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Rep. Karen Bass surged up Biden's VP list. Is she ready for the national stage?

Jennifer Haberkorn and Adam Elmahrek, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. Karen Bass is an unlikely contender for vice president.

The five-term Los Angeles Democrat has never run for statewide office, much less a national one; she hasn't faced a tough reelection race in her comfortably liberal district.

Until recently, Bass was scarcely known outside California. And if the 66-year-old leader of the Congressional Black Caucus harbored further political ambitions, she didn't share them, friends and colleagues say.

Bass catapulted onto Joe Biden's short list for a running mate thanks largely to her pragmatism and unassuming style, which have earned the respect of progressives, moderate Democrats and even some Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

But for a Biden campaign looking to "do no harm" at a time when he enjoys a substantial lead in polls against President Donald Trump, Bass also carries risk.

Alongside the friendly, cooperative demeanor that has made Bass so popular on Capitol Hill is a political ideology significantly to the left of Biden's or several of the other women under consideration. Her record could raise concerns in key swing states Democrats need to win. As a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, for example, she supports the Green New Deal and "Medicare for All," while Biden has called for more moderate alternatives.


Her long-standing interest in Cuba -- including as many as 15 trips to the island beginning as a community activist in the 1970s and continuing after her election to the House -- could prove politically toxic in Florida, which has a large, active population of anti-Castro refugees. Polls indicate that Biden currently leads Trump in the state, and a victory there for the Democrats would all but clinch the election, making the state a prime concern for Biden's campaign.

And Bass' lack of national or statewide campaigns mean that none of her political vulnerabilities has been tested in a tough contest. If selected, Bass' relative political obscurity guarantees a scramble by Democrats and Republicans to be the first to define her for voters, potentially bringing to light items from her past that could prove troublesome for a Democratic ticket.

A Los Angeles Times review of her campaign finances, for example, revealed that she nearly doubled her 2010 income with consulting fees paid by a community nonprofit that she founded and to which her reelection campaign gave money.

Bass and her allies acknowledge her political ascent has been unconventional. Until winning a seat in the California Assembly in 2004, she worked as a physician assistant and was on the University of Southern California faculty before founding the Community Coalition in 1990 to address the crack cocaine epidemic and later, the 1991 police beating of Rodney King.


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