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She’s the first Black woman in the U.S. to lead a legislative house. Will Karen Bass soon be VP?

Rep. Karen Bass speaks at a lectern as other congressional lawmakers stand behind her
Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), right, is chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and was the first Black woman to lead a U.S. state legislative house when she was named California Assembly speaker in 2008.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

Former Vice President Joe Biden could do worse than to choose U.S. Rep. Karen Bass of Los Angeles as his running mate.

He could, for example, select one of the far better-known vice presidential contenders: Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts or another Californian, Sen. Kamala Harris.

Warren, 71, and Biden just aren’t in sync ideologically. And her outspoken, liberal views on such issues as “Medicare for all” and corporate tax hikes could turn off moderate voters in crucial battleground states that sided with President Trump in 2016.

Harris, 55, might be a good governing partner for Biden. She’s capable of modifying her positions to fit the situation. And Biden apparently is drawn to her — despite Harris’ harsh attacks on him in an early presidential campaign debate — because she and his late son, Beau, were close allies when both were state attorneys general.

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But Harris carries baggage because of risk-averse performances as California attorney general and San Francisco district attorney. She tended not to fight for things she should have, such as abolishing capital punishment, lowering prison sentences and enacting substantive police reform.

Harris would be a historic choice for Biden — the first woman of color nominated for vice president by a major party. But so would Bass, 66, who is chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and only recently was placed on Biden’s potential list of running mates.

Bass’ assets: Everyone likes her. She’s comfortable to be around and is able to deal with Republicans. She doesn’t make enemies. She’s smart, energetic and successful at achieving goals — such as shepherding a sweeping police reform bill through the House last week and attaining major reforms in foster children programs a decade ago as speaker of the California Assembly.

She’s calmly articulate, not bombastic. Liberal, but not fiery.

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Most important for any VP selection, Bass wouldn’t hurt the ticket. She’d probably help by adding a positive, reassuring force.

The Los Angeles congresswoman and chair of the Congressional Black Caucus is being vetted as a potential running mate for Biden.

But let’s be honest: Any Californian would have a tough time passing muster with many Americans who see this state as populated with extremist lefty wackos.

Moreover, no matter whom Democrats nominated for president or vice president, the ticket would carry California with its 55 electoral votes, roughly 20% of the number needed to win election.

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Bass’ background: Grew up in the Venice and Fairfax areas of L.A. Got hooked on community activism as a child by watching the civil rights movement on television. Graduated from a physician assistant program at USC, where she received a master’s degree in social work.

As a physician assistant in the 1980s, Bass was motivated by L.A.’s crack epidemic to create the nonprofit Community Coalition, which worked to replace liquor stores with more wholesome enterprises and to attract additional money for low-performing schools.

“She’s the real deal with a level of civil rights movement bona fides that few vice presidential nominees have ever had,” says former L.A. Mayor and Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, who has known Bass since the early 1970s. “She’s had a leadership voice wherever she’s gone.”

Bass was elected to the Assembly in 2004 and chosen by her colleagues as speaker in 2008 — the first Black woman in the nation’s history to lead a state legislative house.

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There couldn’t have been a worse time to be speaker, especially for a Democrat. The Great Recession had dug a $42-billion hole in the state budget and the Democrat-controlled Legislature was forced to sharply cut education and safety net programs. In those days, passage of a budget still required a two-thirds majority vote.

There was a Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. And the GOP needed to be persuaded to raise taxes.

Additionally, Bass was a short-timer lame duck with only two years left before she was term-limited.

It all got done in 2009, but Republicans who voted to increase taxes paid a steep political price. It essentially ended their careers. And angry voters repealed half the tax hikes.

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Bass, Senate leader Darrell Steinberg and the two Republican leaders — Assemblyman Mike Villines and Sen. Dave Cogdill — all received the annual Profile in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Library.

Bass not only survived her speakership, she won high respect and kudos — then was elected to Congress.

“She was great,” Villines recalls. “If she were the VP, she’d be fantastic. She’s a normal person. Negotiating with her was easy. She would listen. It was never confrontational. I found her to be truthful and honest, someone just trying to get things done.”

Steinberg, now Sacramento’s mayor, says Bass was “one of the most decent, effective leaders I’ve ever worked with. There’s no pretense about her.”

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To put his comments in perspective, Senate and Assembly leaders normally are engaged in a silent, competitive feud. But not Bass and Steinberg.

“We never had a moment of that,” Steinberg says.

“Karen Bass never looked for the spotlight,” says Fabian Núñez, her predecessor as speaker and mentor. “The spotlight found Karen Bass. That’s very unusual in politics.”

Biden has pledged to choose a woman. And he’s under pressure to select a woman of color.

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Other Black women being considered include former national security advisor Susan Rice, Rep. Val Demings of Florida and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. Also on the list are New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Latina, and Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Asian American.

Bass is a long shot — one that could pay off big for Biden and a country fed up with divisive claptrap.


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