Mayoral hopeful Karen Bass wants to change ‘whack-a-mole approach’ to homelessness

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Brian Hardzinski

Karen Bass (D-CA) speaks onstage at a Los Angeles mayoral campaign rally at the Playa Vista Central Park Bandshell on October 27, 2022 in Los Angeles, California, United States. Photo by Rudy Torres/Image Press Agency/NurPhoto.

U.S. Representative Karen Bass has represented West and South LA since 2011. She also chaired the Congressional Black Caucus and is a past speaker of the California Assembly. Before Bass sought public office, she was a community organizer and a physician’s assistant. 

She’s running against billionaire businessman Rick Caruso in the race for LA’s next mayor. KCRW has invited Caruso to the program. 

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The following interview has been edited for clarity.

KCRW: I want to begin with the scandal that embroiled LA City Hall for the past several weeks: the racist comments on those leaked audio recordings. Two councilmen have not resigned. Kevin de León said he will not resign. Gil Cedillo won’t be on the council as of December 12. You have called on de León to resign. If he doesn't by the time you take office, how would you work with him? How do you work with a city council that has seen a string of corruption scandals, and voters saying they don't have faith in their city government?

Karen Bass: Well, it's certainly going to be the first order of business for me to do whatever I can to restore that faith. So let me talk specifically. One: There was an individual that I met in Washington, D.C. Norman Eisen. He was President [Barack] Obama's ethics czar. And the Obama administration was one of the least scandalous administrations in our lifetime. And Norm Eisen has agreed to come to Los Angeles, should I win, and he will spend time setting up — number one — a complete ethics review, top to bottom, soup to nuts. Everything in terms of the city processes, appointments, and the established Ethics Commission, and will help me construct a scandal-free administration.

But let's back up a minute, because looking at that scandal and those horrible comments, it was tough to hear, especially considering the four individuals that were there. But what I did [was] immediately, I heard the tapes on Sunday. And by Tuesday, I convened a group of civic leaders, and when we went around the room and introduced ourselves, we realized that every category that was on those tapes was in the room. 

And so I joined forces with Representative Jimmy Gomez, and the two of us have called on civic leaders to begin dialogues around Los Angeles, not just for the sake of dialogue, but to look at some very specific issues. Number one, should there be an independent redistricting commission? Should City Council be expanded? And then how do we address what was at the bottom of their conversation, which is really the structural inequity in our city? That's why they were dividing up the pie. They were looking at assets in redistricting. 

I think it's very unfortunate the position that Kevin de León is taking, because we have a wound in the city. And for the healing process to begin, the two of them need to go. So one of the things that apparently was initiated a few days ago is a recall. And I think that's so unfortunate, because that, in and of itself, will be very divisive. Now, I've known Kevin for a long time. We worked together in the state legislature, and I will certainly do the best I can to work with him should he be there. But right now, the position he's taking is he's not resigning, but he's also not showing up to work.

Have you talked to him privately? What is your sense of why he refuses to step down?

No, I haven’t talked to him privately. But I think that he is being stubborn. I think he's also thinking wishfully that this will blow over. I think he's missing the depth, the significance, the pain, the damage that this has done.

You talk about structural inequities. On the council, there are three Black members and three Latino members, despite the fact that LA is 50% Latino. There’s equal representation, but a much different demographic makeup in the city, where 9% is Black. Is that what you’re talking about? 

I wasn't referring to that actually at all. Let me give you an example using my congressional district. I represent South Central, but I also represent Westwood and Century City. So if you want to see structural inequity, go from east to west in my district. So no, I was talking about the distribution of city services, because again, that was at the root of why they were dividing things up. Remember, it was over the assets that would be in the eighth district versus the ninth district.

So you don’t think it matters then? In terms of the ethnic makeup of the City Council not necessarily representing the ethnic makeup of the city?

You want to have representation, absolutely, and there needs to be more Latino representation. But here's the thing: It shouldn't be at the expense of one group over the other. So, I believe that Latinos could represent the San Fernando Valley. I believe Latinos could represent the west side. As an African American, I believe I can represent the west side. But representation is critical and it should be equitable, but it goes beyond the face of the person on the council. It's about city resources and the distribution of those resources.

Do you think the City Council should be expanded?

I do think that is something that should be examined. But the reason why I don't rush into it is because I really think we need to weigh any unintended consequences. For example, let's just say we doubled the council. What would that do in terms of the city assets? Would that leave districts poorer and more wealthy? So it's something that I want to take a serious look at, which is why I, along with Representative Gomez, called on the civic leaders to really examine it.

I think you can make some mistakes when you have a crisis and you do a knee-jerk reaction to it. Now, what I feel very comfortable with is these kinds of racial flashpoints is something I have a lot of experience in, because I have spent my adult life building coalitions across race, class, geography, and ideology. And one thing that I reject very strongly is the notion that what was said on those tapes have set back race relations, especially Black-Brown relations, for decades. 

A couple of community leaders said that, and I reject that strongly, because I've been working on Black-Brown unity and relationships for more than four decades. And there's no way in the world that a conversation between four people is going to erase decades of work. And that's why I immediately called for a community meeting, because when you have these racial flashpoints, you need to jump and lean into it quickly and say, ‘This was terrible. This is a tragedy. Now let's pull something good out of it.’

The LA Times has analyzed precincts where the population is at least 80% Latino. They found that your opponent Rick Caruso got around 34% of the vote during the primaries. You got 27%. Are you worried he’s done a lot of outreach to Latino voters? 

In the primary, he spent $40 million. I spent $4 million, so the fact that I had 27% support, I feel very good about. Now, he's on track to spend $100 million. Can you imagine how many people could have been housed with $100 million? So of course, he's done more outreach than I have. But what is interesting is that in the primary, I won 10 council districts out of 15. And after his $40 million to my $4 million, I beat him in the primary.

So he’s not buying votes successfully in your opinion?

The election is eight days away. We're neck and neck. I certainly hope not. But I do think that you talk about a structural inequity — it is a flaw in our democracy that if you are extremely wealthy, you basically have no rules to follow. I have to raise money and I have to account for every dollar. As a matter of fact, I have to have a full-time staff person to meet the city's compliance requirements. So it's one of those structural problems in our democracy. That is a flaw that the Supreme Court contributed to, but it is what it is.

You received a scholarship to get a master’s degree in social work at USC that was valued at $95,000. You received it before being admitted fully into the program. U.S. House ethics officials have concluded that the scholarship “clearly falls within the definition of a gift,” and that your status as a member of Congress “was a factor in granting your scholarship.” You were granted a waiver from that because your degree was deemed important. 

You also introduced legislation that would have helped USC and other private schools financially. You have not been accused of any wrongdoing, but it does create an appearance that people might be questioning. Do you think this creates an appearance of impropriety?

To set the record straight and to explain exactly what happened, I think the reason why it has the appearance that you described is because Rick Caruso has spent a tremendous amount of money giving it that appearance. I appreciate you saying that there was no wrongdoing, because there was not. 

Rick Caruso, as a member of the [USC] Board of Trustees, empowered the deans, not just the dean that gave me the scholarship, but all of the deans, with the ability to give discretionary scholarships based on merit. So I had applied to the School of Public Administration, which is a general application that is accepted by the graduate school. So it is not accurate that I received the scholarship before I applied. But I will tell you, when the dean approached me and offered the scholarship, I immediately went to the House Ethics department and asked them, “Was it okay?” 

What is not commonly known is that I spent 15 years on USC’s faculty. And during the time I served on the faculty at the medical school, there was a program that if you were a faculty member, you got tuition remission. So I didn't think that there was anything out of the ordinary in being offered the scholarship. 

What's most important is the reason why I went to school to begin with, which is because one of the policy areas that I work on, is trying to improve and transform the nation's child welfare system. And I felt very comfortable with my knowledge of the county and the state child welfare system, but I wanted to deepen my knowledge of the nation's child welfare system. So what I do not believe was a controversy was made a controversy by Rick Caruso, in order to divert attention away from his deeds.

It’s not the same though. The same dean who pleaded guilty and is cooperating with federal prosecutors in a similar scholarship with former LA City Councilman Mark Ridley Thomas is involved. 

I don’t believe that is similar. And if that dean was up to no good, that is different than me. 

She is quoted saying, “We will offer a full scholarship between the two schools. I did the same for Karen Bass. Full scholarships for our funds.” 

Yeah, but the issue is that if she was up to no good, that is her. The question is what I did. And what I did not is not a problem, from my point of view, nor from the federal government’s point of view. She sent emails to other people, not to me and not from me. So if she's talking about me, that's her business, not mine.

But the idea of getting a full scholarship and then co-authoring legislation that would benefit USC?

See, I don't believe that that's accurate either. Because the legislation that I introduced — that went absolutely nowhere, never had a hearing, never went anywhere — was a piece of legislation that the social work profession had been trying to get passed for about 20 years. That legislation, this year, has been carried by a Republican from another state. And, essentially, what that legislation would have done, if it went anywhere at all, is it would have enhanced the ability of the social work profession to recruit students. And so the dean never asked me to introduce that legislation. I was asked to introduce that legislation by a member of the faculty. The dean had no involvement in me doing that and the legislation never went anywhere. So there was no quid pro quo. It just did not happen.

Your homelessness plan promises to get 17,000 of the 41,000 or so unhoused Angelenos indoors, through a combination of interim and permanent housing. You were interviewed in a recent New York Times piece titled “The Way Los Angeles Is Trying to Solve Homelessness Is Absolutely Insane.” It talks about the bureaucratic problems surrounding homelessnes in LA. What would you do to streamline that process, which often includes roadblocks from individual Angelenos who want to prevent housing in their own neighborhoods? 

I agree with the title of his column, but I do not believe that it has to be that way. And so what I would do on day one would be to declare a state of emergency. I think our city has not dealt with the problem of the unhoused as though it is an emergency. As though three to four people don't die every night in tents, RVs, and cars. The process, the bureaucracy, could be centralized and streamlined. But you have to have an alignment of government: federal, state, county, and city. And right now, each level of government is pointing fingers at the other level. 

And I think what I bring to the table are deep relationships at each level of government that will allow me to centralize the bureaucratic process, streamline the bureaucratic process, but also get a number of regulations waived on every level of government that will allow housing to be built. And so the bureaucracy, I do believe we can expedite things, centralize things, and fast-track things. So things can be done. So the first area where I would build housing would be on the acres that’s owned by the city. And if you combine all of the property that's owned by every level of government, you're talking about over 600 acres.

How do you get the neighbors to say okay to that? We're seeing an example in Venice, where the neighborhood is organized against building in an old parking lot.

I'm familiar with that property. I think that one of the problems there is that if the city just decides it's going to do something, versus meeting with the residents to get their buy-in before they start. And I think that you can do that. Let me give you an example: An area of Sherman Oaks bitterly opposed to a Senate bill that allows you to add units on to a single-family home. They don't want to see that happen. But on the other hand, they have an alternative. And they're suggesting building on the commercial areas, especially the underperforming outdoor shopping malls. 

So I think you can work with communities. And my background as a community organizer and activist — I was involved in opposing some developments in South LA that we thought were going to be detrimental to the community. And one of our major objections was that the city didn't come to us first. The city just was allowing a developer to just put something in a neighborhood without any input. And I think that you have to involve the neighborhoods because the reality is that we need to house 40,000 people. That's 40,000 today. There could be more people that fall into homelessness, especially when all of the COVID relief goes away. Everybody in the city has to have some skin in the game, because you can't just house 40,000 people in low-income neighborhoods that are already severely overcrowded, with two or three families living in houses and apartments.

Do you agree with the council's recent ban on tent encampments in certain areas, such as by schools? 

What I do agree with is that you can't have encampments in front of schools where kids have to walk in the street. They can't walk on the sidewalk, where they might be in danger. The question is, what do you do about it? And so what I believe that you do, because I do not think you solve this problem by arresting people, and that means that somebody is going to be in jail [for] two or three days, and then they'll be right back out on the street. It doesn't solve it. So what I have a problem with in terms of the council's approach is that it's a district by district approach. I think we need a city-wide, and actually a region-wide, meaning the county approach.  I think what we've been doing too long is whack-a-mole.

What would you do about tent encampments and RVs?

I would get people housed.

But what if there isn’t housing for them in the interim? It takes years for it to be built.

No, it doesn't. No. So first of all, one of the things we learned, and I have to tell you that 30 years ago, we were trying to do this in South LA, because we were trying to deal with the unhoused population. We had an abundance of motels in South Central and no tourists. So you know what was happening in the motels. So the RAND Corporation, our city comptroller, says that there are a lot of properties, motels and hotels, where they would be open to master-leasing. 

We have community-based organizations that are expert at moving people, breaking up encampments, but breaking them up and moving people into housing. We actually know how to do it. The problem is that these organizations and individuals have not had the resources to deal with the problem at the scale that it needs to happen. So if I am elected mayor, on day one, I would have mapped out the most problematic encampments, and within the first 100 days, we need to address that. Because that is the most egregious form of homelessness that really, really upsets neighbors. So avoiding the whack-a-mole approach, a city-wide approach I would begin with, but my oal would be to have a county-wide approach. But one thing is that, yes,  I agree with the [column’s] title, but I do not agree that it has to be that way and that there's nothing we can do about it. Otherwise, I wouldn't have run.

Lots of people feel unsafe these days. And there is a feeling that life is less safe than it used to be. At a recent debate, you said you felt very safe. But your house was burglarized, and two guns you described as keeping for protection, were stolen. Do you still feel safe now, and why did you have those weapons? 

What I was making reference to was in my specific neighborhood, I felt safe. I did because there's measures of protection that I had personally, as well as measures of protection that we had in my specific neighborhood. At the same time, the rest of my sentence was, “I absolutely understand that many Angelenos do not feel safe.” And that the number one job of the mayor is to protect Angelenos. And so my public safety plan calls for getting officers on the street as soon as possible in neighborhoods that want to see an increased presence. 

The way to get officers on the street as soon as possible is to get them from behind the desk, behind administrative duties. We do need to hire officers because of attrition. But hiring officers takes a long time. We can't even fill a class of recruits right now. The capacity is about 40 recruits and a class. LAPD is not able to recruit more than 20. 

Why is that? 

It's for a few reasons. Number one: The personnel office is severely understaffed because of COVID. And number two: You well know that policing is not the most popular profession right now. So there's difficulty recruiting officers all around the country. So nothing that happened to me, individually, has altered my policy. My policy was there from the beginning. And I fully well recognize that many, many Angelenos do not feel safe right now. And that absolutely has to be addressed.

So why do you have two handguns? What are they for?

Well, I don’t have two handguns anymore. 

But why did you?

I had it for personal protection, like hundreds of thousands of other people. Now at the same time, I've been proud of my F grade that I've gotten from the NRA, because I absolutely support gun control, especially now, because we have a whole new phenomena in our country with ghost guns. And in talking to the police chief, that has become a real problem with crime and gun-related crime in the Los Angeles area.