California Assembly Speaker Karen Bass earned her political stripes on the streets as a grass-roots activist for more than a decade. Her Community Coalition helped change the landscape of South Los Angeles by shutting down seedy low-rent motels and converting liquor stores to grocery markets.
Her colleagues in Sacramento had such faith in her, they elected her speaker last year, after her first term in the Assembly.
Now the powerful post looks like a booby prize, as the state battles its worst budget crisis in history and Bass tries to deflect voter anger with action.
And she has found that her activist days spent corralling competing community interests, battling entrenched bureaucracies and staring down a big-money liquor lobby is nothing compared to her new job: trying to persuade lawmakers to cooperate and keep the state solvent.
Bass marked her first year as speaker this month -- just a few days before voters roundly rejected the bailout plan that she helped the governor campaign for. Her district includes the affluent and the poor, from Cheviot Hills and Westwood to parts of South Los Angeles. I visited her at her Wilshire Boulevard office on Friday, just before Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger unveiled proposed cuts that would slash services for the elderly and infirm.
She told me she knew she was in trouble months ago, when she called legendary deal maker Willie Brown and asked the former speaker, “Mr. Brown, what advice do you have for me?”
Brown came up empty. “He told me ‘None.’ That basically he had never seen a situation this bad before.”
Bad, and getting worse, it seems, by the minute.
There are a lot of places to cast the blame: An antiquated tax system that leaves the state too vulnerable to economic ebb and flow. An initiative process co-opted by special interests that has chipped away at the Legislature’s spending power. Ego-driven politicians who hunker down in ideological foxholes.
And voters who are tired of buck-passing and posturing by the people they’ve sent to Sacramento.
That message seemed pretty clear to me last week, when voters defeated the stitched-together package of borrowing, tax hikes and program cuts intended to narrow the budget gap.
But where I heard “disgust,” Bass heard “confused.”
“I think the subject matter of the election was very confusing,” she said. “And then I think there’s a general confusion about why Sacramento’s so complicated. It seems like, ‘Why can’t you guys get along?’ ”
“Well, why can’t you?,” I asked her.
She blamed clashing agendas, the influence of powerful business and labor interests, and the culture of Sacramento, where individual goals often trump the state’s best interests.
“There are a lot of things that I think are very bizarre,” she told me. Like the way legislators compete with one another on similar bills “because everyone wants their name attached to it.” As an activist accustomed to coalition-building, “I found that to be really weird,” she said.
But in our hour-long talk about Capitol dynamics, Bass mentioned “power” a dozen times. And I found myself wondering how long it takes for Sacramento’s dysfunction to infect an activist’s heart.
Bass landed in the hot seat last month for approving raises for Assembly employees. Under public pressure, she withdrew them but defended the raises to me on Friday.
She had already cut $15 million from the Assembly’s budget; “cut the staff, increased their workload. . . . They deserved the money,” she said. “I thought it was unfair to take their raises back. But I knew it was going to be used in the election, and I didn’t want them to be the scapegoats” if the measures didn’t pass.
Now, she said, voters “are coming after us with ‘Why don’t you get rid of your cars, why don’t you do this, why don’t you do that?. . . . What the members of my caucus feel, and frankly I agree, is that we’re never going to be able to give up enough.”
Maybe not. We could make legislators work for free and still have a formidable budget problem.
But that’s not the point. There’s something to be said for symbolism, the notion that we really are all in this together. Voters, too, are struggling to right their personal financial ships.
I’ve got a stack of bills on my kitchen table that I shuffle through every week, figuring out what to cut, who I can pay and which bill collectors I have to stall.
There is no more home equity line, no more room on the credit card. I blame myself for the fix I’m in, and now I’m forced to sweat through my bad decisions.
I have to make hard choices, knowing my family will suffer the consequences.
And I’m counting on my elected officials to muster the courage to craft a plan that spares the most vulnerable and spreads the pain.
I know this is hard.
“I ran for office so I could protect and expand the very programs that I’m now tearing apart,” Bass said. “It’s very difficult. And it’s a very disappointing thing.”
But this is when you need to earn your six-figure salary, state-funded car and $170 daily living allowance.