First Black woman to serve as speaker of any state legislature. First woman elected mayor of Los Angeles. Most votes received by any mayoral candidate in L.A.’s history.
L.A. Mayor-elect Karen Bass is no stranger to making history.
And on Sunday, Dec. 11, to mark the historic nature of her election to the city’s top post, Bass will be ceremoniously sworn in to office by another official who has shattered the glass ceiling – Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman, and first woman of color, to serve as the nation’s second-in-command.
The ceremony will start at 1 p.m. at L.A. Live’s Microsoft Theater in downtown L.A.
Bass, 69, a six-term congresswoman, will serve as the 43rd mayor of L.A. – but only its first female mayor and second Black mayor in the city’s 241-year history.
She will begin her term as mayor of the second-most populous city in the nation on Monday and had previously vowed to declare a state of emergency with regards to the city’s out-of-control homelessness crisis her first day on the job. Last week, she announced the appointment of Mercedes Márquez as her Chief of Housing and Homelessness Solutions. Márquez has worked in previous mayors’ offices, the city’s housing department and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“The people of Los Angeles have sent a clear message: It is time for change and it is time for urgency,” Bass had said in a statement last month after learning she’d won the election.
“This is my home, and with my whole heart, I’m ready to serve, and my pledge to you is that we will hit the ground running on Day One,” she continued.
Bass assumes office at a time when there is mounting pressure for city leaders to get a handle on L.A.’s homelessness crisis, crime and public safety concerns ahead of playing host to the 2028 Summer Olympic Games – when L.A. will be placed on the international stage – and as the region’s housing affordability issue continue to weigh heavy on many Angelenos. (She recently tapped Chris Thompson, a recent executive on the LA28 Olympic and Paralympic Games, as her chief of staff.)
The new mayor is also coming on board at a time of great political unrest, with demands from the public for Councilmember Kevin de León to resign due to his role in a racism-and-redistricting scandal. The fallout from that scandal has turned violent in recent days, with de León and a community activist accusing each other of assault.
And while she’s a Democrat in a city known as a liberal bastion, Bass may nevertheless be tested in her new role by a City Council that, starting this week, will include two more progressive leaders whose politics are considered further left than Bass’. Extreme leftist activists have increasingly been flexing their political muscles in recent years, in some cases ousting incumbents and voting in candidates that share their views.
It remains to be seen how Bass, viewed as a more middle-of-the-road pragmatist compared to some of her party’s more progressive leaders, will fare with the newly reconstituted council, where at least three of the 15 councilmembers are supported by Democratic Socialists of America.
Joel Fox, an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy, said Bass, a Democrat, has had experience reaching across the aisle to work with Republicans, both in the California state Assembly and in Congress and believes she’ll be able to broker agreements, though it won’t be easy.
“I think there will be some aggressive members of the council who will push her as far as they can. They will be backed by some activists,” Fox said. “How she will get the majority of the council to support her, I think, will be an interesting test. If the pragmatic Karen Bass is the mayor, she can probably wrestle up the votes she’ll need. But it will be a battle.”
One of Bass’ first tests, he said, may be the debate over cleaning up homeless encampments. Earlier this year, the council voted to ban homeless encampments near schools and daycare centers – a policy supported by Bass but which has been lambasted by some community activists.
“She wants to take people off of the streets,” Fox said. “Activists are very firm on how she does that, and now they have allies on the council.”
On the issue of gender and race, one professor said research shows that women, and women of color, lead differently.
“Though the average Angeleno may not care whether Karen Bass is a woman, I think they will see a difference in how she leads,” said Ange-Marie Hancock Alfaro, a political science and gender studies professor at the University of Southern California.
For example, she said, Bass tried to be clear on the campaign trail when she acknowledged that L.A.’s homelessness problems won’t be fully resolved in four years.
“She was very transparent about managing people’s expectations. She didn’t make wild promises,” said Hancock Alfaro, adding that it’s not that women don’t take risks, but that they’re more likely to take calculated risks.
Bass’ opponent in the mayoral race, developer Rick Caruso, had criticized her for not being ambitious enough with her plan for addressing homelessness.
Hancock Alfaro also noted that immediately after news broke in October of a leaked audio capturing de León and two other current or former councilmembers, along with a labor leader, in a backdoor conversation a year earlier to discuss potentially manipulating the city’s redistricting process, and during which racist comments were made, Bass convened a diverse group of civic leaders to develop an action plan for moving the city forward.
Caruso had issued a statement condemning the incident but did not convene a similar group, said Hancock Alfaro, who added that she wasn’t criticizing either candidate’s response but noting a difference in leadership style. Research, she said, shows women tend to demonstrate a more collaborative style.
Bass has repeatedly described herself as a coalition builder.
Before entering politics in 2005, Bass founded Community Coalition in 1990 in response to the crack-cocaine epidemic of that era. The South L.A.-based organization works to address poverty, crime and violence, and Bass has said her work there often involved bringing together Black and Latino residents to resolve issues facing the community.
After years as an activist, Bass entered politics, serving in the California state Assembly from 2005 to 2010. She made history in 2008 when she was named Assembly speaker, becoming the first Black woman in the nation to hold that title in any state legislature.
Bass next was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2011, to represent parts of L.A.
Despite a long career in politics, Bass has never worked in City Hall.
But outgoing Mayor Eric Garcetti has faith that Angelenos elected the right candidate for the job.
Despite record spending by Caruso, a billionaire businessman who largely self-funded his $104 million-plus campaign, Bass handily defeated her opponent in what many once thought would be a close race. According to the L.A. County registrar’s office, Bass ultimately won with 509,944 votes (54.83% of the votes) while Caruso received 420,030 votes (45.17%).
Given her experience in the California Assembly and in Congress, Bass was largely viewed as the establishment candidate, winning endorsements from President Joe Biden, former President Barack Obama and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, in addition to the vice president of the United States.
In an interview Friday, Garcetti, who had refrained from endorsing either mayoral candidate before the Nov. 8 general election, admitted he voted for Bass to succeed him and that he had encouraged her to run in the past.
His advice to her now?
“Stay you. Be authentic. Let people get to know who you are,” he said.
“Learn how to share power,” he added. “I think that’s instinctive for her.”