Karen Bass is running for mayor as a progressive. But some L.A. leftists are frustrated

Mayoral candidate Karen Bass talks to a supporter
U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, seen at her mayoral campaign kickoff in October, is facing criticism from some who find her political stances too moderate.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

For some of L.A.’s most outspoken left-leaning activists, the first sign of trouble came when U.S. Rep. Karen Bass unveiled her plan for ending homeless encampments on the city’s streets and sidewalks.

Bass, a progressive Democrat running for mayor, promised to house 15,000 people in her first year. But she also assailed “the violence that takes place in broad daylight” at encampments, saying she would make sure outreach workers receive backup from law enforcement or other security personnel — an approach opposed by some homeless advocates.

Leftist organizers were also troubled when Bass told a homeowner group she would not repeal a city law that allows council members to set up no-encampment zones around schools, parks and other facilities.


Still, the real uproar came weeks later when Bass called for the hiring of about 200 additional police officers at the Los Angeles Police Department, as well as hundreds of additional civilian personnel.

A coalition of grass-roots organizations denounced that approach, saying the city needs a mayor who will address “murderous policing,” not seek to “reform an irredeemable department.”

“This feels like nothing more than a shallow and misguided political calculation,” said Lex Steppling, national director of campaigns and organizing at Dignity & Power Now, which advocates for incarcerated people and their families.

Rep. Karen Bass, a leading candidate for L.A. mayor, released a public safety plan calling for 250 officers to move off desk duty and back onto patrols.

Feb. 8, 2022

Those responses do not appear to have inflicted any meaningful damage on Bass’ campaign, at least for the time being. A poll conducted last month by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, co-sponsored by The Times, showed Bass with a solid lead over her rivals, putting her in a strong position to make the top-two runoff in November.

Bass’ progressive critics also have expressed unhappiness with the other big-name candidates in the race: Councilman Joe Buscaino, real estate developer Rick Caruso, Councilman Kevin de León and City Atty. Mike Feuer.

Still, even some of Bass’ longtime supporters have begun warning publicly that her more moderate stances put her at risk of dampening enthusiasm among the city’s progressive voters.


“Pandering to affluent white Westside and Valley voters at the expense of Black, Latinx and working-class ones can cost her a base that she cannot afford to lose,” said Melina Abdullah and Patrisse Cullors, two longtime leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement, in an essay published by the LA Progressive.

In their essay, Cullors and Abdullah argued that Bass’ public safety plan puts “targets on the backs of Black people” and “harkens to a 1994-crime-bill-style pro-police system.” Bass, who “grounded herself in womanism and revolution,” is now trying to “out-Caruso Caruso and out-Buscaino Buscaino,” they said.

Melina Abdullah addresses a Police Commission meeting at LAPD headquarters
Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles, addresses a police commission meeting at LAPD headquarters.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Bass said she counts Abdullah and Cullors as friends. But she disputed several assertions contained in their essay, saying she has not changed her views on crime, police accountability or other issues for the campaign.

Her public safety plan, she said, does not seek to increase the LAPD budget. And it calls for far fewer officers than those put forth by Caruso and Buscaino.

Under her plan, the LAPD would grow to 9,700 officers, the amount currently authorized by the City Council. Caruso and Buscaino, by comparison, have promised to take the force up to 11,000 sworn personnel.


“My goal is to be the mayor for Los Angeles city, which is very large. And a lot of Angelenos right now are not feeling safe,” Bass said in an interview. “And that is a reality that is important to address, and not ignore.”

The fact that Bass is having to rebut such critiques is, in part, a reflection of the complicated political space she occupies.

Bass, a former community organizer, spent much of last year championing a sweeping reform bill that would have pushed law enforcement agencies to ban police chokeholds and “no-knock” warrants or risk losing out on certain federal funds. The bill, which ultimately stalled in the U.S. Senate, also would have created a nationwide police misconduct registry and made it easier for officers accused of wrongdoing to be prosecuted by law enforcement and sued by private citizens.

At the same time, Bass is known for publicly slamming the phrase “defund police,” telling the Washington Post in June 2020 — a few weeks after George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis — that it was “probably one of the worst slogans ever.” The “defund” question has come up multiple times a day, she recently told Los Angeles Magazine.

“I’m on record — radio, TV, print, hundreds of times — saying that I don’t support Defund the Police,’” she told the publication. “It’s like I can’t fully be trusted unless I recite it several times a day.”

Bass said L.A.’s black and Latino neighborhoods want police who are responsive but also act responsibly. Former Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, who has endorsed Bass and previously represented some of the city’s working-class Latino neighborhoods, offered a similar take.


“To suggest that those are Westside white or Valley views fundamentally misunderstands the realities of life for all Angelenos,” he said. “We all deserve safe communities. We all deserve responsive, properly trained and accountable law enforcement.”

City Councilwoman Nithya Raman, who has emerged in recent years as one of the city’s most progressive voices, praised Bass’ history of work on public safety, poverty and homelessness in some of the city’s most underserved communities.

“Most people know her record,” said Raman, who has not yet endorsed in the race. “And they trust it like I do.”

Nithya Raman speaks into a microphone
Councilmember Nithya Raman during a February press conference at City Hall.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Bass unveiled her public safety plan last month, weeks after the LAPD reported that the number of homicides reached a 15-year high in 2021. She said she knew Abdullah would not like the plan, but nevertheless told her about it before it was released.

Abdullah and Cullors, she said, were also highly critical of her police reform bill, because it would have provided hundreds of millions of dollars for law enforcement.


Among L.A.’s leftists, the frustration with Bass has not been limited to policing. In January, while fielding questions from the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn., she was asked what the city should do about unhoused people who decline offers of shelter or temporary housing. “At the end of the day,” she responded, “people have to move.”

“What I have learned in talking to the people that do this work day in and day out is 95% of the people will move” into shelter, housing or temporary housing, she told the group. “But for those 5% that won’t, especially if they’re breaking the law, laws have to be enforced.”

Those types of stances have alienated activists like Gina Viola, who lives in Hollywood and is an opponent of L.A.’s anti-encampment law.

Viola, who owns a temp agency for trade shows and conventions, endorsed Bass last fall. But after she learned about Bass’ strategy for addressing homelessness, Viola decided to rescind that endorsement.

“And after she put out her public safety platform, that was it for me,” said Viola, who has long called for the defunding and abolition of the LAPD.


Viola launched a long-shot bid for mayor last month, offering herself as an alternative for voters who want major cuts in police spending and an end to the city’s anti-encampment law and other homelessness initiatives.

Abdullah, who donated to Bass last year and has also praised Viola, has not yet decided whom she will endorse. And she sought to make clear that her message to Bass was not meant to rake her over the coals.

“It was about reminding her of her once-progressive positioning,” said Abdullah, who speaks with Bass every few weeks. “And urging her to come back in line with that position.”