She went toe to toe with Schwarzenegger. Now Karen Bass is ready to take on Trump.

Why We Wrote This

The incoming head of the Congressional Black Caucus talks with the Monitor about investigating the president, protecting voting rights, and whether African-American women are being taken for granted by the Democratic Party.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Rep. Karen Bass (D) of California (c.) walks through the Capitol with Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) of Washington, D.C. and Rep. Paul Tonko (D) of New York, last month. Congresswoman Bass, the incoming chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, has been mentioned as a potential future House speaker.

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When California Rep. Karen Bass (D) takes charge of the Congressional Black Caucus next year, she will be leading a group that is growing in numbers – and clout. Of its 55 members, five will chair full committees in the next Congress, while another 28 will chair subcommittees. That includes Representative Bass, who will head the subcommittee on Africa and global health and human rights. The Monitor recently sat down with Bass, who in 2008 became the first female African-American speaker of the California Assembly – or any state legislature. A determined woman who has brown belts in the Korean martial arts and who weathered a personal tragedy when her daughter and son-in-law were killed in an auto accident in 2006, she has focused during her eight years in Congress on strengthening America’s relationship with Africa and reforming foster care. She’s also earned respect in behind-the-scenes roles, helping to recruit candidates, round up votes, and fundraise. She’s a frequent guest on MSNBC and CNN, and Politico once quipped that Bass “looks more and more like a Pelosi-in-waiting each day.” What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of the interview.

As Democrats prepare to take over the House, the spotlight has been on Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi of California. Yet standing in the wings are a number of rising stars – some of whom are already being mentioned as potential speakers down the road.

One of them is Rep. Karen Bass, from Los Angeles. Back in 2008, as California was facing the Great Recession and a state budget crisis, she became the first female African-American speaker of the California Assembly – or any state legislature. Two years later, she was elected to Congress.

Today, Representative Bass is the incoming chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), which is growing in numbers and clout. Of its 55 members, five will chair full committees in the next Congress: government oversight, financial services, homeland security, science and technology, and education and workforce. Another 28 will chair subcommittees. That includes Bass, a former physician’s assistant, who will head the subcommittee on Africa and global health and human rights.

The Monitor recently sat down with Bass, a determined woman who has brown belts in the Korean martial arts and who weathered a personal tragedy when her daughter and son-in-law were killed in an auto accident in 2006. In her eight years in Congress, she has focused particularly on strengthening America’s relationship with Africa and reforming foster care.  

She’s also earned respect in behind-the-scenes roles, helping to set policy for the Democratic caucus, recruit candidates, round up votes, and fundraise. A frequent guest on MSNBC and CNN, Politico once quipped that Bass “looks more and more like a Pelosi-in-waiting each day.”

What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of the interview:

Q: The Congressional Black Caucus has topped 50 members – a first. How is the caucus going to use that power?

A: The Congressional Black Caucus historically has been known as the conscience of the Congress. That means fighting for the most vulnerable in our country. So that will be front and center.

You can go down the list of CBC members and where they are and the leadership they will provide in the committees.

For example, take the Financial Services committee and the attempt to dismantle “Dodd-Frank” Wall Street reforms and consumer protections. Chairwoman Maxine Waters of California will be at the forefront of protecting Dodd-Frank.

We have a secretary of Education who, from our point of view, believes in privatizing education. You can imagine that [Education and the Workforce committee] chairman Bobby Scott of Virginia will be on the forefront of that.

When it comes to the caucus overall and the Congress overall, it’s going to be an adjustment for our Republican colleagues to recognize that they’re now in the minority.

Q: Sen. Kamala Harris of California says that black women are the “backbone” of the Democratic Party, yet they’re not always given an equal voice. Can you comment on that?

A: Black women have been probably the most reliable sector of our society in terms of voting Democratic. In 2016, 94 percent of black women voted for Hillary, 52 percent of white women voted for Trump. If you look at the election of Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama, black women were there. Pretty much any election, you have seen black women vote Democratic more than anybody.

There has been little to no acknowledgment of that – meaning public acknowledgment, but also in terms of the status of black women inside the Democratic Party. I think black women will be taken more seriously now. I also think that black women have stepped up and said, “you know what, we’re tired of this.” 

We have the race of Stacey Abrams – who, in my opinion, is the governor of Georgia. In my opinion, it was just outright stolen. The idea that you would have a secretary of state who was running for office and counting the votes at the same time is something you hear about in other countries and should never happen in ours.

Q: Nancy Pelosi wants to bring up voting rights early in the next Congress. There’s such a difference between Republicans and Democrats on this issue. Can that be bridged?

A: I think the Republicans have been pretty clear that their goal is to reduce people’s ability to vote. I don’t know of a case where Republicans have wanted to expand the electorate. The reason why Democrats are winning in these races is because we are expanding the electorate. HR1 [the incoming House Democrats’ first bill] will expand the electorate by making registration and voting easier. But there will be a separate voting rights bill that is more specific.

The goal should be, in the 21st  century, with technology what it is, we should want everyone to vote.

Q: You were the first black female speaker of the Assembly in California, and it was in a time when the state legislature was Democratic but the governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was a Republican. We’re heading into a period of divided government. Are there lessons learned from your experience then that Democrats could practice now? 

A: Absolutely. Working with Governor Schwarzenegger, I was working with somebody who had a personality as big as this room. He was a mega-celebrity. He sucked up all the oxygen when it came to messaging and it was very hard to compete with him. Trump might be a mega-celebrity, but he’s a different type of personality. They are very, very different.

For Democrats, there might be opportunities for us to agree with Trump. For example, criminal justice reform is an issue that he seems to be interested in. So hopefully he'll be able to deal with his side in the Senate.

One of the things Arnold would do to Republicans is go to their districts and campaign for stuff he wanted them to do. If they didn’t agree with him, he’d hold a town hall in their district and that would help bring them around. Maybe Trump could do that instead of using his town halls for his own adulation.

As speaker, what I was most proud of was – you know, the state went off a cliff because of needing a supermajority in the legislature for the budget, and the budget went from $110-$120 billion, down to $83 billion. We had to make drastic cuts in health and human services. But Arnold wanted to dismantle programs. Making the cuts allowed them to be saved. And we were able to jumpstart the economy by the strategic use of funds that we did have access to.

Q: Your name often comes up as a someone who is eminently qualified to be speaker of the US House. Can you see yourself being speaker some day?

A: I don’t know. By the way, one of the reasons I came to Congress was to have the opportunity to work with then-Speaker Pelosi, so my support for her was never in question. Would I like to serve in a leadership capacity in the future? We’ll see what the future brings.

One of the things that I really wanted to do after I was here for a while was to serve as the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. Many of the reasons I ran for office are the same issues that members of the caucus fight for. And members don’t only fight for social issues that the African-American community faces. They also fight for business expansion, for entrepreneurship, for leadership in that way. You have a much better chance of African-Americans being hired if you have African-American businesses. So it’s a holistic approach that the caucus takes.

Q: Nancy Pelosi’s 2008 memoir was geared toward America’s daughters. This incoming class of women lawmakers is highly accomplished. What can they learn from her?

A: I think what she could help the freshmen women understand is to take your time. You’re coming off the energy of a campaign where you’re under the gun and it’s rush, rush – and you get here, and you want to rush. But you need to take your time and build relationships and understand that in a legislative body, if you want to get anything done you have to have people support you. You can’t do it on your own.

There’s so many people who have been here for a long time, and I was able to build relationships with them and learn from them – because there’s not too many ideas that are new, and you will be surprised, but you’re not the first person that thought of whatever it is you want to do.

Q: You’re on the Judiciary Committee, and that will be ground zero for investigating Trump. If impeachment comes up, it will go through that committee. Pelosi has talked about the need to be “strategic” with investigations. Are you concerned about overreach?

A: I'm actually not concerned about overreach, and it’s because I think both leaders are strategic – and that’s Speaker Pelosi as well as Jerry Nadler, the Judiciary chairman from New York. He’s a constitutional lawyer. I’m not sure where we will start. Unfortunately, this guy gives you new things to do every day.

My agenda on that committee is criminal justice reform from a women and children perspective. I also want to deal with is what is happening with ... children on the border – the family separation.

I’m doing a bipartisan bill on women who are incarcerated and pregnant. We chain and shackle them even during delivery, if you can imagine. Also, their health and nutrition needs.

A couple other things: Nobody visits women in prison; everybody visits men. And so women are separated from their children and a lot of their children wind up in foster care, which is time limited. If you don’t get out of prison in time, you can have parental rights terminated. There’s also not that many women’s facilities, so women tend to be housed much further away from their families.

Women are rarely in prison for violence. If they’re non-violent, why can’t they be in halfway houses that are closer to home?

Q: So much has changed in California in the last 20 years. People are leaving the state. The new tax law caps a popular deduction for state and local taxes. Mega fires. Is the bloom off the rose in the Golden State?

A: No. California is such a bubble – meaning that we are sheltered from so much of the madness. I kind of knew that intellectually, but boy, do I feel it now. And in L.A., and in the Bay Area, those are double bubbles.

So for example, we might be burning up, but we have the most environmental foresight, knowledge, policies. We understand that the fires are because of climate change. In terms of taxes, I’m hoping we can do something about that, because that was a major blow. And I think that contributed to the fact that Republicans lost so many seats in California. We have 53 members of Congress, now only seven of them are Republican. They cut their delegation in half this year.

Q: Are you worried about it becoming a political monoculture?

A: No, not really, and here’s why. Even though the overall state would be judged as progressive compared to the rest of the country, there are still degrees of progressiveness. And that’s not everywhere.

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