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Column: Karen Bass says she’ll protect abortion rights in L.A. But can the mayor really do that?

A woman at a podium speaking into a microphone. Signs say “Karen Bass for mayor.”
There are lots of things an L.A. mayor can influence. Voters should focus on those.
(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)
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On Monday, Los Angeles was still riddled with homeless encampments, crime was still too high, traffic was horrendous as usual and mass transit remained spotty. But mayoral candidate Karen Bass spent a good chunk of the day in a packed room with Vice President Kamala Harris and an official from Planned Parenthood Los Angeles discussing the fight for reproductive rights and women’s health.

The next day, I got a campaign ad for Bass, the latest to pop into my feed, describing her as the “only pro-choice Democrat running” in the mayoral race.

On her website, abortion is also highlighted. “Women’s reproductive rights are under attack,” it says. “Join Karen’s fight to defend legal abortion in L.A.”

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And Bass has attacked her opponent, billionaire developer Rick Caruso, for donating in the past to candidates who oppose abortion.

Opinion Columnist

Nicholas Goldberg

Nicholas Goldberg served 11 years as editor of the editorial page and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and Sunday Opinion section.

On the face of it, all that may sound reasonable enough. Abortion is an issue everywhere in the country in the wake of the Supreme Court’s disastrous decision overturning Roe vs. Wade.

But in the mayoral race in L.A.?

For all the problems the next mayor of Los Angeles will face — affordable housing, violent crime, corruption, jobs, potholes and union negotiations, to name just a few — he or she will have little or nothing to do with reproductive rights.

It’s as if Bass were to put up an ad telling Angelenos that she thinks Ukraine ought to be fast-tracked into NATO. It just doesn’t fall within the job description.

If Bass wants to fight the good fight for reproductive rights, she should have run for reelection to the House of Representatives, where she is currently a member. President Biden plans to send to Congress a bill to codify abortion rights nationally, and Bass could have stayed in Washington to vote for it.

Rick Caruso and Karen Bass are running for Los Angeles mayor. Here is your guide to the race.

Nov. 11, 2022

Campaigning on irrelevant issues is not the worst thing a candidate can do, but it is disingenuous. Bass says abortion is “a question of values,” but presumably she’s focusing on it because polls show that in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision last summer, abortion rights have become an issue likely to energize and motivate voters to turn out for Democratic candidates who support legal abortion.

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In a Pew Research Center poll over the summer, 56% of American voters (and 71% of Democrats) said that abortion would be “very important” to their vote in the midterm elections. And while that question was specifically about congressional elections, Bass understands — or hopes, in any case — that it will spill over to local races too.

And to some degree, it has.

NARAL Pro-Choice California has endorsed Bass because of her long years as an abortion rights defender in Washington, saying the country needs such leaders “up and down the ballot.”

Earlier this month, Bass ripped into her opponent for failing to follow through on a pledge to spend $1 million backing the abortion-rights state constitutional amendment that’s on the ballot.

I’m casting a protest vote against the insidious effect of big money in election politics.

Oct. 10, 2022

And it’s true that Caruso’s stand on abortion is a bit unclear. He says he’s in favor of the right to choose, but a 2007 profile in Los Angeles magazine, based on an interview with him, reported that “he opposes abortion in most cases but would support some stem cell research.”

But that’s mostly campaign hoopla.

In fact, the next mayor of L.A. really won’t be a warrior in this battle. Voters need to understand that state and federal laws, not city ordinances, determine where, how and under what circumstances abortions may be obtained. In addition to Biden’s promised codification, Gov. Newsom has put a measure on the November ballot to enshrine reproductive rights in the state Constitution. And the Legislature sent him 15 additional bills this year to strengthen California’s already robust abortion protections.

I support Karen Bass for mayor. I like what I know about her and I’ve made it clear in these pages that I would not vote for her opponent because I don’t believe billionaires should be allowed to buy their way into public office by outspending their rivals 10 to 1.

Furthermore, I’m unequivocally in favor of abortion rights.

The biggest crises and challenges facing America and the world are not the ones that will draw voters to the polls in November.

Oct. 3, 2022

But I also favor truth in campaign advertising. What the city and its mayor can do about reproductive rights is at best marginal. There have been rumblings about steps the city or the Los Angeles Police Department might take to make L.A. a safe space for abortion seekers, such as not cooperating with out-of-state agencies if they investigate people who have had abortions in California. But that’s small potatoes in the bigger battle.

Abortion shouldn’t be a significant factor for city voters electing a new mayor.

What they really need is a clearer sense of how the candidates’ plans to reduce homelessness will be accomplished and paid for, how their crime agendas will make L.A. safer and how they will handle dozens of other issues that the mayor does have some say over. The recent revelations of racism on the City Council opened endless new areas for discussion.

A few months ago, during the mayoral primary, an independent expenditure committee funded in part by entertainment industry titans like Jeffrey Katzenberg and J.J. Abrams cautioned voters that an “anti-choice Republican like Caruso” couldn’t represent L.A., adding: “In a world without Roe, don’t trust Rick Caruso to protect your choice.”

But what’s best for L.A. does not come down to what Bass or Caruso thinks about abortion any more than it comes down to their views on Ukraine. Voters and the campaigns should be paying attention to the issues the candidates can influence in the job they both say they want.

@Nick_Goldberg

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