That’s thanks to Karen Bass, the Democratic Representative from California’s 37th district, who has served in Congress a relatively brief 8 years and is the newly elected chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. And it is emblematic of the way she governs and shapes policy, that is to say with an eye towards intersectionality.
At a time when Americans do not trust media and do not trust government, Bass is pragmatic yet optimistic about the task at hand, and startlingly honest. She is staunchly critical of our current politics, but remains optimistic about the ultimate arch of democratic self governance.
I suspect the ability to find light even in darkness is connected to surviving the loss of her daughter and son-in-law in 2006. Emilia, Bass’ only child, and her husband, Michael, were only 23-years-old when they lost their lives a tragic car accident. Staggering personal loss can steel the spine. Representative Bass just may have a titanium backbone.
I spent an hour with the Congresswoman for a wide-ranging discussion on everything from the future of the Congressional Black Caucus, including one of the CBC’s few former Republican members, Mia Love, and working with Trump.
MHP: On Friday a federal judge ruled to invalidate the Affordable Care Act. Should we be worried?
Rep. Karen Bass: The richest country in the history of the world should be able to ensure that its people can afford health insurance. Health care is a human right and attacks on the Affordable Care Act hobble our health care system. Know that this attempt will fail like the others and that come January 3rd, a new Congress will be sworn in that will be working for the people again.
How can we ensure that?
I am amazed when people don’t use me—do not hold me accountable. I have to run around looking for accountability. Literally! Fundamental change is an inside and an outside strategy. For much of our history Black people were barred from voting or holding office, we only had an outside strategy. Now—even with the continuing assault on voting rights—we have the ability to elect our people. We have inside power. But we have not yet figured out what to do with our representatives when they get there. We are not infants, but in some ways we are still teenagers in democracy. We win then go home. When we go home, only the corporate interests are left to influence elected officials.”
The 2018 Blue Wave is not really Blue—it is Black, Brown, Beige. What does this mean for the future of the Congressional Black Caucus?
The CBC will have 55 members in the 116th. Five will lead full committees. Twenty-eight will be in charge of subcommittees. For the first time two CBC members will hold top leadership positions simultaneously. [Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) as chair of the Democratic Caucus and James E. Clyburn (D-SC-06) as Majority Whip.] If you add the members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Latino Caucus, and the Asian Caucus (Jointly they are colloquially referred to as the Rainbow Caucuses) then you will find the majority of the Democratic caucus is people of color.
Ayanna Pressley made history in November when she was elected to the 7th district of Massachusetts but it was a win that required her to unseat a 20-year incumbent, Michael Capuano for the Democratic nomination. She did so handily, raking in nearly 60% of primary votes. This brilliant, black, woman, who is clearly a rising Democratic star, was not hoisted to victory with the help of her CBC elders. The Congressional Black Caucus PAC endorsed Capuano. Pressley’s road to victory had to run right through no lesser an icon than Representative John Lewis. Awkward!
It happens. At times a new CBC member has defeated not just another member of the Party, but another CBC member. Of course it is initially uncomfortable, but people move on, But I do not want to dismiss the challenges this might bring. I have not spoken with Representative Pressley about this, but, because of this conversation. I will reach out to her.
How important is mentorship? What does it look like for you?
We want the established members to mentor new members. We want new members to understand what the CBC family is and how it works. Even when we disagree, there is certain embrace. As a black woman you are an extreme minority in halls of Congress. Our camaraderie is like the head nod black people give each other. Just a moment to say ‘I see you, I’ve got you.'”
The image of brisk, uber-dignified Alma Adams (D-NC) walking the halls of Congress wearing one of her signature hats, but pausing to acknowledge Mia Love (R-UT) with a swift, sharp lift of the chin is now my favorite daydream. But Mia Love will not be part of the 116th Congress. She was an active member of the CBC during her terms, even though the CBC is overwhelmingly Democrat. In recent weeks she has publicly criticized both the GOP and Trump administration for their failure to welcome women of color into the shrinking Republican tent. Some progressive observers are irritated by Love’s critique, decrying it at too little and too late. Is it?
Are you kidding me? She did speak up in office. She demandedan apology for Trump’s comments Haiti. I remember because when Trump made those comments I went over to the African Union that has an office in Washington DC, and apologized. Because I wanted to distance myself and ourselves from that. Black people are part of African diaspora. Black communities will grow primarily from immigration from the Continent. That is the future of our people.
So it mattered that Representative Love took a stance. But then she was vilified. The Republican Party is abusive. They beat up their own people. That is not who we are in the CBC. When Mia Love came into office she found a family in the Congressional Black Caucus. We welcomed her. She participated. We obviously had differences with her and her Party, but she was at those Wednesday afternoon meetings, and I know she felt comfort and welcome there.”
How is the CBC leading the resistance against Trump?
There is a massive resistance movement pushing back against Trump and the Republicans. The CBC has already been leading and participating in it. We will remain in the forefront. I want to lift up, for all of America to see but especially for black America to see—the accomplishments of what CBC members have done and do, on a continuous basis. And let me just give you a couple of examples. The health disparities part of the Affordable Care Act was led by CBC members. CBC members led important aspects of Dodd-Frank to create more economic equity for black communities. It is also important to remember that inequities affecting our lives can’t be fixed simply through the will of individual legislators. Many of the issues we deal with are institutional racism, institutional barriers, structural problems that are part of an entire system that harms us. I believe the CBC has the power to undo many of these structures. And we are gaining more power. We are working daily. It would be very encouraging for the black community to know, ‘This is what the CBC has been doing, and this is what the CBC will do.’
I feel a tremendous amount of personal responsibility as an elected official to deliver for our folk. If I have an opportunity to deliver for us then I am gonna doing it. The same is true for the Congressional Black Caucus. Our responsibility first and foremost is to our people. If we have the opportunity to do criminal justice reform legislation—we will do it. Should we not do it, because we don’t like Trump?
The 2018 midterms have given the CBC political capital to spend, what do you plan to do with it?
One of the first bills we will introduce addresses voting rights. We must have data, evidence, and a clear record. This year has made clear how they treated our elections. In Georgia the Secretary of State (Brian Kemp) was in charge of his own election. (The gubernatorial race against Stacey Abrams.) It is possible Stacey Abrams won that race. We can’t allow elections to be straight up stolen from us.”
It is easy to feel exhausted by American politics at a time when it seems the interests of ordinary Americans are so often ignored. How do you keep going?
We must pursue social justice everywhere. And elected office is power. It is what runs our society….So everywhere you go, all those issues we were talking about in terms of improving the circumstances of Black people in the country, at the end of the day, it is government that is responsible. We are here to ensure the government is also responsive.”