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Karen Bass on Ilhan Omar, L.A. Jewry, homelessness, and her daughter’s memory

It was just before Thanksgiving when I sat down with Rep. Karen Bass to talk about her campaign for mayor of Los Angeles. The Homegirl Cafe where we met downtown was doing a brisk business in whole pies and turkey-shaped bread.

“The holiday times are the worst for me,” she said. “I just wish I could go from October to January, frankly.”

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U.S. Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) speaks as other House Democrats look on during an event on police reform June 25, 2020 at the east front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. By Alex Wong/Getty Images

Bass, a six-term member of Congress, was speaking about the most painful chapter in her life, the 2006 car accident that took the life of her daughter and son-in-law. Since we were speaking a week before Hanukkah, a holiday that celebrates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its desecration, I asked how she had found the strength to rededicate her life to public service after such a tragedy.

“I don’t feel I have a choice,” Bass said. “I can’t just get myself in a ball and never come out of my bedroom.”

Now, that sense of mission is behind Bass’s bid to lead the city where she was born and raised. Over the course of our hour long conversation, she made it clear that one issue above all motivates her: homelessness.

It’s the same cause that L.A.’s current mayor, Eric Garcetti, named as his top priority when he was first elected, in 2014. That year the city counted 22,993 homeless people. As Garcetti leaves office — under a darkening cloud for having ignored evidence of serial sexual harassment by a top aide — the count is at 41,290.

I asked Bass what she would do differently.

“I have the fortune of learning from their misfortune, OK?” she said of her political predecessors. “Honestly, if I am successful, the only issue I’m going to focus on is homelessness. That will be number one in my mind until I feel like there’s a handle, a pathway.”

She was short on specifics, saying she has yet to develop a “10-point plan.” But she said she would use her D.C. savvy to leverage federal money, and attack the problem on multiple fronts: mental-health and drug treatment, criminal-justice reform, better foster care, temporary shelter and long-term housing.

A homeless sukkah in Venice

A homeless encampment on Venice Boulevard in 2021. Image by Rob Eshman

Her mantra is that we should treat the unhoused with the same urgency as we treat victims of an earthquake or flood.

“Nationally, when we have a natural disaster, we move into action and we help people right away,” she noted. After four years of a Bass administration, she promised, “ we won’t have encampment communities,” referring to the hundreds of people sleeping near L.A.’s freeways, sidewalks, beaches, parks—and by City Hall itself.

“Devastating,” she said of the Dickensian encampments so close to the city’s seat of power. “Yes. Devastating.”

There has been no polling yet on the crowded field of contenders in the 2022 Los Angeles mayoral race, but if you measure by media attention and endorsements, Bass is the one to beat. In 2020, she was reelected with 88% of the vote in a district that includes L.A. ‘s heavily Jewish Westside neighborhoods as well as a swath of South Los Angeles. She was on President Biden’s short list for possible vice presidential candidates.

She lost that job to Kamala Harris, and Gov. Gavin Newsom tapped Alex Padilla, not Bass, to fill Harris’ Senate seat. Though analysts see Bass as a strong contender for reelection to Congress regardless of how the districts are redrawn, the Los Angeles mayoralty may be her best shot to move into a high-profile and more powerful position.

Bass has amassed many prominent supporters, among them former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, and, as of Thursday, nine of California’s 42 Democratic House members, including Rep. Adam Schiff, who made his support public at a Thursday virtual press conference with Bass. She also has the backing of the Emily’s List PAC.

Given Bass’ deep support, Los Angeles Times columnist Erika Smith wrote just after she announced, it’s “hard to understand why she wouldn’t win.”

Bass, who is Black, grew up near the Fairfax District and Pico-Robertson, centers of Los Angeles Jewish life . When I asked if she sought to revive the Black-Jewish coalition that in 1973 propelled the city’s only Black mayor, Tom Bradley, to office, she rejected the premise that a Black-Jewish coalition has to be “revived.”

“There is a lot of coalition work that goes on below the radar,” said Bass, who worked as a nurse and community organizer before entering politics. “There is a social-justice infrastructure that has been built in this city over the last 30 years, there are nonprofits that do work across race, across class, across geography. It’s a kind of work I’ve done for a good part of my life.”

She displayed a nuanced understanding of the L.A. Jewish community. It is, she said, “just as diverse as any other community. And has just as many divisions, issues, populations.”

“I’ve been in the community since the ’60s, OK?” Bass said. “When I was coming up, the Jewish community was composed of folks from Eastern Europe. And a number of the most radical parents I knew were Jewish. I watched Israelis move in. Russians moved in. South Africans moved in. Persians moved in.”

The understanding helped frame her response when, in 2019, fellow Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar made comments about Jewish support for Israel that many found antisemitic.

Bass said that she had told Omar, who had just entered Congress, that she had to weigh her words far more carefully.

“I think that she didn’t see what she said as antisemitic at all,” Bass said. “She saw it as being anti-Israeli policies.”

Representative Karen Bass

Representative Karen Bass By Bing Guan/Bloomberg via Getty Images

I asked whether Omar came to see the problem as the fact that she got caught speaking her mind, or the actual opinions themselves. Bass, who is not Jewish, said that Jewish colleagues were better messengers for how Jews perceived the statements.

“I could tell her all of that, and of course I did, but I don’t think it has the same weight as a Jewish member saying, ‘This is what your words mean to me.’” she explained.

Which brought me to a key question on the minds of many Jewish activists across Los Angeles. Will she be competing for Jewish voters and donors with City Attorney Mike Feuer, who has similar politics to Bass, deep roots in the community and is himself Jewish?

“I’ve been a friend of his for years,” Bass said. “But I’m not running thinking, ‘Let me go over here and compete against Mike.’ Especially for Jewish voters.”

Raphe Sonenshein, a political scientist, said in an interview this fall that though the mayor’s race is non-partisan, Feuer may be better positioned to appeal to the more conservative-leaning Jews in the San Fernando Valley, parts of which he once represented on the City Council. Bass made clear to me her coalition-building instincts extended to Republicans.

During our chat, Tom Vozzo, chief executive of the company that owns the Homegirl Cafe, stopped by our table. He reminded Bass how she once brought a Republican colleague around to to show how places like the cafe , which provides job training to gang members and formerly incarcerated people, are worthy of government investment.

That pop-by wasn’t planned, Bass wanted me to know.

“One of my Republican colleagues was talking about gangs and violence,” she recalled. “So I went over to him and I said, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about. Why don’t you come to L.A. and let me show you?’ And it said a lot that he chose to come.”

Bass paused.

“But that’s the point,” she said. “There are solutions out there.”

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