‘This election is a matter of life or death,’ says LA Congresswoman Karen Bass

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The Democratic National Convention kicks off tonight in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It usually involves delegates from all the states, and plenty of pomp, circumstance, and balloons. But tonight’s speakers, including Michelle Obama and Bernie Sanders, will be virtually addressing audiences who are watching from home.

Rep. Karen Bass, who represents parts of West and South LA, would usually be at that packed convention hall. She chairs the Congressional Black Caucus and was a finalist to be Joe Biden’s running mate as the vice presidential nominee. She talks to KCRW about the convention, mail-in voting, coronavirus-related federal aid, calls to defund the police, and Joe Biden picking Kamala Harris as his running mate. 

KCRW: How will this virtual convention work? 

Karen Bass: “It certainly is going to be strange. And I wish we could all be there together because there is so much excitement behind our ticket, and the fact that we're 80 days away from the election. But basically, all of the caucuses and all of the committees that normally meet will be meeting over various Zoom calls. And then, of course, the main events will take place in the evening. I mean, if you think about it, the majority of the American people have always watched the convention from their living room. And so this really won't be any different, except for the activists or the core of the Democratic Party leadership that attend in person.” 

Do you worry about the convention’s ability to create enthusiasm?

“No, no, because again, just think about it. There might be, let's just say, 20,000 people that attend the convention. Well, there's [sic] millions of Democrats. And I think that the enthusiasm is there because people understand the significance of this election. 

And the way I describe it is: This election is a matter of life or death. One hundred and sixty-plus thousand dead Americans that didn't have to die. But because of the lack of leadership from this administration, the excitement of our ticket, especially the addition of vice president nominee Kamala Harris, especially coming out of our state, I think the enthusiasm is going to be there, regardless of what form the convention takes.”

You and your colleagues are on a break right now, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is calling you back this week to deal with the U.S. Postal Service. LA County Registrar Dean Logan told KCRW weeks ago that every California voter would be getting a mail-in ballot. Can we depend on those? How are you advising your constituents on that?

“The number one thing is the minute you get that ballot, fill it out right away. Because I am not as worried about California as I am other states, because we have such excellent leadership here. And we're not going to allow certain things to take place. 

But the post office of course is under federal jurisdiction. And so just to be on the safe side, filling out your ballot as soon as you get it, because then there will be no excuse in terms of a delay of the vote. 

Now, we are going back to vote on Saturday because the president said he will sign a standalone bill, making sure that the post office has enough resources. But we will see because the president says that one minute, and by the time Saturday comes, he might have 10 different positions. And then we go back there, and it depends on whether or not he allows the Senate to vote. Then yes, the post office will get the resources, then we are still not going to be able to let our guard down. Because having the resources does not automatically mean they will be spent and implemented in the way that we will vote and in the way that we dictate.”

Many of your constituents have been hit hard by COVID-19. What are you telling people in your district who desperately need federal assistance?

“The sad thing about it is that in the House, we voted on all of that assistance almost three months ago. And because the president has not decided what he wants to do, the Senate has not acted. They feel that $600 a week is allowing people to have so much money that they don't have the incentive to go back to work. 

I find that to be so insulting that $600 a week does not recognize the fact that many people's jobs no longer exist, are not open or are not safe. And the president and the Senate had no problem allocating half a trillion dollars under [Treasury Secretary] Steve Mnuchin’s leadership. He doesn't even want to reveal the corporations that are getting billions and billions of dollars, but yet they're going to quibble over the average American having $600 a week extra for their unemployment.”

What is the status of negotiations between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to extending federal unemployment?

“We're waiting for the Senate to act. We're waiting for Trump to give Mitch McConnell permission to act. As you know, negotiations continue, the Senate isn't even involved in the negotiations. The Senate is not even present in the room. 

It is Speaker Pelosi negotiating directly with the White House through Steve Mnuchin. The Democrats on the House side have agreed to compromise, have agreed to lower the amount that they're asking. The Republicans refuse to go up.

So essentially, if we settle today, if we just compromise today, there would be no relief for local cities, there would be no relief for states, which means that firefighters, health workers are literally going to be laid off their jobs, will be at risk. And the average American will not receive the money that the average American needs to receive.”

You spearheaded a police reform bill that passed the House, you called it the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The Senate has been working on its own bill. Where do things stand now with these bills?

“The Senate put forward a bill that did not get to vote. So if the Senate does pass a bill ... if there are two bills, then we go into formal negotiations in the form of a conference. … But right now, we're waiting to see if the Senate comes up with another bill.”

The Black Lives Matter movement in LA has been calling to defund the LAPD and the Sheriff's Department. Where do you stand?

“I say refund the communities. … What that means to me is putting resources in to deal with homelessness, to deal with addiction, to deal with mental illness, to deal with the social, economic and health problems that really contribute to the police inappropriately arresting people. 

For example, in downtown LA, we have Twin Towers [Correctional Facility], which we call the country's most expensive health facility. So I think that we need to put more money into addressing the root causes of problems. And this is something that I have fought for — for over 30 years.”

You’ve been very supportive of Joe Biden choosing Kamala Harris to be his running mate. You were a finalist to be his vice presidential pick too. When his announcement came out, what was that moment like for you?  

“The vice president called but … it is just so important that we not allow people to divide us. So one of the things that's happening right now … certainly there's [sic] attacks on Biden, but there are specific attacks on Kamala Harris that are I believe could well be attempts to depress the African American vote. And I think we have to be very cognizant of that. 

Now, we didn't understand it four years ago. We do understand it now. We understand that the Russians were very clearly involved in trying to dissuade Black people from voting, saying there's no difference between Hillary and Trump. And I think the same thing is going to happen again. Now, I'm not saying it's all coming from the Russians, but some of that can be replicated and retweeted, repeated by people who are innocently have [sic] a dispute. And I think that we have to really be aware [of] any effort to to look at our ticket negatively.” 

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Christian Bordal




Jarrett Hill