Rep. Karen Bass on women, politics, and this moment in history

Why We Wrote This

The head of the Congressional Black Caucus says she’s encouraged by the growing ranks of women in Congress and by recognition of their political clout. But there’s a long way to go. Part of our special 100th anniversary edition on women winning the right to vote.

CAROLYN KASTER/AP
Rep. Karen Bass of California speaks in Washington, June 25, 2020, ahead of the House vote to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. Asked whether Joe Biden needs to choose a Black woman as running mate, she says, “I don’t think it’s right to say he needs to. Do I want him to do that? Of course.”

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When she was 14, Karen Bass signed her mother up to be a precinct captain in the 1968 presidential campaign, then did all the door-knocking herself. The congresswoman from Los Angeles attributes that motivation to her father – watching the news with him, trying to understand the civil rights movement, civil disobedience, and the brutal attacks on Black people.

While voting in her family was considered “a ritual that was absolutely a must,” she says, neither of her parents wanted her to become involved in politics. It was an age of political violence and assassination, and they feared she would get hurt.

But “I saw all those other people doing it. You know, when you’re young, you’re invincible. I felt it was my obligation.”

Today, Representative Bass is serving her fifth term and heads the Congressional Black Caucus. As someone who has spent 15 years in elected office, Ms. Bass describes political power as “absolutely critical for change to happen.” And the best way to build power, she says, is through relationships and helping others, rather than “walking over other people.”

When California Rep. Karen Bass was growing up in Los Angeles in the 1950s and ’60s, her father didn’t talk about his earlier life experiences with Jim Crow Texas. It was too traumatic. But through his actions, the mail carrier taught her one way to counter that ugly injustice.

“Voting was a must. That is a ritual that was absolutely a must,” says Representative Bass, who now heads the Congressional Black Caucus. When she became a parent, she regularly took her daughter to the voting booth, and has pictures of the first time her daughter voted.

In an in-depth phone interview from her home district in Los Angeles last month, Ms. Bass shared her thoughts about the centennial of the women’s vote, how Democrats should use their power should they win the presidency, and where African Americans fit in this constellation. 

It’s a universe in which she has become a star in her own right, rising above barriers to become the first Black female speaker of the California Assembly (and of any state legislature). She has been mentioned as a possible future speaker of the U.S. House.

In recent weeks, she has become one of the most-talked-about candidates under consideration as a running mate for Joe Biden. Ms. Bass referred all queries about the VP search to Mr. Biden’s campaign. But she answered a question about whether he needs to tap an African American woman, given the mass protests nationwide over racial justice. 

“I don’t think it’s right to say he needs to,” she comments. “Do I want him to do that? Of course.”

More broadly, she speaks to the importance of African American women holding top leadership positions in the United States.

“Women who do the work should be given the authority to lead, and I think that’s true across the board for all women,” she says. Black women “have always done the work behind the scenes.”

While Ms. Bass sees the 100th anniversary of the women’s vote as a “very important landmark, a historic day,” she also believes there is a “ways to go” for women in politics. Rwanda has the highest representation of women in the world, notes Ms. Bass – more than 60% in its lower house of parliament. She also chairs the House subcommittee on Africa, global health, and human rights. In the United States, women make up only about a quarter of Congress, and they’re overwhelmingly Democrats such as herself.

Women “are in no way, shape, or form at parity,” she says. On the other hand, “our voting ability and our ability to make a difference in elections has certainly been recognized, which is why everybody courts the women’s vote.”

Exhibit A: the 2018 midterm elections, which flipped the House to Democrats on a blue wave of women voters and candidates. Ms. Bass is particularly excited about the growing prominence of African American women in Congress and in state and local offices – particularly Black women mayors, who are being featured all over cable news.

“I felt it was my obligation”

Ms. Bass got her start in politics at a young age. When she was 14, she signed her mother up to be a precinct captain for Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, then did all the door-knocking herself. She attributes her motivation to her father – watching the news with him, trying to understand the civil rights movement, civil disobedience, and the brutal attacks on Black people.

“My father was very patient in explaining it to me,” she remembers, though neither of her parents ever wanted her to become involved in politics. It was an age of political violence and assassination, and they feared she would get hurt. But “I saw all those other people doing it. You know, when you’re young, you’re invincible. I felt it was my obligation.”

She became a physician assistant and took her passion to the front lines, founding a nonprofit to fight crack cocaine and gang violence in Los Angeles. She was elected to the state Assembly in 2004, becoming speaker just in time for a budget crisis, when she had to work out painful cuts with her fellow lawmakers and Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. She was elected to the U.S. Congress in 2010.

In looking toward the November elections, she believes Black people will “turn out in big numbers.” The last three and a half years under President Donald Trump have been a strong motivator for Black voters, she says, pointing especially to the “extremely disproportionate rate” of COVID-19 deaths among people of color.

Still, she says, Democrats can’t be complacent about getting out the vote. She expresses deep concern about voter suppression, particularly in the South. In 2016, she says, many voters took it for granted that Hillary Clinton would win.

“She was running against somebody who was so extreme that nobody believed he would win,” she says. “When he announced his candidacy, I was happy because I thought, ‘Well, for sure, we’ll be fine.’ And what a mistake I made.”

Power in relationships

Ms. Bass notes that the U.S. is still behind much of the world in that it has not had a female president.

A record-breaking six women ran for the presidency this primary season, including an African American, but all of them lost. The congresswoman says there’s no single reason, but adds: “I do believe that women candidates are viewed harsher, picked over, and examined under a microscope in a different way.”

She remembers the California press referring to her as a “mother bear” when she was speaker because she spent so much time with members as they wrestled with a fiscal crisis. She saw the term as pejorative, because if she’d been a man, “they would have said I was collaborative and inclusive.”
As someone who has spent 15 years in elected office, Ms. Bass describes political power as “absolutely critical for change to happen.” The best way to build power, she says, is through relationships and helping others, rather than “walking over other people.”

The independent Cook Political Report recently suggested a Democratic “tsunami” may be on the horizon in the fall. If Democrats get a trifecta this November – winning the House, the Senate, and the White House – how should they use their power?

“The number one thing we have to do is heal this nation” – both physically, from COVID-19 and a president “in denial” about the disease, and in every other way. She hopes a President Biden will move quickly to “clean up the wreckage” in the various government agencies, and call back government workers who were “run out by the Trump administration or couldn’t take it anymore.”

She’s also looking for healing on the race front, and is encouraged by polls showing white and Black Americans for the first time holding similar views about police brutality. When it comes to issues affecting marginalized people, “you have to have the outside pushing the inside.”

It also helps to elect more women, she says. On that front, she’s again encouraged. The next generation is going to do “so much better” in part because many programs have been established to help them run for office.

“That’s going to make a huge, huge difference.”

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