Karen Bass at campaign rally April 2022. Photo credit: Karen Bass for Mayor Flickr

Smile Los Angeles, your mayor is a Black woman. Meet Karen Bass, now watch her magic

8 mins read

Fresh off the heels of an uphill victory, Mayor-elect Karen Bass is about to occupy one of the most powerful mayoral seats in the country. Her record of leadership is safe, some of her colleagues are racked with scandal, but can she power forward?

One hundred million dollars and a gaggle of celebrity endorsements failed to defeat Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) in one of the most contested and expensive mayoral campaigns in U.S. history. An African American living in the Baldwin Vista area of the city, declared victory on Nov. 16 in her win over real estate mogul, Rick Caruso.

The final tally shows Rep. Bass received 53.06% to Caruso’s 46.94%, making Bass the first woman to be elected in the city and the second African American. Plus, she is one the of nine Black women currently hailing over a major metropolitan in the U.S. When she is sworn in, in December, the mayor-elect now joins London Breed of San Francisco in leading two of the four biggest cities in California, while Los Angeles is the second largest metropolis in the nation.

“The people have sent a clear message: it is time for change and it is time for urgency,” wrote the mayor-elect Bass in her victory statement.

After a much-watched campaign race, Mayor-elect Bass is pulling up her sleeves for the long days of work to come. Entering into her new chief role, she will inherit a city overwhelmed by multiple waves of political, public safety and economic turmoil. During the campaign, the home of the medical professional turned establishment Democrat was burglarized too. Citing that she is one of many Angelenos who have been victims of spiking crimes such as theft, she emphasized that all citygoers “must be a part of the solution,” in a post-election message. Her major campaign promises were to remedy the homelessness crisis, tackle rising crime and make the city more affordable. 

David vs Goliath

During the campaign, the mayor-elect was out-financed 10 to 1 by Caruso who became a billionaire through a lucrative real estate career. His exploits included elbow-rubbing with the city’s most influential. While everyone from Snoop Dogg to Kim Kardashian endorsed a mogul who was in the ear of the outgoing Mayor Eric Garcetti, the years-long issues of the unhoused and economic disparities did not play out well for the commercial property guy.

Coming into the campaign cycle, Mayor-elect Bass carried a tepid congressional tenure. Up until the primaries, many were surprised that she made it into the runoff with a lukewarm campaign. At the same time, while Mayor-elect Bass holds a relatively untroubled congressional career, she has close ties to the recently indicted Councilman Mark Ridley Thomas. Added, her backing of Destination Crenshaw, a controversial business and arts corridor contested by a cadre of vocal community members is under scrutiny.

On the other hand, Caruso was a Republican who crossed over as a Democrat, all the while, carrying the reputation of being a powerful stalwart who had dabbled in politics beforehand. A longtime businessman, he is noted for building commercial properties that define the L.A. retail aesthetic, and has been cited as having used his money to sway political decisions in the past. Plus, he served as a trustee board member for the University of Southern California while it went through litigation of the largest settlement at an educational institution for sexual misconduct and abuse by university doctor (George Tyndall).

While Caruso never successfully garnered a position in electoral politics, he has been a key figure in the political trajectory of Los Angeles. Serving on the Los Angeles Police Commission for four years, he also was a key donor in several of Mayor Garcetti’s campaigns. During his leadership, the outgoing Mayor Garcetti launched a “Build Baby Build” big real estate initiative, of which Caruso benefitted. Backed by most of the city council, the property boom ended up contributing to the skyrocketing displaced persons in Los Angeles. A disproportionate number have been Black residents, and in particular, African American men.

Economically, the showdown between Mayor-elect Bass and Caruso was like that of David and Goliath. Campaign reports revealed that the congresswoman spent about $1 million for her election operations, while Caruso used a Bloomberg-style method by shoveling out $16 million from his coffers. In spite of the difference in campaign funds, Mayor-elect Bass turned out to be a formidable contender.

“From my standpoint, Congresswoman Bass used [former Minnesota congressman] Keith Ellison’s approach,” Southern University and A&M College political science professor and internal relations scholar Sherice J. Nelson told Ark Republic. 

Ellison is now the attorney general in Minnesota after running successfully for the office in 2018. Although his political future in congress looked to be favorable, he took his work back to a more local approach. “If it weren’t for AG Ellison, I don’t think we would have had a Derek Chauvin conviction in the George Floyd [murder] trial,” said Dr. Nelson.

Mayor-elect Bass, who mentioned that she is a friend to AG Ellison, authored the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in 2021. At the time, she was the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) during intense racial moments in the country that were magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic. Ultimately, the bill lost its steam in Senate deliberations. “When the George Floyd bill didn’t pass, not long after, she announced her mayoral candidacy. I think she feels like she can have more local impact than that on a federal level,” explained Dr. Nelson.

Currently serving in California’s 37th congressional district, Mayor-elect Bass first won an electoral seat in 2005 as a state assemblywoman. In this role, she became the first Black woman in the U.S. to serve as speaker of a state legislative chamber. In 2010, she nabbed the 33rd congressional district seat when longtime African American representative, Dianne Watson retired. Then she moved to the 37th district.

Under her leadership at the Congressional Black Caucus, Mayor-elect Bass questioned the Trump Administration’s authorization for the FBI to add a Black Identity Extremism designation. As well, as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, she voiced her position on issues in Africa, and worked to foster cross-country collaborations.

Crenshaw/LAX Line work shot June 27, 2019. The restoration process involves securing utility lines, removing the concrete decking that sits over each of the stations and then repaving the road. Photo credit LA Metro Flickr

The controversial redevelopments of the Crenshaw district

An earmark of Mayor-elect Bass’ career is founding and serving as the executive director to the Community Coalition (CoCo). A non-profit launched in the 1990s to deal with raging poverty, violence, health crises and other social inequities, it has become a mainstay in Los Angeles. A majorly respected local organizing entity connected to a number of activists, church leaders and political members, CoCo has been a vocal and a main backer of Destination Crenshaw, an initiative to grow out a little over a mile-long route paralleling the LAX/Crenshaw Metro line.

The Destination Crenshaw project is led by Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who once served as the executive director of CoCo. Mayor-elect Bass has been key in the rise of Councilman Harris-Dawson’s political career and a large supporter of Destination Crenshaw. This past March, the congresswoman announced that she secured federal funding for Destination Crenshaw as part of the $4 billion federal monies she procured for her district.

Not all community members are excited about the changes to the Crenshaw-district landscape. “Bass has brought us the Crenshaw Destination gentrification project, along with her cohort . . . Marqueece [Harris] Dawson also known as “Sleazy Marqueecy” . . . the king of Black evictions and the gentrifier-in-chief,” Lynne Moses told Ark Republic when he talked about local Black elected officials. 

Moses, a resident in the Crenshaw district and member of the Los Angeles chapter of the Committee to Eliminate Media Offensive to African People (CEMOTAP) said that Black political officials are over-represented numerically in the city, yet “they represent people who finance their campaigns [such as] the real estate industry, the LAPD . . . [but] they don’t represent [African Americans].”

Destination Crenshaw began as an “open-air arts initiative” to respond to community members’ disagreement with the construction of the above-ground LAX/Crenshaw metro rail line, explained AFIBA community center founder, Jabari Jumaane. Nonetheless, Councilman Harris-Dawson garnered multiple partnerships to promote the campaign. One of them being with Nipsey Hussle, a popular rapper and activist who hailed from the View Park community, the district most impacted by the metro rail.

Assata Umoja of Hyde Park Organizational Partnership for Empowerment (HOPE) told Ark Republic that Hussle, whose birth name was Ermias Ashgedom, reportedly attended town halls and community meetings to promote Destination Crenshaw before he was shot-and-killed in March 2019. But, local attorney, Nana Gyamfi told Ark Republic that it was the City of Los Angeles in cooperation with the Los Angeles Police Department that heavily surveilled and harassed Hussle, his brother, Samiel ‘Blacc Sam’ Ashgedom, and their father, at their place of business. The Ashgedom’s Marathon store, a popular South Los Angeles clothing outlet, Twas located on Slauson Avenue just west of Crenshaw Boulevard, and along the path of the LAX/Crenshaw line.

To add, Jumaane claimed that his community center, unbeknownst to him, was part of a development effort by Councilman Harris-Dawson to turn Crenshaw into a tourist destination that lacked the community’s input. When Jumaane and supporters of the AFIBA center questioned the councilman’s attempt to use some of the grounds to place a 120 foot story sign saying, “Crenshaw,” the organization was evicted from the property they had leased from the city for almost 20 years.

Plus, Councilman Harris-Dawson supported Mayor Garcetti’s real estate developments that were supposed to also provide affordable housing as far back as 2017, but has yet to deliver substantial proof. For his whole tenure, Mayor-elect Bass has been in alignment with Councilman Harris-Dawson who continues to back redevelopment efforts pushing out one of the last neighborhoods of Black Angelenos.

Bass political rally. Photo credit: Karen Bass for Mayor Flickr

Political Entanglements

Early in Mayor-elect Bass’ campaign, it came out that one of her biggest comrades, Councilman Ridley-Thomas was slapped with a 20-count indictment for bribery and other corruption-related charges for under-the-table dealings with Marilyn Louise Flynn, a dean in the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California. Some of the main charges alleged Flynn, who is now retired, agreed to assist the council member’s son, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, with a scholarship and a paid professorship, in exchange for Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas’ support for the school to receive a Los Angeles County contract.

Flynn, who is 83-years-old, pleaded guilty on one count of bribery, while Councilman Ridley-Thomas, who pleaded not-guilty, was scheduled to go to trial on November 15, reported Spectrum News.

Amplifying the issue, the Los Angeles Times reported that Mayor-elect Bass received a $100,000 scholarship to get a degree in social work. However, she has gone on record to say that her colleague, Ridley-Thomas’ case, “has nothing to do” with her obtaining a degree, and is a report released during the middle of an election cycle. The Times endorsed Mayor-elect Bass.

A Black mayor in a Latino city

Part of the incoming mayor’s balancing act is tapping into the needs of the Latino-majority, while also paying attention to the crises of Black constituents. Mayor-elect Bass who was married to a Latino for six years in the 1980s, producing a daughter, has been intertwined in both Black and Hispanic communities. Yet and still, this does not erase the fraught relations between the two visible communities of color.

The matter became more complicated when an anonymous person released the secret recordings of a meeting between City Council President Nury Martinez, council members Gil Cedillo and Kevin de Leon, and Ron Herrera, the head of Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. In the meetings of the all-Latino attendees, racist and disparaging remarks were made against Blacks, Jews, Armenians and whites who supported African Americans. Plus, negative comments were stated about Indigenous populations.

Since, all parties have stepped down from their position. That said, another one of Mayor-elect’s staunch supporters, Martinez, became embroiled in a scandal that the California Legislative Black Caucus said “reveal[ed] an appalling effort to decentralize Black voices during the critical redistricting process.” Both mayoral candidates agreed that the disgraced political figures caused issues in the racial challenges the city continuously experiences, but time will tell how the Venice-beach native will fare with Black constituents in her new position when “50 percent of the homeless population are Black,” says Moses.

For now, Mayor-elect Bass is making adjustments to bring her politics back to where she started: local.

Kaia Shivers covers news, features and the diaspora.

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