Los Angeles has been forced to reboot before, and this time the job falls to Karen Bass, the first woman elected as mayor of the nation’s second-largest city. She promised urgent action on homelessness at her swearing-in ceremony on Sunday. Her ability to make visible progress has implications for Democrats in California and nationally.
Promising to “move people inside” and announcing her plans to declare a state of emergency on homelessness as her first official act, Congresswoman Karen Bass, a native of Los Angeles who has represented parts of the city for nearly two decades, took the oath of office as its mayor on Sunday.
In her first address as the city’s 43rd mayor, Bass focused largely on the city’s frustrating struggle to create housing and shelter its large population of unhoused people. She pledged to “urgently move people inside and to do so for good,” and made the campaign to address homelessness the centerpiece of the work that lies ahead.
“We will save lives, and we will save our city,” Bass said. “This is my mission as your mayor.”
The audience of several thousand people, gathered at LA Live rather than City Hall because of rain, greeted her promise with a standing ovation. Gov. Gavin Newsom, members of Congress and Vice President Kamala Harris, a sometime rival and sometime ally who administered the oath on Sunday, all joined in the applause.
Bass’ inauguration launches her tenure as the chief executive of America’s second-largest city and establishes her place as a leading figure in California and national politics. It makes her Los Angeles’ first woman mayor and guarantees that she will be seen as an exemplar of the political left as she and the city’s Democratic leadership tackle the gritty problems of urban life – public safety, inequality and, especially, housing and homelessness.
Those problems are felt acutely in Los Angeles these days.
“I’ve never seen the city so dirty,” former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said last week. “I’ve never seen this many homeless.”
The city has been desperate before, and the current atmosphere is closer to quiet fear than shout-out-loud urgency. But homeless encampments, City Hall turmoil and pockets of rising crime have all contributed to a sense of helplessness. It’s bad, Villaraigosa and others acknowledged.
Bass was elected in part because voters believed this situation called for a coalition-builder, which she is. Among other things, she founded the Community Coalition in Los Angeles. But coalitions require partners, and Bass is being asked to work with a City Council that is divided and angry – and includes five new members, who were also sworn in on Sunday.
The council is still reeling from an audio recording that surfaced in the home stretch of the mayor’s race. It captured members of the council insulting their colleagues in crude, racist language. Most disturbing was the context of the secretly recorded meeting: Three members of the council, all Latino, gathered at the offices of the county’s Labor Federation to divide up the city’s political representation – potentially at the expense of Black influence.
That is corruption of a high and insidious order, and it runs deep in Los Angeles today.
One of the council members featured on the tape, Kevin de Leon, has refused calls to step down, and until last week, had dodged the council’s public meetings, allowing protesters to yell at his empty chair. When he turned up in person, they wheeled their ire at him directly, first in the council chambers and later at a holiday party when he scuffled with a group of protesters. It, too, was caught on tape.
Los Angeles County, meanwhile, has picked up a new member of the board and replaced its thuggish and not-too-bright sheriff, Alex Villanueva. The new sheriff in town, Robert Luna, inherits the position amid perennial tensions regarding lines of authority. He leads the department, but the board sets its budget and priorities, and there is no agreement, at least yet, on what those should be.
As for Bass, she brings real strengths. She is experienced in government, having served in the California Legislature starting in 2004. She was highly regarded by her colleagues and In 2008, she became the first African-American woman to serve as Speaker of any legislature in the nation. She moved to the U.S. Congress in 2011 and was elected six times to her seat there. In the mayor’s race, she beat billionaire developer Rick Caruso, overcoming more than $100 million of his own money, in large measure because while he channeled anger at City Hall, she seemed to have the skills to improve it.
Bass is likeable in ways that mask her toughness. Although committed to coalition building, she is also driven and opinionated, a forger of consensus but within a strictly Democratic worldview. She is polite to those who criticize her, but she takes note.
Her job now is to solve problems, one in particular.
“No question that the thing that’s in front of her is homelessness,” said Raphe Sonenshein, executive director the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State Los Angeles and a leading historian of the city. “First, homelessness, then homelessness and then homelessness.”
That’s a problem that is both vast – more than 40,000 Angelenos will go to sleep tonight outdoors – and ancient. It was Jesus who warned: “The poor you will always have with you.” Any problem that caught the attention of Jesus is probably bigger than a mayor. And yet, Bass has invited judgment of herself based on her handling of this question. She has promised to house 17,000 people in her first year.
Politically, mayors usually avoid that, for fear that failure will haunt the politician who over-promises. Look no further than Bass’ predecessor, Eric Garcetti, who began his tenure by focusing on small improvements – back to basics, he called it – only to be drawn in by the heartache of homelessness. He invested money and political capital, and made some headway, but homelessness got worse, not better, on his watch.
Will Karen Bass solve this problem? “No,” said Antonia Hernandez, president of the California Community Foundation, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that, among other things, is attempting to address homelessness through its grant-making. “She is not going to solve it. Period.”
Instead, Hernandez argued that Bass will be judged on the more modest gains that she might make by alleviating the suffering of those who are homeless and accelerating the city’s ability to approve new housing – perhaps by suspending some of the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act.
But that would require council participation, and that body’s internal divisions make it a difficult partner at a crucial moment. Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson acknowledged that it has been a difficult period, but said he believes the council will be there to work with Bass.
He acknowledged that previous efforts to combat homelessness – the city passed a $1.2 billion bond measure in 2016 to support housing construction – underestimated the need. The challenge now, he said, is for Bass and the council to reverse the rising number of homeless people and encampments and to make enough of an impact for the public to sense it firsthand.
It’s not enough to make modest gains, Harris-Dawson said. “People have to see fewer people on the street.”
Test for Democrats – and democracy
In one sense, this is familiar. In the mid-1990s, the combined effects of an economic downturn and the social upheaval triggered by the police beating of Rodney G. King in 1991 created broad agreement that it was time for LA to try something new. Mayor Tom Bradley elected not to run for a sixth term, clearing the way for Richard Riordan to succeed him. Riordan’s slogan, “Tough Enough to Turn L.A. Around,” captured the mood of the moment.
For Riordan, the mission was simple to express and subject to measurement. His job was to make Los Angeles safer, and he promised to hire more police. For Bass, the promise to confront homelessness is more difficult to evaluate. What if fewer people are homeless three or four years from now, but LA remains dotted with encampments and battered by blight and insecurity? Will she have succeeded or failed?
Those are questions that have a particular political valence because this problem will be addressed entirely by Democrats. Democrats hold every elected office in the city and constitute the vast majority of voters. Even Caruso, who had been a Republican and an independent, switched to become a Democrat 18 days before announcing for mayor, tacitly acknowledging that there is no place for a Republican in this city’s leadership.
If Democrats fail here, they can hardly blame Republicans.
“There will be people who look at this through a particular, partisan lens,” Villaraigosa said. That partisanship may also work to Bass’ advantage, the former mayor added, as it gives President Biden and Gov. Newsom extra incentive to see that Bass succeeds.
The new mayor will prove “adept and agile” at leveraging that position, Villaraigosa predicted.
All of those add up to big stakes, but there may be even larger ones. Sonenshein, for one, sees the test before Los Angeles less as one for Democrats and more as one for democracy.
As Sonenshein noted, the very idea of democracy is under stress in this country and around the world. At issue for many is whether democracy is up to the challenges of modern life: Can it protect rights, deliver services and make life better? Those are the questions that will be asked of Bass and her colleagues in the coming months and years.
“This is a time,” Sonenshein noted, “when government and democracy should be at their best.”
Does democracy depend on success in Los Angeles? That’s a heavy burden and a lot to demand of a new mayor. Bass takes up the work today.
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