She’s a politician who cringes at having her picture taken and is content to let others grab headlines. She repeatedly had to be dragged into taking risks to elevate her political career.
In many ways, Karen Bass is the anti-Kamala Harris.
And yet, the Californians have ended up in a similar spot: On Joe Biden’s vice presidential shortlist.
While the congresswoman from Los Angeles remains a long shot, her unassuming approach, muted ambitions and decades of advocating on health care and race issues while far outside the national spotlight have captured the interest of the Biden campaign.
A former physician assistant and nurse who now heads the Congressional Black Caucus, Bass has seen her profile rise of late amid the twin crises of the coronavirus pandemic and national reckoning with racism. Her standing in the VP search has improved based on private assessments shared with Biden’s team.
“The reason she’s gone from a name bandied about to a serious contender is because the more you look at her, the more you realize what a perfect choice for the time she is,” said former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. He started working alongside Bass in the early 1970s to coalesce Black and Latino activists around curbing police abuse and expanding immigrant rights.
Bass lacks the political operation and national network of top rivals for the job. But she’s also made clear that, like Biden, she could be viewed as a transitional figure in the Democratic Party who currently harbors little interest in seeking the White House herself when he leaves office.
She’s already undergone intense scrutiny from the campaign — including a half-day interview with Biden representatives that a friend described as “invasive” — and has advanced deep into the vice presidential process, according to three people familiar with the vetting.
Some of the people contacted by the Biden team about Bass said some of her personal qualities starkly contrast with Harris: that she’s persuasive but not flashy, and that she’s trusted by progressives but still respected by Republicans. These people describe Bass as passionate, yet not someone who would allow her own objectives to overshadow her responsibilities as Biden’s No. 2.
Bass would still have to overcome long odds: The extent of her personal rapport with Biden, whom she didn’t know well at the onset of the process, remains unclear. As does how she would handle the scrutiny and pressures of the role. She is a virtual unknown in most of the country, and unlike Harris, hasn’t been vetted or gone through the rigors of a national campaign.
Bass has faced blowback for lamenting the death of “Comandante en jefe” (commander in chief) Fidel Castro in 2016, remarks that were seen as overly respectful and drew the ire of Florida Democrats. And her lack of a political network — beyond what she inherited and built on as leader of the CBC — also surfaced doubts among top Biden donors who favor better-known prospects.
“I don’t think you can go with someone that is there to hold a place and not outshine you,” a Biden bundler said of Bass.
Yet several reviews of Bass relayed to the campaign that have trickled out have been positive, bordering on glowing. Biden’s team has queried former California Sen. Barbara Boxer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who put Bass in charge of police reform, and both heaped praise on the congresswoman, according to the people familiar with the conversations.
California Rep. Ro Khanna, a national co-chair for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, told POLITICO he would be thrilled if Bass is selected, noting his “tremendous respect” for his House colleague, as well as for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Among progressives, he said, Bass is “seen as a leader on foreign policy, on health care, on racial justice and issues of working families.”
In recent weeks, Bass has drawn endorsements from a motley crew of political influencers. They range from Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas to conservative columnist George Will, who described the congresswoman as a soother and noted how she got along with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) when they served together in the California state Legislature.
“The fact that she’s been in all these publications with nary a dissenting attack on her character tells you a lot,” said Christine Pelosi, chair of the California Democratic Party Women’s Caucus and the daughter of the House speaker.
Former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who’s done much of the outreach for the vice presidential search committee, has been talking about Bass with current and former elected officials in her home state. When he spoke with former California Democratic Party Chair John Burton, Dodd relayed an anecdote about Bass having recently spoken to the centrist Blue Dog Coalition about criminal justice reform.
“She knocked their socks off,” Dodd said, according to Burton. The anecdote underscored Bass’ ability to appeal to the centrist flank of the party while also drawing positive marks from progressives.
Burton told Dodd he was impressed with Bass and praised her for her “calm” leadership. He also commended Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, another VP contender, offering that she would be an appealing face on the ticket because of her military experience and Midwestern sensibilities.
When Harris came up, Burton soured, sounding a note of caution: “Look for someone who does no harm,” he told Biden’s team.
In an interview, Burton said he worried Harris’ clash with Biden on the debate stage over race would immediately be weaponized by President Donald Trump and GOP allies. “That can be a problem, that Joe Biden’s running mate is on television spots for the Republican, calling him ‘an asshole.’ I overstate. [But] basically, that’s it,” Burton said.
Harris’ rapid rise has not always endeared her to the state’s old guard. (Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who endorsed Biden in the primary, told a reporter, when asked about Harris’ presidential prospects in 2017, “She just got here.”)
The lives and political careers of Harris and Bass have often intertwined, though they are marked by sharp differences shaped by their geographic bases and personal styles. For much of the time, Harris was an executive official from Northern California and Bass a legislator from Southern California.
Bass, 66, and Harris, 55, were both children of the civil rights movement and early supporters of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. Both were the highest-ranking women this summer to lead police reform efforts in the House and Senate.
Harris, a former prosecutor, got her start in politics by cultivating the wealthy and powerful in her native Bay Area. She narrowly won her first statewide race, for attorney general, in 2010, and from that perch essentially cleared the field when she ran for Senate six years later. Many continued to back her as the state’s favorite daughter when she launched her presidential run in 2019.
Bass was a young organizer who went into health care and then founded a community group that worked to shut down or convert liquor stores in South Los Angeles amid the rise of gangs and crack cocaine. She was mentored by former Rep. Diane Watson, who with Villaraigosa was instrumental in urging a reluctant Bass to make her first run for the Assembly. There, as one of about two dozen legislators from Los Angeles, she worked on foster care and rose in leadership.
Bass’ initial hesitation didn’t surprise her longtime allies, who for decades as community organizers had seen her step aside for them at news conferences and still talk about her contempt for having her photo taken. After California voters rejected an effort to extend term limits for lawmakers, the then-speaker, Fabian Núñez, encouraged Bass to succeed him.
Her reaction: Look elsewhere.
Núñez recalled gently pressing Bass, noting her work in unifying Black and brown communities in the state as the number of Black residents fell and Latinos rose. She turned him down, but ultimately went along when it became clear there was a glide path to the post. The two locked up the votes for her to take over as speaker in a single evening.
Núñez described Bass as “incredibly loyal, committed and honest. She’ll never get ahead of her skis.”
Bass experienced tragedy when her 23-year-old daughter and son-in-law were killed in a car accident. During the last economic recession, she helped preside over some of the most painful budget-cutting sessions in recent memory, working opposite then-Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and McCarthy, and winning praise from GOP officials who remain almost unwilling admirers.
“There are a lot of people in politics who are well liked, and there are a lot of people in politics who are well respected,” said Jim Brulte, a former California Republican Party chair and longtime legislative leader. “But there aren’t a lot of people who are well liked and well respected. Karen is one of them.”
As she’s advanced in the search, Bass’ longtime relationships have started to pay off. Dolores Huerta, the labor leader and civil rights icon who also supported Harris for president and Senate, has broken away to back Bass. Huerta wrote an op-ed casting Bass as a builder of multiethnic and multigenerational coalitions, comparing her organizing work with Barack Obama’s.
Bass is stepping up her presence in the Biden campaign. On July 30, she’s scheduled to take part in a campaign event alongside Biden, Majority Whip Jim Clyburn and Rep. Cedric Richmond. An invitation to the event shows Bass will help Biden launch the African American Leadership Finance Council.
It was not lost on other admirers or rivals when Bass jumped in to defend Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, another longtime friend, at a recent hearing. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) had casually accused Garcetti of defunding the police department. Garcetti, Bass responded in understated fashion, would do no such thing to the LAPD.
“I just want to make a note that he absolutely did not defund the police department,” she said. “He did reduce the budget and he shifted the funds to deal with some of the real issues that police officers always complain about.”
Garcetti, as it happens, is also on Biden’s VP vetting committee.