December 9, 2004
The faint of heart should not apply for this job: Needed, a sensitive but thick-skinned person who can get along with a combative mixture
of Los Angeles' Jews, blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos, Catholics, Baptists, Muslims, students, retired people, lawyers, doctors, homeless and many, many more.
Karen Bass, an African American community leader, figured she could take the heat. It couldn't be more difficult than her time as a physician's assistant in the high-pressure County-USC Medical Center emergency ward, or the years she spent leading the Community Coalition, uniting often-feuding South Central L.A. blacks and Latinos in a campaign to improve neglected schools and stop drug-dealing, prostitution and a proliferation of liquor stores.
She got the job, which is representing the 47th District in the state Assembly. Bass, a Democrat, was elected to the Legislature in November's election.
Her district is a multiethnic mélange that extends from affluent, predominantly white Westwood Village to working-class, mostly black and Latino Southwestern Los Angeles. She's also got Crenshaw, Culver City, Koreatown, the well-off, mainly black neighborhoods of View Park and Windsor Hills and the Westside communities of Rancho Park, West Los Angeles, Mar Vista and Palms, with their substantial Jewish population. European Americans comprise 31 percent of the population, African Americans 29 percent, Latinos 25 percent and Asian Pacific Islanders just over 10 percent.
Journal readers were introduced to Bass by my fellow columnist, Raphael J. Sonnenshein, after she won the Democratic primary in March, which assured her of victory in November in the heavily Democratic district. He said her win seemed to herald a revival of the black-Jewish coalition that elected Tom Bradley mayor in 1973 and, a few years later, collapsed in circumstances too complicated to explain in a column of this size.
I don't know whether Bass, even with her medical training, can resuscitate that long-dead coalition. But her immediate task may be just as difficult, balancing the interests of the Ethiopians, Koreans, Mexicans, blacks, Jews and others she now represents and harnessing the energy in her district's dynamic neighborhoods to get some action out of Sacramento.
I visited her last week in her campaign office in the rear of a medical building at Jefferson and La Cienega boulevards. Bass, 51, the divorced mother of a daughter who attends Loyola Marymount University, was the same, friendly yet determined person that I first met on the streets of South Central Los Angeles in the early '90s, when she was leading a Community Coalition demonstration against a liquor store.
The neighborhood was rapidly changing from solidly African American to a mixture of blacks and Latinos. Many of the old-time black residents didn't like the newcomers. The feeling was often mutual. Journalists and other habitual skeptics doubted that the African Americans and Latinos could work together.
The Community Coalition understood that differences could be put aside in the face of a common enemy. And everyone agreed that a liquor store owner tolerating parking lots filled with drug dealers and prostitutes was an enemy. Nobody wanted their kids walking past that mess on their way to school.
"It was a lot easier to cross ethnic lines at the community level, when everyone is working on a project together," she said
It will be much more difficult to find common interests in Bass' 47th Assembly District. It is a gerrymandered product of political technicians who, using computer analysis, searched out every Democratic household in a broad area to create a foolproof but odd-looking Democratic district. A rich homeowner near Westwood Village doesn't have much in common with a working-class apartment dweller in Southwestern L.A., except that they are both Democrats.
Trying to find common interests, Bass held meetings throughout the district. Everyone expressed their local concerns. Some loved the idea of an Exposition Boulevard rapid transit line, while others hated it. But she found a common concern about the public schools.
"People were adamant," she said. "They were willing to increase taxes to improve education."
As part of her effort to mobilize her diverse community, Bass intends to appoint a full-time staff member to represent her in the Jewish community. It will be someone "who is knowledgeable and will focus on the problems of the community," Bass said. Her girlhood home was around Fairfax Avenue and Venice Boulevard.
"I grew up exposed to the Jewish community since I was a small child," she said.
Bass faces a intimidating challenge. The Democratic-controlled Legislature has a do-nothing reputation and still seems intimidated by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The gerrymandered districts, drawn for the convenience of Democratic and Republican political bosses, split communities with common interests. There is a huge turnover of Assemblymembers, limited to three two-year terms. In that atmosphere, making changes in Sacramento will be difficult. But from demonstrating in the neighborhoods of South L.A. to charming rich people in Westwood, Bass has shown an ability to forge common bonds in a diverse city.
Bill Boyarsky's column on Jews and civic life appears on the first Friday of each month. Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at email@example.com.