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Police Reform Debate Elevates Black Caucus Chair Bass' Profile As Possible VP Pick

California Rep. Karen Bass was catapulted onto the national stage leading Democrats on police reform. Now she is a contender to be Joe Biden's running mate.
Carolyn Kaster
California Rep. Karen Bass was catapulted onto the national stage leading Democrats on police reform. Now she is a contender to be Joe Biden's running mate.

One of a series of reports looking at Joe Biden's potential running mates.

California Rep. Karen Bass was a relative unknown on the national stage until just a few months ago. Now she is among the contenders to be Joe Biden's pick for his vice presidential running mate.

A former community organizer and head of the Congressional Black Caucus, Bass led the Democratic effort to write sweeping police reform legislation.

A "collaborative" approach

She says she evolved into politics after starting out as an activist in Los Angeles in the 1980s. At the time she co-founded the Community Coalition aimed at fighting addiction, crime and poverty in the community.

Rep. Barbara Lee, a fellow California Democrat, says she remembers meeting Bass in the '90s. Lee was in the state assembly and Bass was lobbying for liquor store regulations to keep kids from buying alcohol.

"She was really a community organizer," Lee said. "But she also knew how to strategically work within the system, within the legislative body to get a bill passed."

Bass describes feeling like she needed to create spaces where she could lead and train people to follow in her footsteps.

"I believe in working in a very collaborative, collective work style, which means that it's team-driven," Bass said in an interview with NPR. "It's never personality-driven."

Democrats say Bass' style may not have made her a household name but it has made her well-liked among Democrats on Capitol Hill, particularly after she took charge on the policing bill.

Colleagues privately acknowledge that her low profile is a drawback when it comes to being vetted for vice president because Bass isn't a national figure. They say she hasn't been publicly tested yet for that kind of job.

But her background in activism and social justice makes her a logical fit for Biden's list as the country grapples with racial inequality in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis in May.

Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., a former Congressional Black Caucus chair and the third-ranking Democrat in the House, says Bass is known for being in constant contact. He says she keeps members in the loop and they feel like they're a part of every move the group makes.

"She doesn't mind leading by example," Clyburn said in an interview. "A lot of people will lead by precepts, but Karen provides examples for people to follow."

Her activism in Los Angeles made her a clear candidate when a California State Assembly seat opened up. From there she became the first Black woman to lead a state assembly as speaker and was elected to Congress in 2011.

She rapidly rose in influence among members of the Congressional Black Caucus and was elected to lead the group in 2018.

Bass was elevated to the national stage last month when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., tasked her with writing the police reform bill.

"We are blessed to be led by the CBC chair, Karen Bass, who brings 47 years advocating for racial justice and an end to police brutality," Pelosi said at an event unveiling the legislation.

Progressives, moderates and leadership allies say her collaborative approach made people feel included and prepared despite a lightning-quick process of drafting the bill.

Bass already had a sense of which members had policing legislation ready to go and quickly knit together a bill that banned chokeholds, created a national registry of police misconduct, and ended special legal immunity for police.

It is unusual for legislation to come together as rapidly as the George Floyd Justice in Policing bill. Members and staff involved describe a process in which Bass and her staff kept major ideological caucuses within the party apprised from the beginning.

"She was very effective in putting this together very quickly because people trusted her," Lee said. "She organized everything in a way that allowed her to move expeditiously."

The police reform process helped Bass develop new allies on Capitol Hill — relationships that could be important in the vetting process for vice president.

The surge of attention on social and racial justice has created a unique moment for Democrats. At least three Black women in Congress — Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., and Bass — are rumored to be on Biden's list.

But Bass says any attempt to frame this as a competition or a cutthroat showdown are unfair and reductive.

For his part, Clyburn said it shouldn't come as a surprise that Black women in Congress make up such a large share of the vice presidential contenders.

"The party is supposed to guarantee opportunity," Clyburn said. "And this party has guaranteed opportunity for women."

Castro comment

Clyburn, who is personally close with Biden, says the decision now will come down to vetting, polling and focus groups that will parse every statement and comment a contender has made, every group or ally they may have upset or offended.

For Bass, the remark already raising eyebrows was a statement she released in 2016 that called former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro "Comandante en jefe" after his death. That led to a dust-up with Florida Democrats who said she appeared to support the dictator in that statement.

Bass has since walked that statement back, but critics say it points to a blind spot in her background and her lack of a deep understanding of foreign policy.

"I spoke to my colleagues from the Florida area, and they certainly shared with me the difficulty of how I referenced Castro," Bass said. "And so I will definitely keep that in mind in the future."

Bass wouldn't say if she's campaigning for vice president. Democrats say one benefit of the vice presidential search is that it is elevating female leaders like Bass to the national stage, which could be helpful for her future in the House.

"She understands the moment that we're in," Lee said. "And that we must seize the time on behalf of, not just our communities, communities of color, but for the entire country."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.