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Will Karen Bass bring her activist bona fides to Joe Biden's presidential ticket?

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·6 min read
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Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., is a self-described “lifelong activist,” shaped by transformative decades in South Los Angeles.

In recent days, Bass’s name has been repeatedly floated as a potential running mate for former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee who has said he will make his decision ahead of this month’s Democratic convention. As the buzz — and scrutiny — grows, Bass says she wants the job.

“Being a partner with somebody who I have deep respect for, with somebody who I believe is authentic, is genuine, has the capacity to have empathy, has tremendous experience, and working alongside of him, aside from being considered is a tremendous honor, but all of that is the reason why I would want to go forward with this,” she said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Both Bass and the Biden campaign did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

Her profile could make her a match for Biden, who is reportedly also considering other, better known candidates, including former national security adviser Susan Rice and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. (Biden has vowed to pick a woman as his vice president.)

Bass has spent more than a decade in public service. Before being elected to Congress, she served as a state representative from 2005 to 2010 and became the California Assembly speaker, making history as the first African-American woman in the country to assume such a role. Last year, she became chair of the influential Congressional Black Caucus.

Rep. Karen Bass questions Attorney General William Barr during a House Judiciary Committee hearing
Rep. Karen Bass questions Attorney General William Barr during a House Judiciary Committee hearing. (Chip Somodevilla/Pool via AP)

As a Los Angeles native, Bass, 66, is no stranger to protests over police brutality and racial tension. She was 12 years old when the 1965 Watts Rebellion — an uprising sparked in part by an altercation between a Los Angeles police officer and Black motorist — occurred. The Rodney King verdict again roiled her city in 1992.

Bass spent the ’90s steeped in local activism. In 1990, while working as a physician’s assistant, she helped start Community Coalition, which sought to transform South Central L.A. amid the ravages of the crack cocaine epidemic.

She was first elected to Congress in 2010, representing districts that encompass some of L.A.’s best known, historically Black neighborhoods.

Criminal justice reform and gun control are both longtime focuses of Bass’s legislative agenda. She recently helped introduce the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would, among other things, ban chokeholds under federal law.

Bass drew some national attention last week during a House Judiciary Committee hearing, when she sharply questioned Attorney General William Barr over police use of force and comments he made questioning whether there is systemic racism in law enforcement.

“The laws are made equal. They are certainly not applied equally,” Bass said to the attorney general.

In a Thursday interview with NPR’s “Morning Edition,” Bass described herself “as a lifelong activist committed to fighting for social and economic justice.”

Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event
Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event at the William "Hicks" Anderson Community Center in Wilmington, Del., on Tuesday. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Despite her activist past, Bass shares Biden’s more moderate approach to police reform. Many of the protesters who took to the streets following George Floyd’s death made their rallying cry “Defund the Police,” a call to reallocate funds from police departments to social services and programs. While expressing support for the movement generally, Bass has avoided the controversial protest mantra.

“I think that the whole defund movement has raised such an important issue,” she told NPR. “I say it differently. ... I say, ‘Refund the communities.’ Because the whole point is that over the last 30 years we have had no problem pouring … money into police, into prisons, into jails, while we have cut funding for social services.”

Biden holds a similar view. While President Trump and his campaign have tried to falsely paint the former vice president as eager to “defund” and even abolish police departments, Biden has instead said he supports diverting some money from police budgets to services like counseling.

[See also: Clyburn says 'Defund the Police' slogan could derail reform efforts]

But Bass also has some baggage, some of which is already drawing scrutiny.

On Friday, the conservative Daily Caller surfaced video footage of Bass praising the controversial Church of Scientology at an event in 2010. Critics have accused the religious organization of engaging in a litany abusive practices, which its leadership has vigorously denied. She addressed the video on Saturday, saying in a statement that she knew she was speaking to people with beliefs different than her own and was seeking to find common ground.

“I found an area of agreement in their beliefs —where all people, of whatever race, color, or creed are created with equal rights, which is what my remarks were about,” she said. “Since then, published first-hand accounts in books, interviews, and documentaries have exposed this group.”

Bass also took heat from Florida Democrats last month for describing the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro as “Comandante en Jefe” in a statement on his 2016 death. She has repeatedly walked back her comments.

“Wouldn’t do that again," Bass said Sunday on “Meet the Press.” "Talked immediately to my colleagues from Florida and realized that that was something that just shouldn’t have been said.”

She reiterated that message on “Fox News Sunday”: “Would not do that again, for sure.”

Rep. Karen Bass speaks during a news conference on the House East Front Steps on Capitol Hill in Washington at a podium with a sign reading "George Floyd Justice in Policing Act"
Rep. Karen Bass speaks during a June news conference ahead of the House vote on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Overall, Bass’s progressive bona fides earn her support from the Democratic Party’s more liberal wing.

Some supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who lost the party’s primary, have continued to organize in the hopes of pushing Biden to the left. On July 20, a group of Sanders’s delegates to the Democratic National Convention sent an open letter to Biden urging him to select “an exceptional progressive Vice Presidential candidate.” Bass was one of three names on their list, along with Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., and former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, a Sanders campaign co-chair.

But that liberal streak makes some doubtful Biden will pick Bass. One House Democratic source speculated Biden’s campaign was merely floating Bass’s name to benefit from her progressive appeal. And some Sanders allies are skeptical Biden would pick Bass rather than a more established figure like Harris or Rice.

“Would be wild if he actually picked Bass,” one dubious former Sanders campaign staffer said.

Additional reporting by Hunter Walker.

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