Politics typically rewards calculating and ruthless ambition.
That's why it's unusual to see Rep. Karen Bass on the shortlist of Joe Biden's potential picks for vice president. Bass appears to be an anti-politician. She is undoubtedly a powerful leader and skilled legislator. But in a world of sharp elbows and mean tweets, she's the opposite.
Collaborative and effective, Bass is an activist-turned-legislator who knows it takes grit, dedication and hard work to create change. Colleagues and opponents alike describe her as someone who is fierce without being flashy, a leader but also a listener.
Perhaps that's because Bass, 66, never planned to be in politics.
"I kind of never thought of it as a career," Bass said during an interview with The Sacramento Bee Editorial Board. "It's the lifelong commitment to fight for justice, and that has led me to a lot of different places because I didn't set out to be an elected official. If I did, I'd have a different resume."
Bass found her way into elected office through community activism. Getting things done often required convincing elected leaders to act, so Bass learned how government worked. Still, she never saw herself as a potential candidate. Others, like former Rep. Diane Watson, encouraged her to run.
"What they told me was: I could still work in elected office on the same issues I was working on in the community," Bass said.
Elected to the California State Assembly in 2004, Bass served in deputy roles before winning the role of speaker of the Assembly in 2008. Once again, Bass did not seek out the powerful office. Instead, some of her influential legislative colleagues worked to elevate her because they thought she deserved it. Former Speaker Fabian Nunez told Politico that Bass initially turned down his suggestion that she stand for the post.
Bass won the powerful position just in time for the Great Recession. In this role, she worked to protect California's poorest and most vulnerable from severe budget cuts. In 2011, after Rep. Watson retired, Bass took her place in Congress.
Bass uses the word "surreal" to describe the sudden possibility of becoming VP. She never expected the honor, but she says she's ready. Why does she think she would make a good VP?
"The next vice president needs to, one, get her hands -- and I can say that confidently, right? -- get her hands around the pandemic, around the economic and social sides of it," Bass said. "And then it coincides with the whole policing issue that has now raised major questions in our country, which I'm frankly very excited about -- systemic racism, inequity -- and they're completely linked."
"I think the president and the vice president in this historical period have to be healers to repair the divisions in our country," added Bass, a former physician's assistant.
Bass clearly wants this role, but most observers see another Californian as the likely pick. Sen. Kamala Harris tried to end Biden's career with an expertly executed hit on his racial justice record during the first Democratic debate. She failed, and now she's the VP favorite.
Recent reports suggest that some in Biden's camp are still mad at Harris because she has expressed "no remorse" for the ambush. Harris, however, doesn't owe Biden any apologies. She played the game of politics exactly as it is played, and she almost succeeded.
When Biden was her obstacle, she treated him as one. Now that he's a stepping stone, she'd be honored to climb aboard. That's how it works.
Instead of worrying about apologies, the Biden campaign should be concerned about things like the secret $400,000 settlement Harris' office paid to settle "gender harassment" claims against a top aide named Larry Wallace. The Sacramento Bee uncovered the settlement in 2018. Harris claimed she didn't know about the scandal in the California attorney general's office and then fired Wallace, who had received a plum position when she won election to the Senate. Issues like these, along with her wobbly history on criminal justice and policing, are what Trump would target.
Bass did not mention Harris during her interview, but she provided a clear contrast. In addressing the crack cocaine epidemic in Los Angeles in the 1980s, for example, Bass said she "wanted to come up with strategies to address crime that didn't involve incarcerating people. People were addicted -- they needed treatment."
She also made sure to repeatedly highlight her foreign policy experience in the House, as well as her experience in hospital emergency rooms.
"I feel like my experiences in my life, although nontraditional for anybody that's in a position like this, have helped me prepare for much bigger levels of responsibility," Bass said.
As VP, she said she'd emulate Biden, who loyally took on any task President Barack Obama assigned. But the former community activist -- Bass -- also hopes she'd get a chance to elevate important issues like "providing opportunities for people who are formerly incarcerated to start their own organizations."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put Bass, who serves as chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, in charge of Democrats' "Justice in Policing Act" inspired by the killing of George Floyd.
Bass is not perfect. If selected, she'll have to explain her youthful flirtation with Cuba, where she traveled to build houses in the 1970s.
"I was a young radical," Bass said. "Those young people that are out saying 'defund the police'? That was me."
"My entire life has been driven by fighting for social and economic justice," she added.
Even if Bass doesn't get the VP nod, she'll be fine. Like Biden, she knows real loss. She lost her daughter and son-in-law in a car accident in 2006. Biden lost his wife and daughter in a car accident in 1972. For her, elected office is just one part of life, just one way doing meaningful work to help people.
If Biden chooses a California VP, he likely won't pick Karen Bass. Clearly, however, the community activist whose passion for service led others to draft her into electoral politics is the better choice.
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