Karen Bass will be the first female mayor of Los Angeles. The victory of the 69-year-old daughter of a mailman represents a success for progressives, who, while already dominant in the blue state metropolis, have found new momentum in this election.
Bass is a longtime politician, with a resume that includes six years as a representative in the California legislature. Since 2010, she has represented a Los Angeles district in Washington, where she led the congressional Black Caucus as well as the committees on civil rights and African relations, cementing ties with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.
But her leftist credentials predate her entry into “official” politics.
As a student, she volunteered for Robert Kennedy’s campaign and was part of the Venceremos Brigades, demonstrating in solidarity with the Revolution in Cuba, a country she visited six times in the 1970s. After her studies, Bass was a healthcare worker and, like Barack Obama, cut her teeth as a community organizer, a grassroots activist in the Community Coalition, an NGO fighting the decay in South Los Angeles during the years of rampant crack and gang wars.
Bass is now the first woman to lead America’s second-largest city after a hard-fought campaign against Italian-American bigshot real estate developer Rick Caruso, builder of “themed” shopping malls such as The Americana and The Grove, a notable representative of the real estate entrepreneurial class on whose speculation the city was built, generating fortunes and suburban sprawl.
Caruso was fielding the narrative of the benevolent, incorruptible, above-the-fray billionaire who simply could not shy away from entering the contest for the common good.
His campaign, costing $110 million ($100 million of which came from his personal wealth), was based on the usual conservative pillars of safety and public order to curb “rampant crime,” bolstered with strategic scaremongering, which only his entrepreneurial talents (and the addition of 1,500 police officers) were supposed to be able to solve.
A classic right-wing campaign (while taking care to disavow any official ties to the GOP, which would have lost him the race in the L.A. Democratic stronghold), with the added twist of intense overtures toward the Hispanic working class, believed to be susceptible to the wiles of a successful man, to attempt to erode historic Democratic support.
The strategy (and the flood of dollars) seemed to pay off, with a final comeback by Caruso which ate up Bass’ initial lead.
In the end, Bass, who two years ago had been among the candidates for vice-presidential nominee on Biden’s tickets, benefited from endorsements by Obama, Biden, Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders and the support of labor unions who worked hard for her campaign, which all proved strategic.
Here as well, as in hundreds of other elections across the US, what proved decisive was the Supreme Court’s recklessness on abortion and the subsequent guaranteed mobilization that deflated the expected “red wave” across the country. In Los Angeles, this ended up sinking Caruso, a registered Republican until 2019 and a past contributor to anti-abortion candidates.
Bass will take over from the Obama-era Eric Garcetti and will continue a liberal rule that has lasted for at least two decades, but has failed to find solutions for longstanding issues, chief among them being the scandal of homelessness.
People without housing make up a “shadow city” of more than 60,000 that has become much more visible since the lockdowns, with ubiquitous “third-world-style” encampments, tents and street huts.
This is a phenomenon that is becoming a more and more integral part of the prosperous West and the neoliberal model, which, through the means of unstoppable inequality, has decimated every social support network in the cities and contracted out the “containment” of the marginalized (including thousands of people with mental health issues) to law enforcement. Bass has pledged to intervene to deal with this problem, which, however, is likely to remain unsolvable without the restoration of a comprehensive welfare system involving both the state and federal government.
Furthermore, as in many American cities, the issue of the safety and reform of the police, too often employed as a force of social (and racial) control, remains central. The power of the LAPD remains unchallenged, and so do the forces aligned against reforms such as those called for by Black Lives Matter, in the context of a conservative populism that blows the dog whistle of “chaos and crime” to its own benefit.
In short, it will not be easy to mediate between the forces of private development and a necessary social intervention capable of introducing activities to mitigate the phenomena that are recurring in American cities and beyond: gentrification, decay, inequality and, in Los Angeles, very tangible segregation between the West Side of Hollywood, Silicon beach and the digital service sector and what Mike Davis called the “urban bantustans” in the anonymous metropolitan sprawl.
With Bass’s inauguration, America’s four largest cities – L.A., New York, Chicago and Houston – will all have African-American mayors.
Her success also represents another step in the rise of African-descendant women as an emerging political force. With Bass, there are now nine Black mayors in America’s 100 largest cities and 26 African-American women in Congress, a record that represents one of the main dynamics within the Democratic Party.