March is quite a fitting month for a woman to make history. Recognized nationally as Womens History Month, in California the month will be remembered as the time when the lower house of the state legislature elected its first African American woman to serve as Speaker of the Assembly.
Karen Bass (D-47th) was selected Wednesday, March 5, 2008 as the 67th Speaker following a quick three years in leadership positions.
The honor also made her the first African American woman in the nation to serve as speaker of a state legislative body, and puts her in rare company on the national political front.
Considered part of the Progressive movement in contemporary California politics and first elected to office in 2004, Bass was appointed Majority Whip in her first term and was elevated to the post of Majority Floor Leader during her second term. She was the first woman to hold this post and the second African American.
Bass was nominated to her new position by current Speaker Fabian Nunez, and was seconded by Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally, who himself is the holder of many firsts.
Both Bass and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a former speaker of the Assembly, point out the significance of this nomination.
One thing I think it is very important to mention, especially since people like to talk about (the black and brown conflict) is that I helped Herb Wesson become Speaker, and Willie Brown helped me become Speaker. . . Wesson helped Fabian become Speaker and Fabian helped Karen become Speaker. Talk about black and brown unity, said Villaraigosa after the election.
Ive known and worked with every speaker since Willie Brown, and see what it takes, continued Villaraigosa of Bass. Shes got the intellect, the innate ability to lead, added the mayor, who said his friendship with Bass extends back more than three decades.
Bass rapid ascension to the top leadership post in the Assembly has come about as the result of term limits, and the Los Angeles Democrats estimate that she will have a little less than two years in the position.
And it is an extremely powerful position. In fact David Bositis, senior political analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, DC, said Bass may rank as high as any black woman has achieved in contemporary politics. None of the black women who have served in Congress have been in really high-ranking Congressional positions. Carole Mosley Braun was a U.S. Senator, and that sounds like a lot of power, but just being a junior U.S. Senator does not give you a lot of power. Whereas being Speaker of the Assembly is a lot of power.
The Speaker determines the time Assembly sessions start, and calls the meeting to order. According to the Assembly Rules (HR1), the Speaker also determines the size of and appoints the members, chair, and vice chairperson of all standing committees, subcommittees, and special committees; allocates funds (the Assembly budget is $138.7 million), staffing (there are 1,300 employees statewide) and other resources for Assembly operations; has general control and direction over the journals, papers, and bills of the Assembly; and appoints all non-elected officers of the Assembly except the Minority Floor Leader.
Each session there are more than 1,000 pieces of legislation proposed in the legislature, and the Speaker is responsible for establishing what goes where.
The Speaker also serves as the point person in negotiations with the governor on major issues like prison reform, healthcare, and immigration.
Despite all of this power, Bass is under no illusions about the difficulties she faces.
My first agenda is to come to grips with the job, and the first thing I have to face is the budget, said Bass in an exclusive press conference with the African American media. There is a $14 billion deficit, and I do not believe the way to balance the budget is by closing down and cutting programs that impact our community. We have to look for balance in the budget.
We also have the mortgage and real estate crisis, and the two are interconnected, pointed out the Speaker-elect, who said that because of the real estate plunge, the state has lost badly needed revenue.
Bass said health and welfare issues will absolutely be the core of her agenda. That is my major motivation for being up here. I hope to use the stature of the speakership to move that agenda forward.
She also would like to look at some of the issues that particularly impact the African American community such as Three Strikes, but Bass is very pragmatic about her ability to make such large changes. One of the things we need to change is that whole 2/3 rule. I wish I could be Speaker long enough to effect that. . . but the terms up here are so short, its very difficult to bring about that kind of fundamental change.
To do the job, said Mayor Villaraigosa, Bass will have to be practical and pragmatic. She will have to understand the need for building consensus, and then reach out across the aisle to try to get things done.
I am so proud of this woman. When youve known somebody since you were kidsGilbert Cedillo, Anthony Thigpen, Mark Ridley-Thomas (Karen and I), Maria Elena Durazo all go way back. . . . Most of us were student leaders and activists in the community, community leaders, and labor leaders and our paths have crossed since we were kids. Now were grandparents, said the mayor.
Willie L. Brown Jr., who held the California Speaker of the Assembly post for an unprecedented 15 years, echoed Villaraigosas delight at Bass selection.
This is spectacular. Im very pleased. She is the first African American woman in the whole nation, in the history of the nation to head a legislative body. And the most important legislative body in the country. Im just ecstatic, said the veteran politician and former San Francisco mayor.
To be successful in this role, during this turbulent budget season, Brown said Bass will need to continue the conduct that gained her this role. Those are her extraordinary people skills; her ability to understand a large volume of data and facts; her ability to assess what the membership is capable of accepting as a plausible solutionboth Republicans and Democratsand her ability to communicate.
As Brown ran down the list of other speakers who had the same short period of time to do the jobVillaraigosa, Cruz Bustamante, Bob Hertzberg, and Herb Wesson, he said he was confident Bass could handle the job.
He advised her to: Stay the course; do what youve always done and be the same person of your word that youve always been.
Bass grew up in the Venice/Fairfax area with her parents, DeWit and Wilhelmina Bass, two older brothers, and one younger brother. She graduated from Hamilton High School and Cal State Dominguez (bachelors in health sciences) and the University of Southern California School of Medicine with a physicians assistant certification.
In 1990, she helped launch the Community Coalition, a nonprofit organization founded in response to the crack epidemic that hit South Los Angeles in the 1980s. The organizations goals were and still are to address the fundamental conditions of poverty, racism, and joblessness that foster drug addiction and crime. The coalition works with African American and Latino residents to build a prosperous and productive South L.A. with safe neighborhoods, quality schools, a strong social safety net, and economic development based on community need.
Among the major campaigns the organization pushed under Bass leadership were fighting the proliferation of liquor stores in South L.A. and seeking equal educational opportunities for black and brown youth in the community.
As an Assemblymember, impacting the foster care system has been one of her key concerns, and she was responsible for securing $82 million and eight new laws to help improve the states system.