Karen Bass may never have been further from her nonprofit activist roots than when she returned home from Sacramento and her powerful job as California Assembly speaker last February to campaign for Congress.
A community organizer viewed by her supporters as keenly aware of the needs of her demographically mixed, half-rich, half-poor 47th District, including Culver City and parts of Ladera Heights, View Park, Windsor Hills, West Los Angeles and South Los Angeles, she was the antithesis of the business-as-usual politician when she won office in 2004.
Founder of the well-known Community Coalition, she crusaded on behalf of inner-city residents against the ravages of crack cocaine; closed numerous liquor stores; fought for college access for poor kids and stood up for foster children.
But after hitting the campaign trail this spring as the Democratic Party's heir apparent to outgoing Congresswoman Diane Watson, Bass, who was President Obama's state campaign co-chair in 2008, ran into the kinds of troubles that normally dog the fat-cat insiders and Sacramento political hacks.
The Los Angeles Times reported in early June that Bass had missed 60 percent of Assembly sessions during her campaign, yet she was collecting the generous $141.80 in per diem payments that taxpayers provide legislators so they can afford to work far from home, in Sacramento.
Bass had collected per diem for 29 days, getting more than $4,000, yet for much of that time she was skipping out of legislative duties in Sacramento.
Just months before her per diem practices came to light, she had touted her “Joint Select Committee on Reform” to increase legislative transparency and revamp the old ways of doing business in politics.
“That's why it's upsetting that we find her having compromised in some of those areas,” says Doug Heller, executive director of Consumer Watchdog, a Santa Monica–based good-government group.
More recently, Bass' staff made the news for taking from oil giant BP lots of free tickets to major sporting and other events in Sacramento. Though it was legal, it left an uneasy feeling that Bass had morphed into just another pol, and more quickly than most.
“At the very least,” says Heller of her per diem take, “it's a major loss of perspective over what should have been a natural and obvious bright line for someone like Karen Bass. When you go to Sacramento and live in that insular world for five or six years, clear rules become fuzzy.”
In some ways, Bass exemplifies key traits that have angered voters about California's political class.
For instance, she twice acted to give Assembly staffers in Sacramento raises just when California residents and the state budget were being hammered by fiscal disasters. She led the state Assembly's budget deliberations during two of its most inauspicious, deadline-blowing years on record.
And in the June 8 primary, she ran for U.S. Congress in a “safe seat,” where the top Democrat — Bass — was almost guaranteed a ticket to Washington. No real competition for votes, nor any real battle of ideas, was required for her easy win.
What went wrong with Karen Bass?
That's a question her supporters might find outrageous. After all, she won a whopping 85 percent of the vote just a month ago. And it isn't as if she has done anything wrong. Her reaping of per diem funds while away from Sacramento is allowed under the loose rules that govern the Legislature. She and the other 79 Assembly members need only report to the speaker — now John Perez — that they're on “legislative business” outside the capital.
But collecting the per diem has still raised many eyebrows.
“If the Legislature is in session and committees she is on are meeting and votes are taking place … she should be there or not claim a per diem,” says Robert Fellmeth, executive director of the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego.
Some of those who observe Bass say that as Assembly speaker — a position to which she rose in little more than three years, with no previous political experience — she adopted an elitist air, traveling with a large entourage.
One of her longtime friends says, “You're in this bubble. You work long hours, your judgment gets off, it's so heady. I watched it happen to her … the need to be treated like royalty.”
On her final day as a termed-out speaker in February, Bass cemented that impression.
She quietly and controversially used her last few hours in power to dole out 10 percent pay raises to some 20 Assembly staffers just as the state was grappling with a nearly $20 million deficit and thousands of state workers were facing 14 percent pay cuts.
It reminded some critics of her actions during her first year as speaker, 2008, when she gave $350,000 in “merit” increases to some 80 Democratic legislative employees. Then–minority leader Michael Villines (R-Clovis) did much the same thing, handing raises of $201,000 to about 56 Republican staffers.
It was an enormous blunder.
Bass and Villines reversed course after enraging the very voters whom Bass, Villines, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other Sacramento leaders were asking to approve ballot measures that would have enacted a record $16 billion tax increase and a cap on state spending.
Bass's and Villines' reversal didn't mollify voters. Recession-hammered residents rejected every tax measure, approving instead a law to punish legislators and statewide officers like the governor by freezing their salaries until the budget is out of the red. (It's still in the red.)
Heller calls the 2008 raises and the outgoing raises to Bass's staff in February a mark of her “shift … to the status quo.
“Part of public service is an acute awareness of what the public is enduring,” he continues.
Bass possessed that awareness when she was a community activist fighting the plague of liquor stores in South Central Los Angeles and helping kids from low-income families get into college.
But, as Heller notes, “When you're firing people around the state and cutting off benefits, it's just bad judgment to give pay raises to people who work closely with you. It only serves to reaffirm the public's frustration with Sacramento.”
Bass referred the Weekly's request for an interview to spokeswoman Shannon Murphy. Bass was unavailable: She'd been invited to Chicago by Jesse Jackson to speak on mortgage reform and then was set to be in “back-to-back” meetings.
Murphy insists Bass has remained “down-to-earth,” having lived in the same neighborhood for 40 years and fighting in Sacramento to protect safety nets for the poor.
And her entourage, Murphy says, is really a security detail Bass uses because, she says, she was physically threatened after claiming that some Republicans faced recall for siding with her on tax increases.
Bass was honored in May with the prestigious John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for her work on the state budget crisis. But she took almost as much criticism as praise for that award.
Mark Ruhl, a professor of political science at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, who studies corruption, says, “The No. 1 story is the big deficit, and [California's] is catastrophic. In that context, people become so upset that these politicians can't behave, even when everyone is subject to extreme austerity.”
But Bass has little to fear from voters in her gerrymandered district. In California, the gridlocked Democratic and Republican legislators work closely on one thing: divvying up the state into “safe” voting districts that one party or the other controls. In November, Bass will enjoy a huge win in her gerrymandered district, and head to Congress.
Heller sees the story arc for Bass and others like her as just “another chipping away at the public trust in government, and I think that's of serious concern.
“It's all the tiny abuses that have worn down the public,” he says. “The money Karen Bass took for per diem can't be identified in the state budget. But that doesn't matter. You don't have to have your neck chopped off to die from loss of blood. A lot of little cuts can do that. Individually it may be minuscule, but collectively, it renders government untrustworthy.”