Speaker-elect gets broad support

Times Staff Writer

Anyone who knew Wilhelmina Bass might understand why her daughter Karen Bass, the Los Angeles Democrat elected Thursday as the next leader of the California Assembly, has devoted her Capitol career to making the state a better parent to its 80,000 foster children.

A former beauty salon owner who raised Karen and three boys in a well-appointed house in the Venice-Fairfax area, Wilhelmina Bass was a kind, poised, contemplative mother, and “the notion that people would come into this world and not have loving parents has always caused Karen pain,” said Sylvia Castillo, Bass’ district director and a friend for three decades.

But do not mistake Karen Bass’ nurturing nature for softness, said Castillo: Bass holds brown belts in two martial arts, tae kwon do and hapkido, and although she never picks a fight, she can certainly handle one.


“Karen is extremely determined,” said Castillo, “and because she’s not bellicose and doesn’t do this posturing with the power suit and big gestures, sometimes people underestimate her quiet capacity to lead.”

“I think the state Assembly has affirmed that indeed there is a leader here,” Castillo said.

With a hearty “Aye” from both Democrats and Republicans, the Assembly on Thursday unanimously elected Bass, a former physician assistant, to become its 67th speaker.

It’s not clear when Bass will assume the housekeeping, fundraising and policy negotiation duties of the speakership. Term limits will force Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) from office at the end of the year.

He had promoted Bass as his replacement over at least eight other candidates.

Bass said she and Nunez would talk in the “near future” about when to transfer power and who will take the lead in upcoming talks with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other legislative leaders over how to close California’s $16-billion budget gap.

And she vowed that she would not run for Los Angeles City Council or the state Senate before term limits force her from the Assembly in 2010.


“I am committed to being the leader of this caucus for the next couple years,” Bass told reporters.

Whether her ascension will end the jockeying for the Assembly’s top post remains to be seen. Several freshman members in the lower house competed against her for the speakership and may continue striving, knowing that she will be in the job until the end of 2010, at the latest, before her final Assembly term is up.

In the meantime, Bass must decide how much to distance herself from Nunez, her friend and mentor. Nunez and his staff have maintained tight control over the Assembly and its agenda, frustrating some lawmakers.

“The power needs to be returned to the hands of the membership,” said former Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla, a Democrat from Pittsburg who left the Assembly about 15 months ago. “I think Karen can do that.”

Bass talked in an interview after her selection Thursday about having “decided at a very young age that I wanted my life work to be public service.”

At 14 she walked door to door to raise support for Robert Kennedy’s presidential bid; now she is an ardent supporter of presidential candidate Barack Obama.


She credits her father, DeWitt, a mail carrier, for making her a “news junkie” -- Bass said she used to wake at 4:30 a.m. to listen to the radio with him before he began his route.

Asked to describe her public service goals, Bass said: “a society where we have figured out how to provide healthcare for our population, we have figured out how to educate our population, and where no sector of society -- in particular children -- falls through the cracks.”

She is the first African American woman to be elected to lead a legislative house in the U.S., according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Rosa Franklin, an African American from Tacoma, serves as president pro tempore of the Washington State Senate, but that post is not the Senate’s top job.

The only other woman to be elected California Assembly speaker was Doris Allen, a Republican from Orange County who held the post for three months in 1995.

Bass will be the fifth consecutive speaker to hail from Los Angeles.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a former Assembly speaker himself, called Bass “a bold, compassionate and brilliant leader who understands issues our communities face on the ground level.”

Bass’ parents did not live to see her political ascent, but the daughter they raised will take a calm, methodical, honest approach to California’s problems, say those who have worked with her.


Colleagues call her a team-builder with a gift for drawing out people’s best work, a digger who pursues the roots of problems and an empathetic soul with a keen understanding of seemingly small things, such as foster kids needing money for a prom dress.

“Karen is not in this work to promote Karen, which makes her different from the overwhelming majority of elected officials,” said Marqueece Harris-Dawson, executive director of the Community Coalition, a nonprofit group that Bass founded in 1990 to help South Los Angeles ameliorate the crime, addiction and hopelessness brought on by crack cocaine trafficking. After the 1992 riots, the group worked to close or convert liquor stores in South Los Angeles.

Bass was recruited to run for the 47th Assembly District, which includes West Los Angeles, Crenshaw and Culver City, by labor leader Miguel Contreras, who ran the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor until his death in May 2005.

As executive director of the Community Coalition, Bass had visited Contreras to solicit money. Instead, he suggested she launch a political career. She beat four men, including former Los Angeles City Councilman Nate Holden, to win her seat in 2004.

Bass quickly became part of Nunez’s leadership team. He named her majority leader for the 2007-08 legislative session, making her responsible for rounding up votes in the 48-member Democratic caucus and negotiating procedure with Republicans. She worked to increase foster-care funding in the 2007 budget by $82 million.

Bass also was the driving force behind a report issued last year by the Legislative Black Caucus called “The State of Black California,” which tracked the educational and economic well-being of African American Californians. Last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed two Bass bills that would have launched pilot programs to address disproportionately high infant mortality and homicide rates among African Americans.


On Thursday, Schwarzenegger called Bass “an inspiration to every citizen of this great state.”

State Sen. Darrell Steinberg, the Sacramento Democrat who will take over leadership of the upper house later this year, called Bass “incredibly intelligent, unflappable.”

“Her politics,” he said, “are about working to ensure that every young person, no matter who they are, receives a full opportunity to succeed.”


Times staff writer Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.