Column: How a ‘defamatory’ TV ad attacking Karen Bass could help her be L.A.’s next mayor

Rep. Karen Bass addresses supporters  in late April.
Rep. Karen Bass addresses supporters of her campaign for Los Angeles mayor in late April.
(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

It wasn’t very long ago that Melina Abdullah and Patrisse Cullors, two of the earliest leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement, had some harsh words for their friend and fellow Angeleno Rep. Karen Bass.

As a mayoral candidate, Bass had just released her first public safety plan. Abdullah and Cullors took one look at her call to replenish the ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department, and declared that Bass was putting “targets on the backs of Black people,” reminiscent of a “1994-crime-bill-style pro-police system.”

In addition, they warned that “pandering to affluent white Westside and Valley voters at the expense of Black, Latinx and working-class ones” could cost Bass a base “that she cannot afford to lose.”


Many left-leaning activists agreed with their essay in LA Progressive, vowing not to vote for her. Bass pushed back, of course.

But, fast-forward a few months, and it’s not the congresswoman who stands the best chance of changing their minds, but the union that represents rank-and-file LAPD officers.

Think of it as an unintended side effect of the decision by the union — the powerful Los Angeles Police Protective League — to sponsor nearly $2 million worth of campaign TV ads, all attacking Bass.

A lawyer for Bass said the attack ad from the police officers’ union contains “false, misleading and defamatory” information about the candidate’s voting record.

May 10, 2022

You might have seen the first one, which started airing this week.

It insinuates that Bass is guilty of the same sort of quid pro quo corruption that her ally, suspended L.A. City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, has been accused of — and denied — in a federal case involving USC. She isn’t.

A group of Black pastors and several others have already complained about the ad and its race-baiting imagery. On Tuesday, the Bass campaign described it as “false, misleading and defamatory,” and demanded it be taken off the air.


A spokesman for the police union’s political action committee, deceptively named the Neighbors for a Safer and Cleaner LA, shot back, telling The Times: “Bass doesn’t want the public to know the facts behind this shady deal prior to this election.”

Unfortunately, all of this back-and-forth misses a much larger, much more important point.

And that is that LAPD officers apparently see Bass becoming mayor as so awful — and yet so likely if she gets into a run-off with their preferred candidate, billionaire developer Rick Caruso — that they are willing to break the bank to stop her. And, so far, only her.

I hope this point won’t be lost on L.A.’s police-wary, progressive activists. Especially after L.A. City Councilman Joe Buscaino dropped out of the race Thursday and endorsed Caruso, given the two shared many of the same hard-line positions on homelessness and public safety.

Sure, we’re talking about Bass, who bristles at the mere suggestion that she ever wanted to “defund” the police, and who insists that Black and Latino voters do want more officers in the neighborhoods — just respectful, responsible, well-trained ones.

But it’s clear that the congresswoman is not the bringer of the “1994-crime-bill-style pro-police system” that she has been made out to be.

Indeed, the police union spending this much money to take down Bass — a full month before the field has been whittled to two candidates — could prove to be the fastest way to drum up more support for her among skeptical progressives, especially Black progressives.


Even earlier this month, that didn’t seem possible.

Many progressives were still angry over the way police forcibly carried Abdullah out of the last televised mayoral debate at Cal State Los Angeles and the way the candidates, who were standing onstage at the time, said and did nothing.

L.A. mayoral candidate Joe Buscaino has dropped out of the race and endorsed businessman Rick Caruso in the June 7 primary.

May 12, 2022

Abdullah singled out Bass, calling her silence particularly hurtful.

Bass has since condemned the incident, which was caught on video, and said she couldn’t see what was happening: “I had no idea who was being removed.” But Abdullah, who was already unhappy with Bass’ plan to hire more cops, described what happened as a breaking point for her as a Black progressive.

“She may not get our votes in the primary in June,” Abdullah told me late last week. “She’s not going to get my vote.”


Long gone are the days when Angelenos elected politicians purely based on the identity politics of race and ethnicity.

Bass, who has long represented the historically Black and increasingly Latino neighborhoods of South L.A., is hoping to become the second Black mayor of Los Angeles after Tom Bradley, who held the post from 1973 to 1993.

But this is 2022.

“When Tom Bradley ran for mayor, Black politics in L.A. was all new,” said Dermot Givens, a longtime political consultant and attorney.


Not all of his Black supporters liked one another, but, along with a strong base of liberal white voters, Bradley “had everybody because they wanted to have the opportunity to get a Black mayor,” Givens said. “[With] Karen running, it’s quite obvious that she doesn’t have everybody.”

According to the last poll from the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies and The Times, Bass had the support of merely about half of likely Black voters surveyed, plus 40% of white liberals.

Black voters make up just under 1 in 10 of the city’s likely voters, while white liberals — among the largest blocs of voters in the city — make up about 3 in 10.

“It’s critically important to have a very diverse coalition — racially diverse, ideologically diverse, geographically diverse,” Bass told me. “It is very important to me because it’s consistent with how I have led my life.”

If anything, this mayoral race is shaping up to be defined by money more than anything else. Which is fitting for a city increasingly defined by haves and have nots, by extreme wealth and extreme poverty.

Most polls predict that Bass and Caruso will be the ones who make it through next month’s primary to face off in November.


The coming bombardment of advertising dollars, with attack ad after televised attack ad trying to undermine Bass and, by extension, boost Caruso, will only magnify the dynamics of the mayoral race.

It’ll be the rich and the powerful versus the not-so-rich, the poor and the powerless.

On one side, there will be tough-on-crime Caruso, who has spent nearly $30 million on his own campaign, and the police union, through its PAC, spending freely to go to bat for him.

On the other side, there will be coalition-builder Bass, positioned as the defender of everyone else.

“If it’s between her and Rick Caruso,” Abdullah told me, no doubt echoing the predilections of many progressives worried about L.A.’s have nots, “I will not vote for Rick Caruso.”

Nothing like dropping a few million dollars on advertising to remind everyone why.