In 2008 Karen Bass became the first African-American woman in U.S. history to serve as speaker of a state legislature. While as Speaker of the California State Assembly she wielded considerable power in the political life of America's most populous state, Bass was especially known for her consensus-building skills. In her first speech as speaker, the Democratic lawmaker from Los Angeles cited California's already difficult economic circumstances and pledged to work with Republican lawmakers to solve a looming crisis. "The weight of history is not just on my shoulders," she said. "As we all move forward, it should be with the understanding that a society will be judged on the way it cares for its people."
The daughter of a postal worker and a hair salon owner, Bass was born in 1953 and grew up in the Venice/Fairfax neighborhood of Los Angeles. As a young woman, she earned a bachelor's degree in health sciences from California State University at Dominguez Hills, then completed a physician-assistant training program at the University of Southern California School of Medicine. She practiced and was a clinical instructor at the Los Angeles County/University of Southern California Medical Center, one of the nation's busiest trauma centers.
During the 1980s Bass saw firsthand the devastation that illegal drugs like crack cocaine had brought to her community. Emergency-room visits for drug overdoses were common, but there was also a spike in violent crime—especially among juveniles—that spoke of turf wars over the lucrative drug trade. "Back then, the prevailing view was to throw the book at anyone having to do with drug trafficking," Bass recalled in an interview with Howard Fine in the Los Angeles Business Journal. "I became convinced that was all backwards, that we really had to focus on changing public policy to give inner city youth more job opportunities and better education opportunities so that they wouldn't have to resort to the drug trade."
Removed Liquor Stores from Neighborhoods
Bass organized a conference in 1990 to help lead her community forward, and subsequently founded a nonprofit group called the Community Coalition; she even- tually left her medical work to run it on a full-time basis. The Coalition's mission was to combat drug-related problems and poor police-community relations in Los Angeles, and it had several notable achievements. In 1992, for example, in the wake of the devastating Los Angeles riots, Bass's group mounted a successful campaign to prevent liquor stores from reopening in some of the most impoverished neighborhoods. The figures were impressive: Two hundred had burned down during the civil disturbances, but just fifty reopened thanks to the Coalition's work with state and local liquor-licensing authorities.
The most daunting challenge for Bass and the Community Coalition came in the mid-1990s, when new federal laws ended the government-benefit system known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and replaced it with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The new legislation was dubbed "workfare" in the press, because it forced recipients either to find a job or to be enrolled in a job-training program in order to continue receiving benefits. TANF's most significant revision, however, was a five-year limit on benefits. Community activists like Bass sounded alarms, noting that capping already meager aid checks and food stamps for mothers with young children would bring immense hardship to urban communities like Los Angeles. "These people were basically treated as demons," she said in the Los Angeles Business Journal interview. The federal bill, however, had come with a clause that allowed states to revise the five-year limits. "So we launched a campaign to get the state to allow people who had made good faith efforts to find work to keep their food stamps and welfare checks," Bass told Fine.
By 2003 Bass had begun to consider a run for a seat on the Los Angeles city council, but her father became ill and she shelved the idea. As she noted in her first speech as California Speaker of the House, he "never wanted me to run for office—because he was afraid I'd be hurt. But yet he was the one who introduced me to politics, watching the civil rights movement on the nightly news and trying to help me understand the concept of legal segregation in the South where he was from—he instilled in me the passion to fight for justice and equality."
Led Foster-Care Reform Effort
Bass's community work had brought her a number of well-connected friends and acquaintances, and a few of them—including Antonio Villaraigosa, the Los Angeles city council member who went on to become mayor of the city in 2005—suggested she run for the 47th state congressional district seat in the California State Assembly. She agreed, and won her first bid for public office in the 2004 election, representing some 423,000 residents in a district that included the neighborhoods of West Los Angeles, Westwood, the Crenshaw District, Culver City, Cheviot Hills, Leimert Park, Baldwin Hills, Windsor Hills, Ladera Heights, Little Ethiopia, and parts of Koreatown and South Los Angeles. When she was sworn into office for the 2005-06 legislative session in Sacramento, the state capital, she was the only African-American woman then serving in the state house.
As a state lawmaker, Bass distinguished herself as an advocate for families, children, and health-care issues. She chaired a Select Committee on Foster Care, which held public hearings and invited former foster children, longtime foster parents, social workers, and other participants in the state's foster-care system to recount their own, often painful, experiences with administrators and the courts. Bass led the effort to reform the system, which included $82 million in new appropriations to better serve children in foster care and their host families. She also pushed for and won legislation that strengthened health-insurance coverage for California children.
At a Glance …
Born on October 3, 1953; daughter of DeWitt (a postal worker) and Wilhelmina (a hair salon owner) Bass; divorced; children: Emilia Wright (deceased, 2006). Politics: Democrat. Education: California State University-Dominguez Hills, BS; University of Southern California School of Medicine, physician assistant certificate.
Career: Los Angeles County/University of Southern California Medical Center, physician assistant practitioner and clinical instructor, 1980s; Community Coalition, founder, early 1990s; elected to the California State Assembly from the 47th District, 2004, elected Speaker of the Assembly, 2008.
Memberships: African American Leadership Council for the Obama Campaign; California African Americans for Obama, chair.
Addresses: Home—Los Angeles, CA. Office—California Assembly District 47, 5750 Wilshire Blvd., Ste. 565, Los Angeles, CA 90036.
Bass also served as the Democratic majority whip for the 2005-06 California State Assembly legislative session, and as vice chair of its Black Caucus. During the 2007-08 legislative session, the Speaker of the Assembly, Fabian Núñez, named her majority floor leader. With Núñez's term in the Assembly set to expire in 2008, Bass emerged as the front runner in the competition for the powerful post of Speaker. Backed by her fellow Democrats in the Assembly, who praised her skill in courting bipartisan support, Bass was elected in February of 2008 and sworn in as Speaker in May as the first African-American woman ever to serve in the post. Her duties as Speaker included guiding bills through the legislative process and making committee assignments; as Speaker of the Assembly, Bass was the second-most influential politician in the state after the Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Bass's further political endeavors include participating in the presidential campaign of Illinois Senator Barack Obama. She served as California state co-chair of Obama for President, and headed the group California African Americans for Obama.
Referring in her first speech as Speaker of the Assembly to the loss of her daughter, Emilia Wright, and son-in-law, Michael Wright, in an automobile accident in October of 2006, Bass reflected: "I have experienced the best of your hearts—and I'm not sure I can fully express how much that has meant to me. So many of us have faced personal tragedies and losses—we have stood with each other—we have embraced each other—and helped each other through the bad times…. If we could only harness the power of our common humanity, I don't think there's anything we couldn't do for the people of this state."
Daily News (Los Angeles), February 29, 2008, p. A3.
Jet, March 24, 2008, p. 16.
Los Angeles Business Journal, April 18, 2005, p. 24.
Sacramento Bee, February 28, 2008; February 29, 2008.
San Francisco Chronicle, May 14, 2008, p. B3.
"Swearing In Address of Assembly Speaker Karen Bass," California State Assembly Democratic Caucus, http://democrats.assembly.ca.gov/members/a47/press/20080513AD47PR01.htm (accessed August 20, 2008).
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