Joe Mathews: Rep. Karen Bass is getting serious consideration as a vice presidential nominee

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113th Congress official portrait of Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-California). Photo credit: Online Guide to House Members and Senators/Public domain

The non-profit Community Coalition was started to fill gaps left by the inadequate government response to the crack cocaine epidemic. Over the years, it’s relied on neighborhood organizing to address issues ranging from crime and poverty to foster care, improving the lives of many along the way. It’s also been a breeding ground for city and state leaders. Zocalo commentator Joe Mathews says Rep. Karen Bass honed her problem-solving skills and pragmatic style at Community Coalition – qualities that would make her an asset in the White House.

Read Mathews column below:

Can South Los Angeles teach America how to lead?

That’s the promising question behind the news that Karen Bass is a top contender to be the Democratic vice-presidential nominee.

Bass is known as a consensus-building politician who has served South L.A. in the Assembly and Congress over two decades. But more important than her political career is Bass’ role in a larger story about South L.A.’s transformation—and about where true leadership comes from. 

At the heart of this California success story is Community Coalition. Bass, then a physician’s assistant, and other local activists started CoCo in 1990 amidst the crack-cocaine epidemic. The goal of  CoCo—originally Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment—was that South L.A.’s people should be more involved in solving such problems.

That premise still defines Community Coalition’s\ mission to “elevate the voices of our members, shift power to the community, and tackle the root causes of poverty, crime and violence.”

CoCo works on a very broad array of issues—from nuisance abatement to college access—because it organizes around the diverse concerns of South L.A.’s residents, not a poll-tested political agenda. The wonderful paradox of CoCo is that its focus on neighborhood organizing has made the organization extraordinarily successful in developing leaders for the city and state.

CoCo’s leadership philosophy almost seems contrarian: You rise not via self-promotion, but by empowering your neighbors, and learning how to follow their lead. Bass’s collaborative  style embodies this approach, but she is just one of hundreds of CoCo alumni in Southern California governments and civic institutions. Among these leaders are L.A. City Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson, and Albert Retana, an organizer who, after a stint in the Obama administration, returned to serve as CoCo’s president and CEO.

In method, CoCo is flexible, and practical. In responding to the crack epidemic, CoCo tried multiple tactics before discovering that shutting liquor stores was most effective at countering crime and drugs. 

From there, CoCo branched out—to almost everything. CoCo developed a successful youth organizing program, led efforts to reform foster care, and advocated successfully for more school  construction and college prep classes. CoCo’s work often built on itself. After CoCo started organizing the King Estates neighborhood around nuisance abatement, residents suggested revitalizing Martin Luther King Jr. Park. So CoCo began an Easter egg hunt there, which evolved into Power Fest, a popular South L.A. music festival.

Bass departed in 2004 to enter politics, but CoCo increased its reach.  It has sought to remake the justice system, address structural racism, and enhance neighborhood power over economic development. Such work led CoCo into ballot measure politics, notably the statewide tax hike Proposition 30 and the criminal justice measures Propositions 47 and 57. This year, CoCo started offering national fellowships in organizing.

In all of this, CoCo has been sensitive to South L.A.’s demographic changes, carefully balancing Black and Latino representation among its leaders, and at community gatherings.  USC sociologist Manuel Pastor has credited CoCo with helping make South L.A. a model of “ethnic sedimentation,” where ethnic groups build on each other’s histories, rather than “ethnic succession,” where new groups replace the old

The notion of South L.A. as national model may surprise Americans who associate the area with gangs and riots. But no place could be more relevant to a country near rock bottom. Over the past 30 years, crime in South L.A. declined by two-thirds, health care access expanded, education improved, home ownership increased, and transportation, arts, and food options exploded. Is there any doubt that the U.S. could benefit by emulating Community Coalition’s devotion to cultivating leaders and building unity from the ground up?

If Joe Biden picks Bass as his running mate, CoCo organizers could be leaders in a new administration. Given their track record, a South L.A. vice-presidency might offer Americans a hard-to-find commodity:

Hope.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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