BY HOWARD FINE
Assemblywoman Karen Bass didn’t start out with the intention of going to Sacramento. But now that she’s there, Bass is among the Democratic legislators taking on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s agenda to “blow up the boxes” of state government. Growing up in Los Angeles amid a generation of political and social activists, Bass left a medical career to launch the Community Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the quality of life for residents of South Los Angeles. She ran for state Assembly last year, defeating former Los Angeles City Councilman Nate Holden in the primary and going on to become the state’s only black woman legislator. In the fast pace of term-limited politics, Bass was quickly named to Assembly Speaker Fabian Nu & #324;ez’s leadership team.
Question: Shortly after you took office, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nu & #324;ez named you majority whip. Just what does the majority whip do?
I’m responsible for ensuring unity among the Democratic ranks on priority issues for us, like on transportation and against the governor’s initiative proposals. I’m also one of 10 members of the speaker’s leadership team.
Q: Why are you against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s slate of initiatives?
I think this whole special election idea is disastrous. We’re talking about spending $70 million or more to hold this election in the middle of a budget crisis for things that could just as easily be considered on an already-scheduled ballot. And there are some 60 initiatives in circulation , the process has run completely amok. It’s now become, “If you have enough money, you can change the state constitution.”
Q: But he only pursued these proposals after intense opposition from Democrats.
That just goes to show how ill thought-out these proposals really are. A lot of these things were not well-researched if they could not withstand the light of opposition. Frankly, that really surprised me.
Q: Have you met with Gov. Schwarzenegger? What’s your impression of him?
No, I have not met with the governor. I’m troubled by his fund raising and the huge dollar amounts and where those dollars are coming from. I’m also troubled by how he identifies special interests. It’s hard to look at nurses, teachers and firefighters as “evil” special interests as he has portrayed them. That’s part of why he’s in a bit of trouble right now.
Q: Has the partisan rancor in Sacramento been as great as you thought it would be?
Actually, no, it hasn’t. I’ve been surprised and excited at some of the legislation from Republican lawmakers and have found myself working with some of them much more than I expected. For example, Assemblyman Bill Maze (of Visalia) put forward a bill that would allow California State University teachers to come in and teach at rural community colleges. I went up to him afterwards and said, “Whatever I can do to support the bill, you let me know.”
Q: Have there been any surprises in your first few months?
Yes, there have been a couple. I was pleasantly surprised at how welcoming the environment was. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but that new-member training program started by (former Assembly Speaker) Bob Hertzberg really works well. On the flip side, I’m a bit surprised at how little the two chambers talk to each other. Maybe it’s because it’s so early in the session and the bills haven’t gotten out of their houses of origin yet.
Q: What prompted you to run for the Assembly?
I originally intended to run for the L.A. City Council when Mark Ridley-Thomas was termed out and went to Sacramento back in 2003. When Bernard Parks joined the race, I was still considering running. But then my father became ill and I decided to put off running for political office. A few months later, several people approached me about running for the Assembly, including Mark Ridley-Thomas, Antonio Villaraigosa and others. At first I said no; I really wanted to remain here on the local scene.
Q: What changed your mind?
Two things really. First, I realized that as an activist in an environment of term limits, the only way to really change things is to become an elected official yourself. That’s why I looked at running for City Council. But then Mark Ridley-Thomas, former state Sen. Dianne Watson and others reminded me that there were no African-American women in the state Legislature and that my voice was really needed up there.
Q: You call yourself an activist. How did that happen?
I grew up in South Central L.A. during the civil rights movement and the Vietnam era, so being an activist was second nature. In fact, there was a whole group of people who grew up in L.A. when I did who have now moved on to public office, union leadership and the nonprofit world. There was Antonio Villaraigosa (city councilman), Gil Cedillo and Gloria Romero (state senators), Mark Ridley-Thomas (assemblyman), Anthony Thigpenn (president of Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education), Julie Butcher and Maria Elena Durazo (union local presidents). We all knew each other when we were in our 20s and early 30s and have worked together for the last 25 years to build coalitions.
Q: You founded and ran the nonprofit Community Coalition for 15 years. How did it get started?
The Community Coalition grew out of a conference I put on back in 1990. At the time, I was working as a physician assistant at L.A. County-USC Hospital and saw what crack cocaine was doing to the African-American community. If you remember back then, the prevailing view was to throw the book at anyone having to do with drug trafficking. I became convinced that was all backwards, that we really had to focus on changing public policy to give inner city youth more job opportunities and better education opportunities so that they wouldn’t have to resort to the drug trade. So I gathered up like-minded people at this conference and together we started this coalition, with the mission to change public policy on drug use and drug trafficking.
Q: What do you consider your most significant achievement with the coalition?
After the 1992 civil unrest we campaigned against the reopening of the liquor stores. Out of the more than 200 liquor stores that burned down, only about 50 ever reopened. Another 45 sites were turned into other businesses. That was our greatest achievement.
Q: What was your biggest challenge?
Without a doubt, it was the Clinton welfare-to-work act. That hit the South Los Angeles community very hard. Basically, the act cut off food stamps and welfare checks for anyone out of work after the five-year deadline, leaving them totally high and dry. These people were basically treated as demons. But there was a loophole: states could opt out of this. So we launched a campaign to get the state to allow people who had made good faith efforts to find work to keep their food stamps and welfare checks. We finally got the food stamp portion passed a couple of years ago. And I now have a bill for the welfare check side of this.
Q: What are some of the other bills you have introduced?
I’ve introduced a couple of bills to help ease the paperwork burden on small businesses. One would allow a company that’s certified as a small business at the city level to have that certification recognized by the state and vice versa. Another one would increase access to state contracts for small business. Right now, it’s really an old boys network when it comes to doling out state contracts and small businesses really don’t know how to open that door.
Q: Who are you supporting in the Los Angeles mayor’s race?
Antonio Villaraigosa of course. I’ve known him for more than 20 years and I think he would be the better choice for L.A. He has the ability to build coalitions , something I’ve been doing my entire life.
Howard Fine writes for the
Los Angeles Business Journal.