Congresswoman Karen Bass: The Other Californian Being Vetted for VP

U.S. Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) speaks as other House Democrats listen during an event on police reform June 25, 2020 at the east front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

It’s common knowledge that Sen. Kamala Harris is on Joe Biden’s short list for vice president, but another lower profile Californian is also being vetted for the job.

And you might say Los Angeles Congresswoman Karen Bass is having a moment.

After the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Speaker Nancy Pelosi tapped the five-term Democrat to help write and pass a police reform measure. The House bill included a ban on chokeholds and no-knock warrants, and an end to so-called "qualified immunity," which often shields police officers from lawsuits.

Bass, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, told the PBS NewsHour recently that the opposing measure from Republicans in the U.S. Senate lacked teeth.

"We don’t need to study chokeholds. We don't need to have data collection about no-knock warrants. We don't need a federal registry that nobody sees," Bass said.

The bill passed the House overwhelmingly. Los Angeles Congressman Ted Lieu, who also served with Bass in the State Legislature, says his colleague is a very hard worker.

"She gets things done. She is no nonsense. And she's able to bring people together to achieve a great result," Lieu said. He also said he wasn't surprised at all when Bass's name popped up on Biden's V.P. list.

"I think she is a remarkable person who has shown grace and courage and an ability to heal and unify people. And I think she is a fantastic legislator. And whatever is in the future for her, she would do an amazing job," Lieu said.

Bass has been working on police reform issues for decades. Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State L.A., first met Bass in 1994. In the wake of civil unrest following the Rodney King/LAPD verdicts, Bass was a community organizer working with African Americans and Korean store owners in South Central L.A.

"This was a tremendous battle that was of deep political significance for intergroup relations," Sonenshein recalls. "And Karen was navigating that."

The issue, he says, was problem liquor stores in South Los Angeles — and Sonenshein says there was pressure from some in the Black community to blame Asian American business owners.

"But she was never going to allow herself to make it about not having Korean store owners. She was going to make it about people following the rules. And she stuck to that," Sonenshein says, adding that she developed ties to the Korean community that remain today.

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A decade later in 2004, Bass was elected to the State Assembly, quickly climbing the leadership ladder. In 2008, Bass followed fellow Angeleno Fabian Nunez to become Speaker during the height of the mortgage crisis. With the state facing a huge deficit, she worked to find a solution with colleagues of both parties, including Mike Villines who was then the Republican Assembly Minority Leader.

"She’s calming. She listens. She’s a total problem solver. I found her, when we were negotiating, to be very solution-orientated," Villines told KQED.

"It just kind of all added up to us getting something done. But one thing that I would definitely want to say is that he's a worker. So she would be at every meeting. She was always there."

Villines says he and Bass stay in touch, and get together socially from time to time. And he'd be more than happy to see her as Vice President or — if fate intervened — President.

"This would be a Republican who is very comfortable having her in either role, because I've worked with her and I know that she would put the country first,  just like she did the state. There's no doubt in my mind," Villines said.

Bass and Villines, along with their counterparts in the state Senate, were awarded the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for their bipartisan work dealing with California's budget deficit.

In 2010, Bass won a seat in Congress, representing a district that includes South L.A. and the wealthier Westside. Sonenshein says Bass has the ability and desire to find common ground.

"She could smoke out from people some interesting quality that would not be predictable. And if there was a way to draw them toward a discussion with her, not necessarily just to do what she wanted, but to sort of sit down. And she was willing to be surprised," said Sonenshein.

"It's a willingness to at least see some glimmer of good in the people who are on the other side of the table from you and figure that there's gotta be something that you can have a discussion about."

In addition to police reform, Bass has been deeply involved in legislation around the coronavirus. Her background in healthcare — she studied to be a physician assistant at USC — has come in handy in helping Speaker Pelosi respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Still, Bass is much less known than Kamala Harris, who some believe is the favorite to end up on the Democratic ticket. And, says Joel Goldstein, author of a book about the vice presidency, says House members are rarely chosen as running mates.

"You know, it does happen. Geraldine Ferraro (1984) was from the House. Paul Ryan (2012) was from the House. But more often, the candidate comes from the Senate," Goldstein said.

But Goldstein also says people who seem like perfect running mates don’t always end up being good V.P. candidates.

"The fact that somebody is a left hander doesn't mean that they're going to be effective Major League Baseball pitcher if they can't get the ball over the plate," Goldstein said. "And so the fact that somebody  checks off certain boxes doesn't mean that they're really a plausible pick if they’re not ready for a national campaign."

In the end, Goldstein says, it will come down to who Biden feels most comfortable with. No matter what, Karen Bass could still have a big future in Congress, where some see her as a leading candidate to replace Pelosi as Speaker when she retires.

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