Why Joe Biden Has His Eye on Karen Bass
The California representative’s low-key manner and progressive credentials could strengthen Biden’s campaign when he needs it most.
Updated at 1:50 p.m. ET on July 15, 2020.
The first time Representative Karen Bass heard Joe Biden talk about the car crash that killed his wife and infant daughter, she dropped into her chair, overwhelmed.
It was 2008, and Bass was watching the Democratic National Convention video introducing Biden as the party’s vice-presidential nominee. Less than two years earlier, Bass’s daughter and son-in-law had died in a car crash on the 405. Bass, then in her 50s, had thrown herself into her job as the speaker of the California assembly and hoped to get past the pain. But there was Biden, 36 years after the tragedy that shattered his family, still talking about the magnitude of his loss. “I had this moment,” Bass told me, “where I had to come to grips with the fact that losing my daughter and son-in-law was always going to be a part of the narrative of who I am.”
Four years later, as Biden and Barack Obama were being reelected, Bass won a seat in the House, representing parts of Los Angeles. But she didn’t tell Biden what he’d meant to her until this March, when she introduced him at a Super Tuesday chicken-and-waffles event. “We both just shared that you learn how to get up in the morning,” she told me. “You learn how to live, but your life is fundamentally changed, dramatically changed.”
Now, much to Bass’s—and pretty much everyone else’s—surprise, Biden’s team is taking her seriously as a potential vice-presidential running mate. One theory is that she’s being vetted to help Biden win favor with the Congressional Black Caucus, which she chairs. Another is that Biden is trying to use the process to elevate as many black women as he can. Yet another is that he’s looking to distract people from speculating about some of the more likely choices. But inside the Biden campaign is another consideration: Over the next month, he’s effectively going to decide whether there will be a competitive Democratic primary in 2024 (or maybe 2028, if he wins and tries to serve until he’s 86 years old). He’s the leader of the party now. Will he decide its future by anointing a successor, or pick someone, like Bass, who’s less likely to run for president?
Biden has wanted to be president for almost 40 years. Now that the White House finally seems within reach, he does not want to be outshone, according to people who know him. He wants to win, but he wants the win to be about him, not his running mate.
I asked Bass whether she’d see the vice presidency as the culmination of her career or a stepping-stone to the presidency. She started with a long answer about wanting to focus on the work in front of her, and mentor the younger political generation, which has inspired her. “The vice president has considered himself like a transitional leader. That’s how I view it, because I envision a next stage of my life, whenever that comes,” she said.
I stopped her: If there were an open race for the presidency in 2024 or 2028 and she was Vice President Bass, would she run?
“I cannot envision that. That’s the best I can say. I mean, I’m 66. I can’t see that,” she said.
“Joe Biden is going to be 78,” I pointed out.
She paused. “Well. I don’t know how much time I have.”
When Barack Obama picked Biden as his running mate in 2008, Biden was also 66. Obama told Biden to think of the job like “the capstone of your career,” and the assumption that Biden wouldn’t be angling to run for president himself was part of the rationale for putting him on the ticket.
Bass came up as a community organizer in Los Angeles and worked as a physician assistant in emergency rooms during the AIDS crisis. She was at the infamous intersection of Florence and Normandie as the sun set in 1992 during the LA riots, and almost got hit by bricks. For the past month, she’s been shepherding a policing-reform bill through the House without losing a single progressive or moderate vote.
She “was not high on the list that the team had initially proposed,” a donor who’s spoken with Biden about the deliberations told me. But she seems to have moved up as the vetting committee has looked at her record and considered her upsides against the little obvious baggage she’d have. In this case, being largely unknown nationally means that she wouldn’t start out as polarizing. “He wants what he did for Obama,” the donor told me. “He sees that as what that job is: You speak truth to power; you step out there on the edge when it’s an existential issue. He sees her and her record as proven and time-tested—though she’s not known among large voter blocs, and not lifted up with a strong media presence.”
The donor is right about Bass’s distinctive appeal: Probably no other person alive would be the subject of a column by the conservative columnist George Will calling for Biden to pick her as “transitional leadership to get the world’s oldest party, and the world’s oldest democracy, to calmer days,” and also be described to me by Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota as not only “a colleague, but a dear friend.”
At the end of May, Bass flew to Houston to attend George Floyd’s funeral. She looked at the picture of him with the dates of his life underneath, and realized that the year Floyd was born, 1973, was when she’d first become active in her L.A. neighborhood, pushing for police reform. Now Floyd was dead, and she was in charge of a bill he inspired. She felt humbled. “And then, of course, it saddens you in the sense that, 47 years later, people discover, ‘Gee, there’s a problem.’”
Bass was from the south side. Antonio Villaraigosa, the future mayor of Los Angeles, was from the east side. She was organizing around police abuse. He was organizing around immigrant rights. “We were calling ourselves ‘progressive’ when nobody did,” Villaraigosa told me last week. He said they realized early on that they’d be able to do more by fusing a Black-brown coalition, and they showed up for each other’s issues, and for collaborative fights, such as pushing back on the proliferation of liquor stores. They became friends. “We had each other’s phone number,” Villaraigosa said. They still do. “She was someone who, back then, I took notice of because she was a worker bee. She didn’t need to be in front of a camera all the time,” he told me, which sounds like a line, but reflects a career in which Bass spent 30 years launching, then deliberately moving on from, a series of community organizations. She still doesn’t like having her picture taken, and thinks it’s silly. “If it’s meaningful to somebody, then I’m okay with it. But it ain’t my favorite thing.”
This would not seem to be the best mindset for a political career in the 21st century—and certainly not, if she’s picked, for a national campaign that will play out largely via socially distant camera shots. And Biden has privately expressed concerns about whether, given how underexposed Bass has been, she would be able to take or deliver a hit without stumbling under the pressure. Biden is risk-averse, and Bass does not have the cross-examiner’s mentality of Harris, or the economic incisiveness of Elizabeth Warren, or the Situation Room experience of Susan Rice, or the Purple Heart heroism of Tammy Duckworth. She still takes the approach she did organizing on the sidewalks in the ’70s, as displayed in her response to the massively disproportionate coronavirus rates among Black Americans. Treat and trace now, she argued, and grapple with systemic inequities when the hospital rooms aren’t full of dying Black patients. “I always say, ‘If the house is on fire, you send the fire department; you don’t send a structural engineer to talk about the foundation of the house,’ which is what everybody was doing,” Bass told me. “Everybody was talking about ‘Well, Black folks have all these underlying conditions.’ Well, that’s true. But right now, we’ve got to put the fire out.”
Biden’s vetting team has been watching prospective candidates for the past few months. The conventional wisdom about the Floyd protests is that they suddenly boosted the chances of Harris and Val Demings, the two-term congresswoman from Florida who was previously the Orlando police chief. Bass has a low-key manner in place of Harris’s searing speeches, and pointy glasses in place of Demings’s dress blues, but she was the one House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put in charge when it came to actually writing the police-reform bill. “During this precarious, pivotal moment in America’s history, our nation and the Congress are fortunate to be led by” Bass, Pelosi said in an uncharacteristically profuse emailed statement. Bass “has earned the esteem of all who know her for the grace, grit and gentility she brings to her work to make real the promise of a more just, equal and fair America.”
This was a bill that could easily have collapsed in the usual Democratic infighting. Instead, every Democrat voted for it—all of the moderates, all of the progressives—and three Republican votes did, too. The bill would ban local police forces from using choke holds, limit municipalities’ access to military equipment, increase police accountability and transparency, mandate body cameras, and take steps to end racial profiling.
I asked Representative Emanuel Cleaver II of Missouri, a member of the moderate No Labels group, how Bass was able to pass a bill that got his vote, and all of the others. “She was the right person at the right time,” he replied. “Theologically, we say that God always has a ram in the bush.” Omar—who is literally on the Justice Democrats poster, and who represents the Minnesota district where Floyd lived and died—said, “In everything she does, Karen is always prepared on the facts, the policy, and the strategy.” She called Bass “a mentor and an example of someone who achieves big goals without compromising her values.”
There are still plenty of reasons to doubt that Biden will pick Bass. She’s supposed to get picked to be vice president because of a bill that the Senate probably won’t pass and that President Donald Trump would never sign? She’s supposed to convince undecided voters that she’d be ready to serve as president on day one, if necessary, because she’s well liked in the House and she chaired the Africa subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs Committee? American politics has been defined by larger-than-life characters, and Bass’s greatest admirers admit that she isn’t one. But “she can grow that profile even more as his running mate,” Representative G. K. Butterfield of North Carolina told me.
The Biden campaign has been trying to decide whether to pick a running mate who satisfies the left or one who represents the racial and ethnic diversity of his party, since Biden himself does neither. Here’s where another argument for Bass kicks in: She shows that Biden doesn’t have to choose. Although Bass doesn’t have much of a relationship with Bernie Sanders, she hasn’t attracted the disdain of his most vocal and committed supporters. That helps explain the satisfaction among Bass’s Sanders-aligned House colleagues when she was named the head of the Biden campaign’s Biden-Sanders unity task force on the economy. Several top Sanders allies told me they were eager to see Bass picked—so much so that they wouldn’t go on the record, out of fear that making her look too aligned with the senator from Vermont could backfire and hurt her chances.
As the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Bass also has deeper connections than Harris with institutional Black forces in the party. She’s close with important voices in Biden’s ear: Representative Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, whose endorsement helped earn Biden the nomination; Representative Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, a co-chair of Biden’s campaign who preceded Bass as chair of the CBC; and Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester of Delaware, who’s one of the four members of Biden’s VP-vetting committee. (She also has a long relationship with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, another member of the vetting committee.)
Reflecting how seriously some of Bass’s competition is taking her is the sudden attention to her 2016 statement after the death of Fidel Castro. “The passing of the Comandante en Jefe is a great loss to the people of Cuba,” she wrote, seeming to have figured that the title was just the Google Translate equivalent of commander in chief, and not realizing it’s a loaded term of praise for those who fled the revolution.
Bass told me she didn’t know what she was saying, and didn’t mean to offend. “I live in Los Angeles. It’s easy to say certain things from that perspective and not think about how that comes across to people in other states,” she said. Admitting ignorance about the sensitivities around Castro, an issue that could theoretically pull Florida, with its large Cuban population, out of contention for Democrats, isn’t likely to calm those who say that Bass isn’t prepared for the national stage.
But Bass insists she’s prepared. “You know what? I’m ready for anything and everything. Let me just tell you something. This is really the way I view life. After having lost my kids, I can do anything. You understand what I mean?” she said. “I’ve always been clear about what I was doing and why I was doing it. And that has always been what has steadied me, allowed me to move forward in spite of really difficult odds.”
Villaraigosa helped talk Bass into running for speaker of the California State Assembly instead of the state-Senate campaign she’d been planning. Pointing out to her that a Black woman had never held the job was part of what persuaded Bass to do it. While Bass was working her way up in Sacramento, she overlapped with Kevin McCarthy, who served as Republican leader of the California Assembly and is now his party's leader in the House of Representatives.* Bass was not as well regarded by Republicans in Sacramento as she and her fans like to assert. But nonetheless, of the 435 members in the U.S. House, Bass is the only one who has actual, personal relationships with both McCarthy and Pelosi. “Anybody who can maintain a relationship with both is an amazing, angelic person,” Cleaver said.
The Biden campaign declined to comment on any of this, as it does with all running-mate speculation. But those who have been watching Bass over the years are reading tea leaves of their own. “She doesn’t give him donors; she doesn’t have a national profile; she tweets stuff and no one cares. The only reason you throw out Bass as a name is because you’re really considering her,” Michael Trujillo, a California-based Democratic strategist who has known Bass since her first assembly run, told me.
So much of any vice-presidential candidate’s role in a campaign comes down to performing in a debate. Harris and Warren would shine in that format. For all her years marching in the streets and working on bills, Bass has never done anything like that. I asked her what she thought debating Vice President Mike Pence might be like.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m not sure how comfortable he is with women.”
She seemed to be referencing the old story, which Pence aides deny, that he won’t eat alone with women who aren’t his wife.
“Yeah,” Bass said. “Maybe she’d have to be there.”
* This article previously misstated when Karen Bass and Kevin McCarthy overlapped in Sacramento.