Ms. Bass Goes to Washington

Even as Congresswoman Karen Bass has ascended to the highest levels of government, she hasn’t forgotten her roots in community organizing South Los Angeles.  Though she now roams of the halls of Capitol Building in Washington D.C., her experience building coalitions, using grass-roots tactics, and forging collaborations has helped her create change on a much bigger stage.

Raphael Bostic and Representative Karen Bass
Raphael Bostic and Representative Karen Bass

At the Bedrosian Center’s recent Coffee with a Leader, Bass shared some of her insight as veteran legislator in both the California State Assembly and the national House of Representatives. The former speaker of the California State Assembly discussed how she seeks coalitions, both across the aisle and around common policy interests, her tips for managing the State Assembly, and the differences between governing in Sacramento and Washington D.C.

With roots in public health—she was once a lecturer the USC Keck Physician Assistant Program—Bass first decided to enter the public realm when she founded the Community Coalition 23 years ago when she noticed the impact of crack cocaine epidemic in her South Los Angeles community.

“When the congresswoman told me there were no African-American women in the state legislature and I needed to go to Sacramento, I asked why would why I want to go there for,” she recounted. “But I went up there and realized that the issues I was working for in the community—child welfare and criminal justice reform— I could work on them up there too. So that’s why I decided to run.”

After arriving in Sacramento, she made a name for herself by employing a few tricks from her days as a community organizer.

“One of the things I’ve had the most fun with has been applying grass-roots community-based strategies in a legislative context,” Bass said. “That’s been great fun. You’re not supposed to do that. It’s not expected, very disruptive, and consequently, a lot of fun.”

Methods, such as featuring the stories of the community members, were powerful tools to change legislators’ perceptions, like the time she marshaled a cadre of 200 grandmothers to Sacramento to testify about their experiences in the child welfare system before state legislators.

“Rather than have a expert cite some statistics, I wanted to grab their emotions and see these folks’ plight,” Bass said. “At the end of the day, legislation is about votes. What gets people to vote? Emotion, facts, research. All of those are part of picture. A lot of people in policy think that it’s just the best research. The best research is really important, but research has to have some life breathed into it.”

As the speaker of the California State Assembly, Bass soon found that her new job had many parallels with her work at the Community Coalition.

“Everything I did at 81st and Vermont [location of the Community Coalition] completely applies to the legislative context,” she said. “Because I was used to being a community organizer, collecting votes felt like the same thing.”

As a leader in the California Assembly and now in the House of Representatives, Bass has worked to get a lot of people invested in the legislative process and garnering a diverse set of perspectives.  Building collaboration has always been of crucial importance to her.

“I had very strong feelings about how the assembly should be run, and I felt like it should be run in a much more collective fashion,” Bass said. “I brought a team together to make that decision, so that everybody would feel invested in those governing decisions. I looked for ways to be supportive of everybody.”

Having been a woman in the powerful assembly speaker’s chair and now representing the 37th district in Congress , Bass has gained an interesting perspective on the gender dynamics of leadership in government.

“Being a female speaker was a fascinating experience,” she said. “One thing I like about being female in this role is that you’re always underestimated, and you can use that to your advantage. There are drastic gender differences in leadership. What I find is there’s a little more collaboration and a little less competition [when women are involved].”

Despite being very similar governing bodies by design, Washington D.C. and Sacramento can be very different places in practice, thanks to California’s strict term-limit rules.

“In DC, unless I do something stupid, I have the potential to be there for a while, so I take a longer view of things, whereas in Sacramento, it was all about what I could get done in two years because of term limits.”

But in the larger world of Washington politics, forging broad relationship can be trickier due to cramped schedules as well as the strict policing of party lines.

“Building relationships in D.C. is harder,” Bass said. “The best way to get to know each other is when you leave the country. Because we don’t interact with each other here on a day-to-day basis here, when we leave the country, we’re with each other for days at a time. I go on trips with Republicans all other the world, and that’s how I’ve built many relationships.”

Before she left, Bass offered the students in the audience some words of advice, including the need to seek out mentors in their careers. For her, Charles Rangel (D-NY) and Ed Royce (R-CA) were instrumental in helping her better understand the legislative process in Congress.

“I’ve asked for help all along the way, and I have always recruited mentors,” she said. “As soon as I got to Congress, I identified members that had been there a long time and had the expertise on certain issues. I went and sought out mentors on those issues. People are usually happy to provide that.”

Bass also counseled the group to look beyond just book learning when thinking about public policy issues.

“Figure out an issue or focus and dig deep,” she said. “Go out and learn about it from the ground level. I’m amazed at how many people that have studied an issue and have not walked out the door. They don’t know the issue because they haven’t met anybody involved in the issue.”