Karen Bass didn’t appear on the public shortlist of vice presidential contenders until a few weeks ago, a possible indication that Joe Biden’s search for a running mate remains in flux a month before he’s expected to unveil his choice.
The five-term California congresswoman, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and former speaker of the California Assembly boasts more career legislative experience than any other woman of color under consideration for the No. 2 slot. She’s currently trying to marshal Republican support for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act — her sweeping reform bill that passed the House but faces much longer odds in the GOP-led Senate.
In an interview with McClatchy, the 66-year-old Bass was cagey about where she stands in the running for running mate, but indicated she was willing to serve if called on and said Biden should “of course” select a minority candidate.
While it’s unclear how Biden’s team is sizing her up against the likes of Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Val Demings, a former political adviser to Bass insisted she’s a serious contender — particularly since Biden’s vetting team approached her later in the process.
“Any time they reopen something, nine times out of ten they’re extending it because they may not have what they want,” said the former adviser.
Even if she’s not selected for the Democratic ticket, Bass’ name is also increasingly being raised as a possible successor to Nancy Pelosi, who is a close ally.
Below is the conversation with Bass, who spoke with McClatchy from Los Angeles. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: I’m obliged to first ask you how advanced you are in Joe Biden’s vice presidential vetting process.
A: Well, I’m obliged to tell you you’re going to have to talk to the campaign. How’s that? Fair enough?
Q: Well, we’re always looking for more than that. When was the last time you spoke with Joe Biden?
A: The last time I spoke with him was last week, now that I mention it. He spoke at the Congressional Black Caucus weekly meeting so he talked to us last Wednesday and I spoke to him then. We talked about the Justice and Policing (Act), where we were with that and also COVID, those two things. It was not a campaign discussion.
Q: Is he on board with your legislation?
A: Well, we didn’t ask for that. But I certainly got the impression he was supportive, but I couldn’t say he told us, ‘I support the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.’
Q: Your legislation bans chokeholds, no-knock warrants, makes lawsuits against police easier to bring about. What about the training piece? I’m curious how you think we can stop these incidents from escalating to deadly violence in the first place?
A: I don’t believe you can disconnect the pieces. The bill overall tries to address changing police culture. If police officers know that they can be sued, if they know that they can be prosecuted, if they know that certain techniques they use are banned, if they know their colleagues are obliged to intervene, and then there’s training, all of it is together. I don’t believe there’s any one training program that magically would prevent it. We do want part of the training to be in de-escalation. But I think it’s important to look at it more as a package. Because I think all of those pieces contribute to cultural change.
Q: Some Republicans say if you open up police to lawsuits, they are going to be less likely to act, less likely to potentially defend themselves. How do you respond to that critique?
A: I don’t think that critique is based on much. I think more highly of police officers than that. I think police officers view themselves as professionals that want to be held accountable and would prefer a situation where they’re not working in a culture that really penalizes you if you try to lift up the standards. That older man that was knocked down in New York, remember that? Do you remember one of the officers reaching over to help him? And another officer pulled him away. That’s the kind of cultural change we want to see ended. In George Floyd’s murder, those other officers that sat there and witnessed and helped. That’s the kind of culture we want to change.
Q: Steep chances that this actually passes the Senate. Is this something you’re looking to do next year?
A: You know it was interesting, when we had the debate in the committee and when we were doing the mark-up in the committee, my Republican colleagues went on for hours talking about everything under the sun but the bill. I view that as a point of encouragement, you follow me?
Q: Even in the Senate you think so?
A: When my Republican colleagues in the House tell me that they believe there’s support in the Senate, I have to believe them.
Q: What about the issue of gun violence in cities, particularly Chicago, where there have been at least nine children killed in the past two weeks. Some say that’s an argument police need more support and more resources in these urban areas. What do you say to that?
A: What I say to that is for the last 30 years … every time there’s violence, we say what’s needed are more police and that hasn’t solved it. So it would seem to me that you would want to begin to say what else is needed because that’s not working. I believe that you can stop violent crime. There’s a lot of different ways to do it, a lot of great examples but we refuse as a nation to invest in that. We have no problem at all investing in policing and incarceration and at some point we’ve got to say, we have been doing this for decades and it has not worked.
Q: The investment would go where then?
A: You seek to solve that by using community members, you support community based programs. We have areas in Los Angeles that have suffered from gang violence. We talked to people in the area, we took former gang members, provided training and assistance to them and asked them to help us keep the peace. We built a solid relationship between the former gang members and the police and they worked together. And in Los Angeles, it has reduced violence crime. But even in Los Angeles, we have not made a comprehensive investment. We tend to fund community programs and then we cut them back and we tend to do that especially when they are accomplishing their goals. So it’s like, ‘Ok, the murder rate is down, we don’t need this anymore.’ We never sustain the investment.
Q: Do you believe the president is potentially inciting a race war with some of his rhetoric?
A: I think he is contributing to violence. It’s not what I think. Why don’t you look at October of 2018? The week before the last election there were four acts of domestic terrorism … when the president day after day after day talked about the invasion from Central America, sent troops to the border. And the problem I have is that people’s memories are very short and they don’t connect the dots. So what he is doing now is absolutely trying to instigate. I don’t know that he is trying to start a race war but I’m not sure whether that even matters. He is trying to fan the flames of racial hostility. He is trying to fan the flames of white people, to make them angry, angry and terrified of this new movement that has developed. In many cities, there’s more white people wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts than Black people.
Q: Do you think an all white Democratic ticket risks depressing African American turnout?
A: I think what is happening right now in our country really calls for the diversity on the ticket. It’s not just about African American turnout. It’s turnout of the Latinx community, turnout of the Asian Pacific Islander community, turnout of the Native American community. The cry of the nation right now is for healing and diversity … and I think diversity is what this country needs right now.
Q: So you think he should put a woman of color on the ticket?
A: Of course.
Q: What’s the better job: Speaker of the House or vice president?
A: (Laughs) I mean, I don’t look at these as jobs per se. When I became speaker (of the California Assembly) I actually wanted to run for the state Senate. I wasn’t trying to be speaker. I became speaker because my colleagues really pushed me to step up. And so, when I’m asked to step up, I will. I don’t really pursue titles from a pure ambition point of view so I don’t even think about it as which job.
Q: Would you like to be vice president?
A: You know, like I said, and I realize that it’s hard, people don’t take it sincerely and I think it’s sad, I think it’s kind of testament to where we are in our political process but, I am so concerned about this country, I’m willing to step up to do anything to right this ship that has gone so far off course. I just can’t say it any other way.