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Black Caucus Leader Karen Bass Finds Herself in High Demand

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SCOTT WONG AND MIKE LILLIS, THE HILL, May 9, 2019 | comments


Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) is finding herself in high demand heading into 2020.

The new leader of the powerful Congressional Black Caucus received a phone call from Joe Biden, the former vice president and  current front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, just the other day.

She caught up with Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), another White House hopeful, during a plane ride from Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. And Bass regularly chats up Sen. Kamala Harris, a fellow California Democrat, and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) during Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) meetings in the Capitol.

Bass and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) have teamed up on an infrastructure-jobs bill. And Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) phoned Bass last fall to congratulate her after her election to the top of the Black Caucus.

One top-tier presidential candidate who has not reached out to her: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

“Phones work pretty well,” Bass said with some pique in a wide-ranging interview in her office on Capitol Hill. “But in my opinion, I think there’s been little outreach. And with Sanders, he might feel he knows us. I don’t know. I mean, I’ve talked to him one time in my life, maybe twice.”

That revelation comes amid a barrage of headlines about how Sanders, who is second but trailing far behind Biden in the primary polls, is struggling to make inroads with African American voters, who make up a huge part of the Democratic electorate in Southern states like South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi.

When a reporter pointed out that the lack of communication with Sanders was unusual given that Sanders and Bass are progressive members of the same party, Bass replied sarcastically: “Ya think?”

The Sanders campaign did not respond to a request for comment. But the senator has been courting the black community, appearing recently at a march in Selma, Ala.; a Baptist church in North Charleston, S.C.; and at the Rev. Al Sharpton’s forum in New York, where he told the crowd of activists he’s been “fighting for economic, social and racial justice” for decades.   

Bass, a 65-year-old former health care worker, is quick to stress that while a handful of individual CBC members are making primary endorsements, the group as a whole would refrain from doing so — and so would she.

Still, the race to attract black voters around the country, and particularly in the South, has found the presidential hopefuls clamoring for the attention of Bass and other prominent African American leaders — forthcoming endorsements or none.

It’s little surprise that Bass is in demand. The Black Caucus has grown this year to 55 members, the most since its founding in 1971, and now exerts more influence over the strategic direction and policy priorities of the House Democratic Caucus than it ever has. The CBC boasts two top leaders in Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), and five CBC members hold powerful committee gavels, including Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).

“She is very inclusive and organized and has been able to balance all of the different interests within the caucus,” Cummings said of Bass.

Even some Republicans see Bass’s CBC post as merely a launching pad to larger leadership roles for the five-term Californian.

Fifteen years ago in Sacramento, Calif., Kevin McCarthy, then the GOP leader in the state Assembly, pulled aside the then-freshman state lawmaker and told her she would one day become Speaker of the California Assembly. A few years later, his prediction came true.

Now the House Republican leader in Washington, McCarthy is predicting that Bass will be elected to Democratic leadership.

“I told her one day she would be Speaker, but she didn’t believe me. And she became Speaker,” said McCarthy, who has supported Bass’s long-running efforts to protect and nurture foster children. “She’s got a lot of natural ability. ... Even though we have a difference of opinion, we can always talk. We can always work through and find common ground.”

Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.) has seen Bass’s leadership first hand. Torres served under then-Speaker Bass in Sacramento and has been urging her House colleague to run for leadership in Washington after she relinquishes her CBC gavel at the end of 2020. 

“I really admired her work, and I think that someday she will be a good Speaker here, too. She was great in the state, and she could lend a lot of advice on how to deal with our president, having had that experience in Sacramento,” Torres told The Hill.

“I’ve encouraged her to do all of that; I’ve encouraged our leadership to look to her for advice, because she really brings a lot to the table.”

Bass, for her part, is not shying away from the notion of one day rising through the leadership ranks. The Los Angeles liberal said she’s “always interested in leadership,” but is “not angling for any particular job.”

“I don’t know what is next,” she said.

McCarthy offered some tongue-in-cheek advice for his friend across the aisle: “I think she would be minority whip or minority leader,” he said with a smile.

In the meantime, Bass is eyeing an ambitious legislative agenda that puts a premium on efforts to expand health care access, protect voting rights, improve the criminal justice system and boost the financial well-being of African Americans, who suffered disproportionately from the housing collapse of 2006 and the global recession that followed.

“We took a very big step back in terms of homeownership,” she said. Now, she told The Hill, the black population wants Congress to address wealth creation.

If there is one goal Bass hopes to accomplish during her two-year term as CBC chairwoman, it’s raising the profiles of her members and highlighting their victories, from criminal justice reform to securing more money for scholarships for historically black colleges and universities.

She’s even adopted a slogan for the campaign: “No more hidden figures.”

“We want CBC members to be elevated in terms of their contributions here,” Bass said. “And so the goal is, by December 2020, black America will know who the Black Caucus is, why the Black Caucus is considered the conscience of the Congress, and how the caucus uses its power to impact positively not just the African American population, but basically, the country.”

“I just think that CBC members have not really focused on promoting or talking about what they’ve done,” she continued. “In our business, if we don’t make a point of telling people what we do, then they say we did nothing.”

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