Tim Ryan endorses Biden for president Strategists say Warren 'Medicare for All' plan could appeal to centrists 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 HarrisJayapal hits back at Biden on marijuana 'prohibition' Poll: Biden holds 20-point lead in South Carolina Fox News anchor apologizes for saying Booker dropped out of 2020 race MORE, a fellow California Democrat, and Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerJayapal hits back at Biden on marijuana 'prohibition' Poll: Biden holds 20-point lead in South Carolina Fox News anchor apologizes for saying Booker dropped out of 2020 race MORE (D-N.J.) during Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) meetings in the Capitol.

Bass and Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandMaloney primary challenger calls on her to return, donate previous campaign donations from Trump Senate confirms controversial circuit court nominee She Should Run launches initiative to expand number of women in political process MORE (D-N.Y.) have teamed up on an infrastructure-jobs bill. And Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenRahm Emanuel: Bloomberg, Patrick entering race will allow Democrats to have 'ideas primary' Feehery: Pivoting to infrastructure could help heal post-impeachment wounds Jayapal hits back at Biden on marijuana 'prohibition' 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 SandersRahm Emanuel: Bloomberg, Patrick entering race will allow Democrats to have 'ideas primary' Feehery: Pivoting to infrastructure could help heal post-impeachment wounds Jayapal hits back at Biden on marijuana 'prohibition' 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?”

ADVERTISEMENT

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 JeffriesUSMCA deal close, but not 'imminent,' Democrats say House Democrat's Halloween display mourns passed bills that die in McConnell's 'legislative graveyard' Democrats unveil impeachment procedures MORE (N.Y.), and five CBC members hold powerful committee gavels, including Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersHouse passes Ex-Im Bank reboot bill opposed by White House, McConnell White House, McConnell come out against House bill on Ex-Im Bank Divides over China, fossil fuels threaten House deal to reboot Ex-Im Bank MORE (D-Calif.) and Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsStopgap government funding measure includes census money, military pay raise Maya Rockeymoore Cummings reports surgery was a success, will return to campaign trail The Hill's Morning Report — Public impeachment drama resumes today 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 McCarthyHarris introduces bill to prevent California wildfires McCarthy says views on impeachment won't change even if Taylor's testimony is confirmed House Republicans call impeachment hearing 'boring,' dismiss Taylor testimony as hearsay 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 TorresOur commitment to veterans can help us lead for all Americans Let's provide help to college students struggling to meet their day-to-day needs Restore controls over dangerous gun exports 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.”