LOS ANGELES — It was one month before a momentous mayoral election here and the nation’s second-largest city was in disarray.
A now-infamous audio recording had just surfaced, capturing four of the most powerful Latino leaders in Los Angeles in a conversation that disparaged several other racial and ethnic groups that call this diverse city home. Demands for resignations and reforms rained down from the White House, the state Capitol and L.A. City Hall.
Democratic Rep. Karen Bass, vying to become the first woman elected to lead the city, condemned the remarks but did not immediately call for those implicated to step down. And behind the scenes, she worked the phones. In less than 72 hours, she convened a meeting at a local community college, bringing together a multiracial group of organizations and advocates to denounce the racism heard on the leaked recording and chart a path forward.
“This was not part of her campaign,” said Michael Lawson, the president and CEO of Los Angeles Urban League, who attended the gathering. “She listened more than she talked. She wanted everybody to have the opportunity to say what they wanted to say and to put their ideas on the table.”
The group resolved to create an action plan, and to continue talking. A few weeks later, Bass won the election, receiving more votes than any candidate before her in the most expensive election in city history.
In many ways, the meeting was a throwback to what has powered Bass’s political career, driving her to leadership posts in the state Assembly and Congress before her mayoral inauguration Sunday: the instinct to gather disparate parties in the same room to hash out answers to urgent problems. But in a city riven by worries about crime and homelessness, and intensely frustrated that fellow Democrats have failed to deliver solutions, a crucial question remains: Will that old-school approach be enough to solve even older problems?
As Bass prepares to take office this week, she has made audacious promises to the city’s 4 million residents, pledging to address the interlocking crises of homelessness, affordability and inequity, problems that have grown more acute in recent years despite the efforts of a string of previous mayors.
Bass has said she plans to “solve homelessness” and will declare a state of emergency on her first day. In her first year, she said, she will house 17,000 people. And she announced a strategy to prevent crime in part by hiring civilian employees to free up some 250 police officers from clerical work, allowing them to return to city streets.
Outgoing Mayor Eric Garcetti, leaving office after more than nine years, also took aim at homelessness, aided by a ballot measure that allowed the city to borrow $1.2 billion to pay for housing and health services for those living outside. But the problem has grown worse.
Bass, a 69-year-old L.A. native, is a lifelong Democrat who grew up in leftist activism. She later founded the nonprofit Community Coalition — with a goal of uniting South L.A. residents across racial and ethnic lines — before serving as Assembly speaker, a platform that vaulted her to the U.S. House of Representatives a few years later. In 2020, she was among those Joe Biden considered for his running mate.
Bass’s years as an elected official provided fodder for her mayoral opponent, billionaire real estate developer Rick Caruso, who cast her as “a career politician” and staked his campaign on overcoming the repeated failures of the past. One measure of Angelenos’ exasperation and the challenges that await: Caruso, who until recently was a registered Republican, received more than 45 percent of the vote in this deep-blue city.
Bass, who did not make herself available for a pre-inauguration interview, has said she chose Sunday for the ceremony so she could spend the full following day, the official start of her term, at work. And there is plenty to do.
“Los Angeles is a city at a crossroads,” said Sonja Diaz, the founding director of UCLA’s Latino Policy and Politics Institute. “We’ve seen great increases in housing insecurity, food insecurity and widening economy inequality.”
While these issues are long-standing, Diaz noted that they’ve been “exacerbated because of a lack of leadership from City Hall and coordination across jurisdictions,” especially during the coronavirus pandemic.
More than 40,000 people are living on the streets in Los Angeles, according to the latest figures, and a massive influx of spending has so far made little visible dent. Violent crime remains far lower than at its peak in the early 1990s, but gun violence has surged in recent years, and with three weeks left in 2022, the city’s homicide count has topped 350 for the third straight year. And Los Angeles regularly ranks among the nation’s least-affordable cities as the cost of housing spirals upward. All of that has left the city in a funk.
“There is a lot of civic pride that has been lost these last few years,” said Ange-Marie Hancock, chair of the University of Southern California’s political science and international relations department.
Bass is stepping into what is sometimes regarded as “a weak mayor system,” in which the chief executive’s ability to wield power unilaterally is limited, unlike in some other metropolises. But experts in the city’s governance instead describe the position as one that requires collaboration across entities, from city agencies to its council to the county’s board of supervisors.
And for an issue like homelessness, the levers of power are even more complex.
To make good on her promises about that issue, for example, Bass will have to navigate a bureaucratic labyrinth: The city runs the housing department, the county is responsible for social services like addiction or mental illness treatments, the federal government funds rental subsidies and nonprofits build and manage many housing developments.
“It’s not a simple task to house that one person down the street from your home,” said Miguel Santana, the former Los Angeles city administrative officer and current president of the Weingart Foundation, a grant-making organization. “There’s no one entity that’s in charge of putting that person in housing. It’s like orchestrating a symphony a person at a time.”
The foundation funded a recent survey of Los Angeles voters that found more than a third believe the mayor is most responsible for addressing homelessness, more than the governor or the city council. The survey, which ended on Election Day, also found that more than 60 percent of respondents would support a recall if the mayor failed to effectively respond to homelessness within two years.
“This survey makes it very clear what the mandate is: Do whatever you need to do to solve the crisis of homelessness,” Santana said. “That’s a pretty big mandate, and frankly political cover that Angelenos are giving the next mayor, to act in a bold, courageous way.”
Hancock, of USC, praised Bass’s homelessness policy for its multipronged approach and said her experience in local, state and federal government will be crucial to meeting her goals.
“She really sees the intersectionality of the issues, rather than thinking of homelessness as separate from workforce development and housing and siloing it off,” Hancock said.
In her campaign, Bass hewed to more centrist policy proposals, particularly on policing and homelessness. Some to Bass’s left have criticized her stances, especially her backing of a ban on homeless encampments near schools and day-care centers, which activists called inhumane, and her plan to add police officers to the streets. She has stressed the need for a more visible police presence.
“People don’t feel safe today,” she said when announcing her plan.
Bass’s public service career was arguably born from concerns about safety. As a physician assistant working in a Los Angeles emergency room during the height of the crack epidemic, she saw the impact of violent crime up close.
The period pushed her to found the Community Coalition in 1990 with the goal of addressing the cycles of poverty, violence and substance abuse in South L.A. That led Bass to campaign against the liquor stores that blanketed South Central, which she and other residents said were magnets for drugs and crime, and provided an early lesson in building multiracial alliances.
Many of the shops the coalition aimed to close were owned by Korean Americans, and the issue was primed to stoke racial tensions in the area. Bass sought out allies in the Korean community and stressed that her group’s concerns had nothing to do with race or nationality.
Still, the drive to close liquor stores remains painful for some of the city’s Korean American residents. During a campaign stop earlier this year, Bass apologized for some of her remarks from the time. In October, she received an endorsement from the Korean American Democratic Committee.
The Community Coalition’s current chief strategy officer, Ryan Smith, first crossed paths with Bass when he was a teenager, just learning the ropes of student activism.
“You always got the sense that Karen Bass was a community organizer’s community organizer,” Smith said. “She was about uplifting the voice and needs of the community. Karen Bass knocked on doors. She held town halls, she knew the names of folks in the community.”
Smith described Bass as an adept listener, a pragmatist and someone who will not be a top-down leader.
“Knocking on doors and phone banking people shouldn’t stop with the campaign,” Smith said. “You should be engaging people around-the-clock, 24/7. I believe she’ll bring that into her work.”
In the audio recording that leaked in October, the Community Coalition, also known as CoCo, was invoked several times as a derisive shorthand for Black political interests as three city council members and a labor leader discussed how to redraw district lines to boost Latino representation.
Alicia Lara leads Community Partners, a nonprofit that supports social entrepreneurship, and has worked with Bass’s old organization. She said that recording represented the antithesis of Bass’s approach.
With Bass, she said, “it was never about an ‘us and them’ and trying to pit one community against another.”
“You’ve got to really seek out alliances,” Lara said. “I think that’s the spirit that Karen brings. I think we need her now more than ever.”
In nearly two decades as a state and congressional legislator, Bass earned a reputation for making difficult decisions and working across the aisle with Republicans.
As Assembly speaker during the Great Recession, Bass negotiated, with Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and top lawmakers from both parties, the fallout from a $42 billion budget gap. The deal they brokered was controversial: It included deep cuts to education spending, but saved the jobs of thousands of workers and spared some social programs that risked being eliminated.
Shortly after Bass’s election to the House in 2010, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.) took over as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and the two quickly formed a bond. When she sought out his advice, he said, she’d tell him, “Okay, I need some Cleaver time.”
Cleaver later pushed her to run for CBC chair, which she eventually did, serving in the role from 2019 to 2021. Cleaver called her “one of the great chairs” of the caucus and applauded the way she mentored new members.
“She never went out to promote Karen Bass,” Cleaver said. “She was trying to produce leaders.”
But more recent events in Washington demonstrated that, in today’s highly polarized politics, there are limits to Bass’s persuasive abilities. After the murder of George Floyd in 2020 by Minneapolis police, Bass spearheaded a policing bill that bore his name and would have outlawed officer tactics such as chokeholds and no-knock raids.
The bill passed the House and Bass, with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), held months-long negotiations with Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) over a Senate version. But the bill eventually collapsed, infuriating civil rights leaders and Floyd’s family. Each side blamed the other for an unwillingness to compromise. Bass said Republicans insisted on changes that watered down the bill until they were left with something that, in her view, made no significant progress.
In Los Angeles, few of Bass’s efforts will revolve around persuading Republicans to side with her; the city’s 15-member council is composed almost entirely of Democrats. And many, particularly recently elected members, are further to the left than Bass and may challenge some of her hallmark initiatives.
This will also be the first time in Bass’s political life that she is the singular executive, after decades spent corralling fellow legislators. Before his time in Congress, Cleaver became the first Black mayor of Kansas City, and served two terms. Running a big city, he said, will pose new challenges for Bass.
“When you’re mayor, you’re on center stage of the American drama, unlike any other office,” he said.
At the first news conference after her victory, Bass acknowledged the magnitude of her new office — and nodded at the colossal expectations that come with it.
“We made it, but this is just the beginning,” she told a crowd of supporters. “Now we have to deliver for Los Angeles.”
Scott Clement in Washington contributed to this report.