Newsletter: What you need to know about Karen Bass

Rep. Karen Bass speaks during a House Judiciary Committee meeting in June.
(Kevin Dietsch / Associated Press)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, Aug. 5.

Rep. Karen Bass’ name first emerged as a potential vice presidential pick for Joe Biden’s campaign in late June. With little national profile, the L.A. congresswoman and leader of the Congressional Black Caucus was an unlikely choice, to say the least.

But in scarcely six weeks, Bass has rocketed from long shot to among the final candidates for the slot, joining fellow Californian Sen. Kamala Harris on the VP short list.

[Read the story: “L.A. Rep. Karen Bass surged up Biden’s VP list. Is she ready for the national stage?” in the Los Angeles Times]


Unlike many politicians who reach the final stages of vetting for a presidential ticket, Bass’ career trajectory has never been aimed toward the West Wing. She has never previously sought national or even statewide office and has long been described as an unassuming, low-key coalition-builder. If she harbored political aspirations beyond Congress, she certainly hasn’t hinted at them publicly.

She built her life as a tenacious community activist and was already in her 50s when she was first elected to the California Assembly, in 2004. Within four years, she ascended to one of the most powerful roles in state government as speaker of the Assembly — making her the first Black woman to lead a U.S. state legislature. Bass, now 66, was elected to Congress in 2010.

“My résumé doesn’t look like a résumé of somebody that would be in the position I am in today,” Bass recently told my colleagues in an interview, stressing that she hasn’t lived her life looking over her shoulder in anticipation of being vetted for higher political office. But one could also argue that the outsider-insider life trajectory of a tenacious community activist-turned-politician makes her uniquely poised for this moment.

You may not currently know the five-term congresswoman’s name if you live in Iowa, but you almost certainly do if you live in South Los Angeles, where Bass has been involved in civil rights activism since the early 1970s. (She traces the beginning of her decades-long work on police reform to an incident in which she was harassed by LAPD officers in 1973 — the year George Floyd was born.)

[See also: “The Karen Bass Los Angeles knows” in Politico]

Bass witnessed the community devastation wrought by the crack cocaine epidemic firsthand as a physician’s assistant in the late 1980s and co-founded the social justice organization Community Coalition in 1990. As she told an interviewer a decade ago, she came up in the political trenches protesting with a generation of activists who are now firmly ensconced in the California political establishment, including former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and state Sen. Maria Elena Durazo.


Another common thread in her career has been as a bridge-builder, with news coverage often noting her ability to maintain working relationships far across the aisle. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Central Valley conservative, has called her his favorite Democrat. The pair, who met in the California statehouse, text regularly.

And like Biden, her life has been reshaped by sudden tragedy and grief. In 2006, her daughter and son-in-law, both 23, were killed in a crash on the 405.

Potential pitfalls ahead

Bass’ relative political obscurity and progressive bona fides could also pose serious challenges for the Biden campaign.

In their story, my colleagues Jennifer Haberkorn and Adam Elmahrek describe Bass’ political ideology as being “significantly to the left of Biden’s or several of the other women under consideration,” meaning her record could raise concerns in key swing states Democrats need to win. (She supports the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, while Biden has called for more moderate alternatives.)

She has yet to face the kind of public scrutiny that a presidential campaign would bring, and her political vulnerabilities have yet to be tested in a tough contest. Past comments praising the Church of Scientology and former Cuban leader Fidel Castro have already drawn negative media attention. As Jennifer and Adam write, Bass’ trips to Cuba and views on the Castro regime “could prove politically toxic in Florida,” which has a large population of anti-Castro refugees and will be a prime state of concern for Biden’s campaign.

The California outlook

While the nation speculates on a list of final contenders — which also includes former national security advisor Susan Rice, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth — the inclusion of Bass and Harris has stirred up the Golden State political scene.

“The two women hail from opposite parts of the state and have substantially different résumés, but their fate on the presidential ticket has become inextricably linked, thanks to unusually public jockeying by allies on their behalf,” as my colleagues Melanie Mason and Phil Willon explained in a recent story.

[Read the story: “California takes starring role in VP search as Karen Bass ascends and Kamala Harris comes under fire” in the Los Angeles Times]

Biden is said to be close to making his choice and is expected to announce his decision by next week.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

A steep decline in California’s coronavirus infection rate announced this week by Gov. Gavin Newson may not be accurate, according to the state’s top public health official, who said Tuesday that the state’s data system used to process COVID-19 test results is marred with technical issues. The snafus have caused delays in analyzing test results and cast doubt on Newsom’s announcement Monday of a 21.2% decline in the seven-day average rate for positive infections compared to the average from the week before. Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles County has paid out roughly $55 million in settlements since 1990 in cases in which sheriff’s deputies were alleged to belong to a secret society, records obtained by The Times show. The figure comes from a list that includes payouts in dozens of lawsuits and claims involving deputies associated with tattooed groups accused of glorifying an aggressive style of policing. The report, prepared by L.A. County attorneys, lists nearly 60 cases, some of them pending, and names eight specific cliques. Los Angeles Times


The L.A. County Department of Public Health will not consider any applications for waivers enabling elementary schools to reopen, citing high local COVID-19 case rates. The decision comes one day after the California Department of Public Health announced new guidelines for granting school reopening waivers, indicating that counties with case rates above 200 per 100,000 residents should not consider applications. Los Angeles Times

Walt Disney Co. suffered a major decline in earnings in its third fiscal quarter, illustrating the severe damage dealt to the world’s most powerful entertainment company by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has kept Disneyland closed, cratered global tourism and delayed movie releases for months. Los Angeles Times

What started as a massive Mulholland Drive party held in defiance of coronavirus-related health orders ended in gunfire early Tuesday, leaving one woman dead and sending two other people to a hospital. Los Angeles Times

 A party at a home on Mulholland Drive
Three people were shot, one fatally, at a party at a home on Mulholland Drive where police had investigated a disturbance hours earlier.

TikTok creators flocked to L.A. to become stars. What will they do if President Trump’s ban takes effect? Los Angeles Times

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A California congressman tried to bypass Yosemite National Park’s lottery for vehicle permits over a holiday weekend. When Rep. TJ Cox (D-Fresno) wasn’t selected for a permit, he used his office to push the National Park Service to grant him tickets, according to internal National Park Service emails. His campaign manager called the allegations a meritless, partisan attack. Sacramento Bee

San Jose’s police chief is stepping down after 28 years with the department. Chief Eddie Garcia said Monday that his December retirement had been in the works for some time but that he held off announcing it in June, as originally planned, in part because of the fallout from the department’s response to protests that began in late May. Mercury News


L.A. County District Atty. Jackie Lacey’s husband has been charged with assault in a gun-waving incident. In a chaotic scene captured on video, David Lacey waved a gun at protesters who descended on the Laceys’ Granada Hills home for a pre-dawn demonstration in March. The case was investigated by the Los Angeles Police Department but will be prosecuted by the California Department of Justice to avoid any conflict of interest. Los Angeles Times

Ed Buck now faces four additional charges for allegedly distributing drugs over nearly a decade and enticing two people to engage in prostitution. Buck was indicted last year in connection with the overdose deaths of two men in his West Hollywood apartment. Los Angeles Times


How to evaluate the deluge of COVID-19 news without losing your mind: A disinformation expert gives tips on how to stay calm and make sense of pandemic news. Scientific American


The annals of late-stage capitalism: Backlash ensued after a Silicon Valley investor took to Twitter in search of a teacher for his backyard micro-school. He promised a $2,000 Uber Eats gift card as a referral bonus for “the best 4-6th grade teacher in Bay Area” and pledged to beat whatever said teacher was currently getting paid. SF Gate

Pacific Crest Trail hikers are scarce during the pandemic. Here’s how North state small businesses that typically cater to the hikers are coping. Redding Record Searchlight

[Previously: “Due to coronavirus, hikers advised to leave the Pacific Crest Trail. Some refuse.” in the Los Angeles Times]

Drive-through corn dogs and funnel cakes in wine country: Though the 2020 Sonoma County Fair has been canceled, some of the event’s favorite food vendors will be firing up the fryers, batter-coating the dogs and getting the grills sizzling for a drive-through food fair this weekend. Sonoma Magazine

After a series of closures, the Bay Area is now down to just one Hooters. With the San Bruno, Dublin and Campbell outposts of the sports bar shuttered, the one next to the big mattress store in Rohnert Park is all that remains. East Bay Times

A poem to start your Wednesday: “Sea Grapes” by Derek Walcott. Poetry Foundation

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Los Angeles: partly sunny, 76. San Diego: partly sunny, 71. San Francisco: windy, 64. San Jose: partly sunny, 69. Fresno: sunny, 91. Sacramento: partly sunny, 82. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Gina Stella Girard:

I was born in the mid-1960s in San Diego. I have a distinct early-1970s memory: We lived in Del Cerro and would drive west on Interstate 8 daily, through Mission Valley toward the beaches. I remember seeing cows grazing under the Interstate 805 cloverleaf, in the median between the eastbound and westbound lanes of I-8. My 6-year-old self thought it was very cool that cows were living on the freeway! I now live in the Midwest, where cows grazing next to a highway is very common, but to a city kid growing up in the ’70s, it was amazing!

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.