Karen Bass was speaker of the California Assembly when a Republican lawmaker in 2009 was caught on a hot mic boasting in lurid detail about an affair he said he had with a lobbyist — right down to her “eye-patch underwear.”
Bass stripped the lawmaker, Mike Duvall, of his committee assignments and called for an ethics probe. But after he resigned she dropped the investigation, calling for a more general review of lobbyist-lawmaker relationships.
The Sacramento Bee blasted the decision. In an editorial titled “Bass can’t sweep this one away,” the newspaper wrote that Bass’ move would allow the unseemly lawmaker-lobbyist culture prevalent in the state Capitol to fester. “This issue is not about sex. It isn’t about peccadillos. It is about political favors and the potential for such favors to be doled out, year after year, when the Legislature fails to police itself.”
As she’s risen to finalist in Joe Biden’s veepstakes, Bass has styled herself as an activist and a reluctant politician. But in Sacramento, she is remembered neither as the radical that her opponents have made her out to be — nor as a crusading reformer.
She raised money from corporate interests. She granted pay raises to legislative staffers amid a devastating economic crisis. And, as leaders of the state Assembly before and after her did, Bass oversaw a legislative body with a history of debauchery that would not come to a head until nearly a decade later with the #MeToo movement.
“Karen Bass was a conventional politician. She didn’t challenge that system,” said Dan Walters, a dean of the Sacramento press corps who now writes for the nonprofit news site CalMatters. “But then, nobody else was challenging that system either. She inherited that system and didn’t change it. She was not a trailblazer. She was not tilting at windmills in any respect. She was a go-along-to-get-along politician.”
During her rise to prominence, Bass adapted to the ways of an institution dominated by lobbyists and interest groups with business before the Legislature. She secured donations from industries that have since fallen out of favor with liberal Democrats, including oil companies and drugmakers. She inherited a kind of “tithing” system for power players created, and later streamlined, by leaders who reigned decades before Bass, from Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh to Willie “Ayatollah of the Assembly” Brown.
The money was used to maintain their governing majorities as well as their influence within the caucus.
Bass’ history of raising and spending money looked much of her contemporaries’. And she took part in the culture. She was let off with a warning by the state’s campaign and ethics commission after holding an April 2009 fundraiser at the home of Sacramento lobbyist Kevin Sloat, who hosted dozens of lavish events for politicians where he provided drinks and refreshments, cigars and floral arrangements. The committee later hit Sloat with a state record $133,500 fine for violating laws regulating lobbyists.
Between January 2008 and June 2009, Bass received about $13,700 in gifts funded by lobbyists and other special interests, and appeared alongside colleagues as one of the top recipients of free tickets to concerts and other entertainment events valued at more than $2,700. She failed to disclose dinners paid for by AT&T, the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Mission Indians (operators of the Pechanga Resort and Casino in Southern California) and oil giant Chevron valued at $113, $94 and $59, respectively. Bass settled with the ethics panel in 2009 and paid a $600 fine.
Bass also billed state taxpayers nearly $9,000 for out-of-state airfare after flying to Washington five times over a 2½-year period. A spokeswoman at the time told The Associated Press that Bass was in demand for her deep knowledge of foster care and because she was the first black woman to serve as a legislative speaker. Bass, in turn, was working to wring as much money as possible out of the federal stimulus, the spokeswoman said. Bass ran for Congress in 2010.
“I remember her as a competent legislative leader who in some ways seemed less transactional and devious than some of her predecessors, but also not like, ‘I’m going to come in here and really clean house,’” said Derek Cressman, who was then Western states regional director for the advocacy group Common Cause. “To be fair, I’m not sure I would say that of any legislative leader in California. That’s not how you ascend to leadership in the California Legislature.”
But Cressman, who is no longer with Common Cause, added, “I wouldn’t have described her then or now as a real reform type of leader.”
Bass herself described her role as speaker in managerial terms when asked in 2016 about the incident with Duvall. Bass told The Washington Post that her immediate concern was for Duvall — to ensure “they don’t blow their brains out or something. So that’s the mode I was in, to protect him from himself and to protect him from the other Republicans, because they were ready to kill him!”
“I felt like being speaker was advanced boy management. That’s what I called it,” Bass said. “The other thing that came out of that experience was, how on earth did we [women] get the rap of being hysterical? I spent all my time managing the emotions of the male members.”
Democrats widely defended Bass’ handling of the Duvall matter, referring to an opinion from the Legislature’s lawyer that once Duvall resigned the issue fell outside of the ethics committee’s jurisdiction. In a prepared statement to POLITICO on Wednesday, Bass referred to that opinion as well, saying it had found “an investigation by the Ethics Committee would be moot because he [Duvall] was no longer a member of the Assembly and was now a private citizen.”
Noting that she had removed Duvall from his committee posts and referred the matter to the ethics committee, she said, “In the time since, both the California Legislature and Congress have improved their systems for preventing and responding to sexual harassment and abuse, but there is still a ways to go across the board in our society. When this matter was brought to my attention, I didn’t just turn my head and look the other way — I took swift action.”
Years after Bass’ departure, the Capitol was shaken by a public push by women in Sacramento to change the culture from within, particularly around sexual harassment. Adama Iwu, a Sacramento lobbyist who helped lead the movement, said while the activity had long existed, “It wasn’t discussed.”
“It’s something I look back on and think I could have done more,” said Iwu, who remembers her excitement when Bass took over as speaker. She pointed to societal changes and a new term-limit extension law for helping bring change. “We all felt like this has been a long-term issue and we could have done more for the women that come before us.”
Bass was leader of the Assembly for just two years. Squeezed between two more prominent speakers, Fabian Núñez before her and John A. Pérez after, she was viewed by Democrats in California then — as Biden is now — as a transitional figure suited to a tumultuous time. She was well-liked and respected by Democrats and Republicans in the Capitol, but she did not leave an indelible mark on the state.
Today, just 56 percent of Democrats in Bass’ home state are able to offer an opinion of her potential selection as Biden’s running mate, according to a Berkeley IGS Poll released Tuesday.
Bass arrived as speaker after Californians approved terms limits, but before they voted to relax the rules to allow members of the Assembly to serve for a dozen years instead of six. During Bass’ era, a third of the Assembly turned over every two years and speakerships lasted for only a couple of years at a time.
Short as her stint was, Bass earned her a Kennedy Profile in Courage award for her role in a much-touted budget deal. But the agreement hinged less on Democrats than a group of Republicans who crossed party lines to approve tax hikes — and paid for it with their political careers. Bass’ contribution was helping bring both sides along while getting buy-in from Democrats for deep cuts.
Bass advocated for universal health care and expanded protections for undocumented immigrants, among other progressive causes. But at the time of Bass’ speakership, the state was consumed by deficits. Bass and other Democrats measured success less by achieving new initiatives than by averting the evisceration of cherished programs.
“I still have PTSD over what we had to do during that time,” said Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.), one of multiple Democrats who served with Bass in the state Legislature and the U.S. House and who praised her tenure as speaker in interviews this week. “She was very successful at getting the members to hold hands and vote on all of those very tough votes.”
Speaking to Los Angeles Magazine in 2009, Bass said, “This year has been one of the most painful in my life — not from a personal point of view but from a professional one. It’s very, very painful that I’m tearing up the very thing I went up to protect.”
But with then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposing dramatic cuts to the state’s social service programs and education, Bass said, “I feel good that we were able to protect those programs. If they had been completely eliminated, it would have been very hard to recreate them.”
To other participants in budget talks — and to their observers — Bass did stand out for her steady demeanor and ability to negotiate. Even Republicans and their staffs admired her.
Susan Kennedy, who was Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff, described a “noticeable increase in civility when she was in the room … She’s got a classiness about her, and she always had a very low tolerance for political posturing.”
For many politicians, Kennedy said, “At a certain point in time, it all just becomes numbers and politics.” But with Bass, “It was always about the people affected by the programs, and it was unique. It doesn’t mean that other politicians didn’t care, but when you’re in negotiations and it just becomes horse trading, it was never horse trading for her.”
At times, though, Bass appeared out of touch politically. In 2009, news outlets reported that she and Assembly Republican leader Mike Villines awarded pay raises to more than 120 legislative staffers. At the time, the state was not only facing a massive budget deficit — legislative leaders were asking voters to approve a ballot measure to extend tax increases.
Bass rescinded the pay raises after the story, saying they had become a distraction. But just before leaving the speakership the next year, she promoted and gave pay raises to 20 legislative employees. In her statement, Bass said she proposed modest pay increases “to a few dozen bipartisan staffers, most of whom were making less than $50,000 at the end of my term as Speaker.”
Antonio Villaraigosa, the former Los Angeles mayor who also served as Assembly speaker and has known Bass since the early 1970s, said her consideration for vice president is a validation of her unique profile in California politics.
“What I think is exceptional about Karen is that she wasn’t looking to run [for speaker],” Villaraigosa added. “She almost had to be convinced, and I think that’s because she’s always been about the work, and not about personal advancement or aggrandizement … She understands the importance of working across the aisle, working across ethnic and racial lines and building community support.”