Karen Bass, speaker of the California Assembly, looked remarkably calm, considering that she’d just arrived to speak at The Jewish Federation in mid-Wilshire following a freeway trip from the airport. At the Capitol, she had just taken part in another fruitless budget meeting with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other legislative leaders, an experience as difficult as riding the freeways.
I wasn’t surprised at her demeanor. Bass looked calm the first time I met her many years ago, before she was elected to office. At the time, she was leading a street demonstration against one of the many liquor store-drug market-prostitute hangouts proliferating in South Los Angeles.
She, along with her colleague, Sylvia Castillo, ran the Community Coalition, a grass-roots South L.A. group that campaigned against neighborhood blights, such as the liquor store and prostitution-sheltering motel. They’d also successfully challenged the School Board to improve the public schools.
As a columnist for the Times, I often wrote about the coalition and learned much from its members, young and old. What struck me was how Bass brought African Americans and Latinos together in the campaigns. It was a time when the news was full of stories of black-Latino strife. But the Community Coalition was free of it.
Bass was forceful but nice. She always had a plan, but important elements of it seemed to spring from the diverse group as it talked things over. It’s exhausting work, but Bass never lost her smile.
During the recent presidential campaign, I listened with scorn as the Republicans mocked Barack Obama’s years as a community organizer. I thought those Republicans ought to hit the streets with Bass and other community organizers that I have seen bring together recalcitrant, cynical, angry poor people and show them how they, too, can have a voice in our democracy. It’s hard work, and I doubt those Republican complainers were tough enough to do it.
Bass had come from hearing Schwarzenegger’s State of the State speech, which was followed by a meeting with her Democratic counterpart in the upper house, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, and Republican leaders, Sen. Dave Cogdill and Assemblyman Mike Vilnes, who represent the Fresno area in the Central Valley.
The five of them once again could not agree on how to close a $42 billion budget gap. Republicans refuse to consider a tax increase, holding to this position like cult members sworn to an oath. Democrats, on the other hand, don’t want to cut public school spending or reduce the safety net of medical aid to the poor, unemployment insurance and welfare. Nor do they want to take on the powerful public employee unions crucial to financing their campaigns.
Schwarzenegger, while conceding the need for a tax increase, won’t campaign for one, denying political cover to Republican lawmakers who might break their oath and support more taxes. Even though the situation gets worse every day, no side has budged.
“A painful year,” said Bass as she began her talk to the audience in The Federation building.
She said it’s been painful “because we ran for office to protect the safety net, to expand the safety net.”
At the legislative meetings, she said, the Republican leaders dismiss her stand because they say she represents a poor district.
She said she replies, “No, I represent West L.A. You have more poor people than I do living in the Central Valley.”
In fact, Bass has many affluent constituents in a district that stretches from the midcity area west to Culver City, Palms, Mar Vista and parts of Westwood and Brentwood. Many of those constituents are Jews. And, she said, they are on her side.
“I think the Jewish community’s involvement has been outstanding, especially in fighting for the safety net,” she said.
If everybody can “band together, we will be able to solve the problems of the state,” she said “and bring home the bacon.” Some people in the audience laughed.
“Turkey bacon,” she added.
Since then, she and Steinberg have traveled to Washington for President Obama’s inauguration. Afterward, they met with congressional leaders and were promised California would receive more than $11 billion in health care and education funds. This would eliminate a quarter of the deficit. But, as Bass and Steinberg told Sacramento reporters in a conference call from Washington, it is not enough to balance the books.
“We don’t have a choice,” Steinberg said. “We have to cut. We have to raise taxes.”
The occasion for Bass’ appearance that day was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. Before she spoke, African American youngsters from a nearby charter school read some of King’s words.
The school these kids attend and other public schools are dependent on what happens in Sacramento. The Los Angeles Unified School District faces a deficit of at least $250 million, and other districts statewide also face big cuts.
As Bass said, the Jewish community has been of great help to her in fighting to preserve as many services as possible in the state budget negotiations. But now is the time to do more. Hit the governor with e-mails.
If a Republican legislator represents you, remind her or him of the importance of compromise. And if you think Bass and the Democrats should be more willing to compromise, let her know. I think she’ll listen.