In 1990, as a community activist in South Los Angeles, Bass founded a local nonprofit called the Community Coalition, with the mantra of “no celebrity-style leadership.” The phrase was written in the founding documents and was part of every orientation. “If you’re here to make a name for yourself,” Bass would say to new employees, “you should find another place to work.” When she was elected to the California State Assembly in 2004, she carried that attitude into her political career. In Congress, she’s considered a bridge-building politician who can draw accolades and concessions from both sides of the aisle, even as the issues she cares about most—from gang violence to foster care—aren’t usually at the center of the national conversation.
Some see her low-key, disciplined approach as an asset for the VP slot: She’s less likely to draw negative attention on the campaign trail, and she has indicated that she’s not inclined to use the vice presidency as a launching pad for presidential ambitions of her own. But her low profile can look like a liability, too. It’s stranded Bass so far off the public’s political radar screen that her inclusion on Biden’s list of potential running mates left people across the country scratching their heads.
Less so Angelenos who know her and her work here.
“I find it interesting that people are kind of amazed that she’s on the list,” says Los Angeles City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who lives in Bass’ district, which stretches from the wealthy mansions of Westwood to impoverished blocks in South Los Angeles. Her value can’t be measured by public bill signings and TV sound bites, he argues: “She is all about the work, and not about getting the credit.”
Bass’ 37th Congressional District is one of the most diverse in California: one-quarter white and one quarter Black, 40 percent Latino and 8 percent Asian-American. Long before she won her House seat, she understood the district’s strengths and afflictions, and how they connected with the nation’s needs.
In the 1980s, while she was working as a physician’s assistant, Bass, a Los Angeles native, watched the city’s Black neighborhoods deteriorate. Well-paying factory jobs disappeared, and school spending shrank. She could catalogue the scourge of crack cocaine by the people she knew who suddenly disappeared. The epidemic of drug addiction taking root back then became the catalyst for her activism. It was changing the landscape of entire communities—disrupting families, destroying the promise of young lives, feeding the push for mass incarceration and fueling the rise of dangerous criminal gangs.
In response, Bass invited a group of African American and Latino activists to gather in someone’s living room, where they laid out a vision for what they called then the Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment, now known as the Community Coalition. It was a grassroots effort to tap the collective wisdom of residents and empower them to advocate for their neighborhoods.
“She wanted to get young people involved in civic life as a way to push back on the narrative about young people at that time, that Black and brown youths were a disposable generation, that the only answer to the neighborhood’s problems was more and tougher policing,” Harris-Dawson recalls.