Karen Bass’s star rises after leading police reform push

Greg Nash

Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) may be a long shot to join former Vice President Joe Biden on the ticket in November, but Democratic colleagues say the Congressional Black Caucus chairwoman is quickly establishing herself as a top candidate for House leadership after the election.

Bass, who shepherded a sweeping police reform bill through the House this month, has been front and center in the Democrats’ response to the May 25 police killing of George Floyd and subsequent nationwide protests against police brutality.

Instead of pushing for immediate passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, Bass took time to personally meet with the powerful Fraternal Order of Police, the police chiefs association and other key stakeholders whose potential opposition could have derailed the legislation.

The former community organizer and California Assembly speaker worked the phones, holding lengthy calls with various House factions, including the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, centrist New Democrats and the Progressive Caucus. She even relentlessly lobbied a handful of Republicans to support the package.

In the end, all 233 Democrats voted for the bill, along with three Republicans — Reps. Will Hurd (Texas), Fred Upton (Mich.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.) — to give the measure bipartisan cover as a similar push in the Senate collapsed amid partisan bickering.

The silence from police reform critics “speaks to her ability to not only persuade but build coalitions and keep up the momentum,” said a Democratic leadership aide who worked closely with Bass on the package. “She talked to everybody and walked them through the bill to make sure everyone who had a stake in it was touched.”

“The issue was wrought with landmines and she’s been able to navigate it beautifully,” the aide added.

At the moment, there is no obvious leadership opening for Bass; Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), 80, has given no indication she’s retiring, maintaining a bottleneck at the top echelon. But House colleagues say Bass’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering on the police reform bill coupled with her push to build public support during countless news conferences and TV interviews has catapulted her into the leadership discussion.      

“I think she’d certainly be a strong competitor for a leadership position,” said longtime Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), who frequently sits in on Pelosi’s leadership meetings as the Budget Committee chairman.

Indeed, the fact that Biden’s team is now taking a look at Bass as a potential running mate, alongside more well-known figures like Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), shows exactly how much her national profile has risen in recent weeks.

“I think it does elevate her profile,” Rep. Ami Bera, a fellow California Democrat, told The Hill. “The whole issue of social justice — it’s something that Karen’s worked on throughout her time in Congress and is an issue she’s been a champion of her whole life. She was in the right place at the right time and was the right person given the confluence of events: the pandemic, the economic challenges and now social justice.”

Bass, who made history in 2008 as the first African American woman in the nation to be elected speaker of a state legislature, said Monday she would not close the door on any potential leadership bid in the future but joked that she certainly wasn’t “plotting” one either.

“I always remain open to serving the caucus in any way I possibly can to retain and expand our majority and make it successful in the future,” Bass, 66, told The Hill. “But I am not in the middle of plotting a leadership run. And last time I checked, there are not any vacancies. I am very happy with our current leaders.”

The five-term lawmaker declined to say whether she had been contacted by Biden’s vetting team, referring VP questions back to the Biden campaign. But the two have been in close contact throughout the 2020 campaign; Bass hosted Biden at the Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles in Los Angeles on Super Tuesday.

Bass traces her activism on policing back to 1973, the same year Floyd was born. During a break from college, she joined a community group in Los Angeles and protested against police brutality. Nearly two decades later, she would watch her hometown erupt in flames after a jury acquitted four white police officers who were videotaped viciously beating Rodney King, an unarmed Black man.

During the 1990s she served as a community organizer fighting against gang violence and the crack cocaine epidemic gripping the Black community in L.A. Her pre-Congress career also included time as a nurse and a health care worker.

It’s those experiences and the relationships forged that have helped Bass frame Floyd’s killing in the larger context of racial injustice and inequality, including health care and economic disparities among African Americans.

“The Congress and country are blessed to be led by Chairwoman Karen Bass, who brings 47 years of leadership advocating for an end to police brutality,” Pelosi said in a statement to The Hill. “She is a force for good in America, who brings extraordinary gentility, grace and strength to the fight to advance justice and save lives.”

Still, some Democrats say it’s premature to give Bass too much credit before any police reforms have been signed into law. Her bill would ban police chokeholds, as well as no-knock warrants for federal law enforcement officials; create a national registry of police abuses; and make it easier for citizens to sue officers accused of misconduct.

The Senate remains deeply gridlocked on a narrower bill by Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), the only Black GOP senator, and President Trump has threatened to veto Bass’s bill.

Bass said she’s continuing bipartisan talks with Scott, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), her old friend from the California Assembly, and Republicans who serve with her on the House Judiciary Committee.

“I am not willing to concede defeat,” she said. 

But hopes of a bipartisan deal four months before the election are quickly dimming.

The 55-member Congressional Black Caucus “is the largest and most powerful it’s ever been. Getting that bill through the House is easy,” said a Democratic source who watched Bass’s effort. “The test is: Can she leverage that power to get it over the finish line?”

With Bass now in the running for the VP slot, the chairwoman has also come under fire for referring to Cuban leader Fidel Castro upon his death in 2016 as “comandante en jefe” or commander in chief — an endearing term that has been criticized by Cuban American politicians in Florida whose families fled Castro’s brutal government, Politico reported.

Bass’s office has said former President Obama made similar remarks about Castro when Washington was trying to normalize relations with Havana. But she told The Hill Monday that she regretted her comments, calling them “particularly problematic.”

“I feel bad it hit anybody with a raw nerve,” she said. “I look forward to talking to my colleagues about it.”

If she decides to climb the leadership ladder, Bass will face obstacles beyond her 2016 Castro remarks. While she and her leadership PAC have raised more than $300,000 for vulnerable colleagues and the House Democrats’ campaign arm this cycle, she hasn’t traveled the country to fundraise as aggressively as other ambitious up-and-coming leaders, including Democratic Caucus Vice Chairwoman Kathryn Clark (D-Mass.) and Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), a fellow Black Caucus member who is seen by many as Pelosi’s heir apparent.

“I’m not focused on leadership advancement; I’m focused on helping my colleagues and getting my work done,” Bass told The Hill. The leadership roles she wants to play, she added, are finishing her term leading the Black Caucus, chairing the Foreign Affairs Committee’s Africa subcommittee and chairing Judiciary’s subpanel on crime, terrorism and homeland security.

Fundraising aside, House colleagues said they’ve appreciated Bass’s honesty and no-nonsense style during their interactions with her.

“She is just the ultimate’s member’s member,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), who leads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “She is direct. If you’ve done something she doesn’t like, she doesn’t go to the press. She doesn’t go to another member and start gossiping. She goes right to you and says, ‘I suggest you handle it this way going forward.’ ”

“She is very direct in a kind way, and I respect that a great deal,” Bustos said.

Tags 2020 election Ami Bera Brian Fitzpatrick California Cheri Bustos Congressional Black Caucus Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Fred Upton Hakeem Jeffries House leadership Joe Biden John Yarmuth Karen Bass Kevin McCarthy Los Angeles Nancy Pelosi police reform Tim Scott VP Will Hurd

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