She’s a politician who cringes at having her picture taken and is content to let others grab headlines. She repeatedly had to be dragged into taking risks to elevate her political career.
In many ways, Karen Bass is the anti-Kamala Harris.
And yet, the Californians have ended up in a similar spot: On Joe Biden’s vice presidential shortlist.
While the congresswoman from Los Angeles remains a long shot, her unassuming approach, muted ambitions and decades of advocating on health care and race issues while far outside the national spotlight have captured the interest of the Biden campaign.
A former physician assistant and nurse who now heads the Congressional Black Caucus, Bass has seen her profile rise of late amid the twin crises of the coronavirus pandemic and national reckoning with racism. Her standing in the VP search has improved based on private assessments shared with Biden’s team.
“The reason she’s gone from a name bandied about to a serious contender is because the more you look at her, the more you realize what a perfect choice for the time she is,” said former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. He started working alongside Bass in the early 1970s to coalesce Black and Latino activists around curbing police abuse and expanding immigrant rights.
Bass lacks the political operation and national network of top rivals for the job. But she’s also made clear that, like Biden, she could be viewed as a transitional figure in the Democratic Party who currently harbors little interest in seeking the White House herself when he leaves office.
She’s already undergone intense scrutiny from the campaign — including a half-day interview with Biden representatives that a friend described as “invasive” — and has advanced deep into the vice presidential process, according to three people familiar with the vetting.
Some of the people contacted by the Biden team about Bass said some of her personal qualities starkly contrast with Harris: that she’s persuasive but not flashy, and that she’s trusted by progressives but still respected by Republicans. These people describe Bass as passionate, yet not someone who would allow her own objectives to overshadow her responsibilities as Biden’s No. 2.
Bass would still have to overcome long odds: The extent of her personal rapport with Biden, whom she didn’t know well at the onset of the process, remains unclear. As does how she would handle the scrutiny and pressures of the role. She is a virtual unknown in most of the country, and unlike Harris, hasn’t been vetted or gone through the rigors of a national campaign.
Bass has faced blowback for lamenting the death of “Comandante en jefe” (commander in chief) Fidel Castro in 2016, remarks that were seen as overly respectful and drew the ire of Florida Democrats. And her lack of a political network — beyond what she inherited and built on as leader of the CBC — also surfaced doubts among top Biden donors who favor better-known prospects.
“I don’t think you can go with someone that is there to hold a place and not outshine you,” a Biden bundler said of Bass.