Rep. Karen Bass says Los Angeles ‘humanitarian emergency’ driving her to run for mayor

Advocate for racial equality leaves behind heavily Democratic seat

Democratic Rep. Karen Bass said Monday she will run for mayor of Los Angeles next year instead of seeking a seventh term in the House.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Democratic Rep. Karen Bass said Monday she will run for mayor of Los Angeles next year instead of seeking a seventh term in the House. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 27, 2021 at 1:10pm

California Rep. Karen Bass, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus who was on the short list to be President Joe Biden’s running mate, announced Monday that she will run for mayor of Los Angeles rather than seek a seventh term. 

“Our city is facing a public health, safety and economic crisis in homelessness that has evolved into a humanitarian emergency,” Bass said in a statement. “I’ve spent my entire life bringing groups of people together in coalitions to solve complex problems and produce concrete change — especially in times of crisis. Los Angeles is my home. With my whole heart, I’m ready. Let’s do this — together. I’m running for mayor.”

Bass’ decision opens up her 37th District seat, a Democratic stronghold that reelected her with 86 percent of the vote last year. But with California losing a seat following the 2020 census, mapmakers on the state’s independent redistricting commission could use the opportunity to carve up the historically diverse district, without any political pressure to protect an incumbent, several Democratic strategists said. 

Bass, who turns 68 Sunday, was first elected to the House in 2010 and led the Congressional Black Caucus in the last Congress. She serves on the Judiciary and Foreign Affairs committees and was the chief sponsor of the House version of the 2019 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. 

Focus on inequality

A liberal Democrat, Bass has focused much of her career on addressing racial inequalities. On the Judiciary Committee, she has advocated changes to federal sentencing policies and has repeatedly introduced legislation to repeal the prohibition on individuals with drug-related convictions from receiving federal student aid. She also co-sponsored a bill in 2017 with Maryland Democrat Elijah E. Cummings, who died in 2019, to end solitary confinement of juveniles in the federal system. 

Bass had been one of the lead negotiators on police overhaul legislation but the bipartisan talks recently ended without a deal.

On the Foreign Affairs Committee, she heads the Africa, Global Health and Global Human Rights Subcommittee. She has spoken about her desire for U.S. leadership in African affairs and to “raise everybody’s awareness, interest and education about trade with Africa … because we view Africa in general as a charity case as opposed to an economic engine for the world.” 

Bass brings a high profile to what promises to be a crowded and competitive mayoral race. A native Angeleno, she worked in her 20s for the Greater Los Angeles Community Action Agency, a nonprofit dedicated to eradicating poverty. 

Bass later worked as an emergency room physician assistant and as an instructor in the physician assistant program at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine. Her interest in politics grew from her efforts to address the crack cocaine epidemic affecting the city and several other urban areas across the nation. In 1990, she established the nonprofit Community Coalition, which initially sought to address the conditions that contributed to the city’s epidemic and related social ills. 

Bass was elected to the California State Assembly in 2004, and, in 2008, she became the first Black female speaker of a statehouse in U.S. history, using her time to focus on the budget and other economic issues.

Familiar path

Bass is following a path of other House members who left Congress to pursue other offices in California. 

Democrat Janice Hahn left Congress in 2016 after being elected to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Democrat Xavier Becerra resigned the following year to become state attorney general. (He is now secretary of Health and Human Services.) And Republican Paul Cook retired last fall to run — and win— a seat on the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors. Six years earlier, Democrat Gloria Negrete McLeod also retired to seek a San Bernardino County supervisor seat but was unsuccessful.