Essential Politics: Are Karen Bass and Kamala Harris frenemies?

Rep. Karen Bass and Vice President Kamala Harris
A new book details Joe Biden’s search for a running mate, when Rep. Karen Bass and then-Sen. Kamala Harris were among a small group of candidates.
(Ringo Chiu / For The Times; Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

I was first introduced to the concept of frenemies in sixth grade after a girl, who I thought was a friend, told my crush I liked him. Despite promising not to tell a soul my secret, she broke her word and told the last person in the world I wanted to know.

Though she betrayed me, I felt compelled to still be friendly with her as much as it pained me (it was middle school after all, and I wanted a good seat in the cafeteria). As a reporter in Washington, I have come to learn the town is filled with such frenemies. Vice President Kamala Harris appears to have a surprising one — Rep. Karen Bass, a Los Angeles Democrat, according to a book released Tuesday.

Hello friends, I’m Erin B. Logan, a reporter with the L.A. Times. I cover the Biden-Harris administration.


Today, we will explore the alleged tension between two of California’s most powerful Black women. (We will also dive into how Harris is likely to lean harder into the abortion culture wars in light of a leaked Supreme Court opinion.)

How Harris reportedly became vice president

It was 2020 and Biden had a choice to make.

After emerging as the likely Democratic contender to face off against then-President Trump in the general election, Biden assembled a four-person committee to screen candidates to be his running mate, according to the new book “This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden, and the Battle for America’s Future,” by journalists Jonathan Martin and Alex Burns.

The committee, which included Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, whittled the list down to a handful of women. Among them were four Black women: President Obama’s former national security advisor Susan Rice, Rep. Val Demings of Florida, Harris and Bass.

Bass emerged as a front-runner late in the process. She had no interest in being president and “was a person of deep policy expertise and congenial manners, a natural legislator who despite her more liberal inclinations shared Joe Biden’s preference for governing by compromise,” according to the book. After Bass’ name was leaked, the book says, top “California Democrats explicitly pressed for Bass as an alternative to Harris.”

Bass scored an endorsement from David Crane, once an advisor to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He told Biden’s team that “in contrast to Kamala Harris, Karen cares about something greater than herself,” according to the book. Dolores Huerta, a labor leader (who co-founded the National Farmworkers Assn. with civil rights leader Cesar Chavez), also expressed support.

But after stories emerged about Bass calling the death of socialist leader Fidel Castro a “great loss to the people of Cuba,” and a video of her “generously praising” the Church of Scientology, her chances of becoming vice president evaporated, according to the book.

Stories about Demings and Rice also emerged, seemingly clearing the runway for Harris to get the job. The book suggests that Biden and his team — as well as some of the vice presidential contenders — suspected Harris and her allies were behind the oddly timed stories.

Rice reportedly called Harris “during this time to tell [Harris] to call off her hatchet men,” according to the book.

Harris’ office declined to comment. Neither the White House, Demings nor the San Francisco consulting firm responded to comment.

When Biden expressed concern about Harris’ team’s possible role in the leaks, a close advisor urged him not to hold it against the senator. “After all, even if her former campaign consultants were operating that way, that did not necessarily mean Harris herself was involved,” according to the book.

We all know what happened next: Biden picked Harris to be his nominee for vice president, despite how she had attacked him during a debate for his opposition to busing for school integration.

According to the book, Harris derailed Bass’ chances of getting another post: her old job.

Harris’ old pal Gov. Gavin Newsom had to appoint someone to her Senate seat once she took office as vice president. He and Harris spoke by phone and she left the “distinct impression” she did not want Bass to take her old job, according to the reporters’ book. Newsom eventually named Alex Padilla, California’s secretary of state, to the position.

Bass told the authors, who are journalists for the New York Times, that despite her friends telling her that the leaks came from a San Francisco–based consulting firm allied with Harris, she didn’t fault her colleague for them because she “never saw any evidence of it.”

Doug Herman, a spokesman for Bass’ mayoral campaign, told the L.A. Times she has yet to read the book and that she “has deep respect and admiration for the vice president, who is someone she’s worked with for decades.”


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How Harris may respond on abortion

If you haven’t heard, Politico late Monday published a draft of an opinion by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. that would overturn Roe vs. Wade, the landmark ruling that legalized abortion. The publication of the draft triggered protests outside the high court and condemnation from Biden and his party. (The Supreme Court confirmed the draft’s authenticity but noted in a statement “it does not represent a decision by the Court or the final position of any member on the issues in the case.” A final decision is expected to come in the next two months.)

Harris, the highest-ranking elected woman in American history, is likely to play an expanded role in pushing her party’s political case on protecting abortion rights, Times writer Noah Bierman reported.

In a fiery speech at a fundraiser on Tuesday night for Emily’s List, a group that focuses on electing Democratic women who support abortion rights, Harris accused Republicans of “trying to weaponize the use of the law against women” while arguing that a host of other rights were at risk, including same-sex marriage and the use of contraceptives.

“There is nothing hypothetical about this moment,” Harris said. “Women in almost half the country could see their access to abortion severely limited. In 13 of those states, women would lose access to abortion immediately and outright.”

Harris would be a natural point person for the administration to vocally raise the issue on the midterm campaign trail if the Supreme Court adopts the draft. She has made women’s maternal health a key part of her agenda, speaking out often about the disproportionately high rate of deaths among Black women and other people of color during pregnancy. And as a senator and state attorney general, Harris championed issues tied to women’s health, particularly those related to abortion rights.


“She’s been a champion of the pro-choice movement for a long time so you will see her leaning in on the issue,” Karen Finney, a Harris ally who serves on the board of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told Bierman. “She is a very important messenger to talk about the impact that this is going to have on women — from a health perspective, from the perspective of our bodily autonomy, from the perspective of rights, as a former attorney general.”

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The latest on the abortion front

— Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. on Tuesday confirmed the authenticity of the leaked draft opinion overturning Roe vs. Wade and said the Supreme Court will launch its own investigation into the source of the unauthorized release, Times writer David G. Savage reported.

— Biden said the draft opinion would mark a “fundamental shift” in U.S. law and could throw a “whole range of rights” related to privacy into question, according to The Times’ Eli Stokols and Courtney Subramanian. Such a ruling would deliver a cataclysmic shock to the American body politic and potentially spark a political backlash, furthering civil unrest and a deeper reordering of the lives of millions.

— The landmark Roe vs. Wade case was built on a shaky legal foundation, Savage reported. In Roe, the justices announced a right that is not explicitly found in the text or the history of the Constitution. That omission is cited in Alito’s leaked draft opinion. Conservatives regularly cite Roe as an example of liberals inventing new constitutional rights. Even some prominent scholars who supported legal abortion have derided the court’s opinion.

— Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders said they will ask voters in November to place permanent protections for the procedure in the California Constitution, John Myers reported. An amendment to the state Constitution would require voter approval.


— On Capitol Hill, Democrats are left with no tools to combat the Supreme Court’s expected decision besides holding out hope that the coming state abortion bans will galvanize voters to deliver them overwhelming majorities in Congress this fall, Jennifer Haberkorn reported. Even if the fall of Roe is the powerful motivating political force Democrats hope, it would be months until the next Congress would convene and would be able to do something about it, such as enact a federal law authorizing abortion rights.

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