Even though the Bay Area will have no direct representation among California’s top four state legislative leaders for the first time in years, The Examiner fully agrees that Los Angeles Democrat Karen Bass, 54, was a good choice as next speaker of the Assembly. Bass’ fellow lawmakers — including the Republican leadership — describe her in glowing terms such as “hardworking,” “substantial,” “fair,” “intelligent” and above all, “nice.”
That welcome combination of effectiveness and affability will be vital if Bass is to have any chance to help reduce the partisan gridlock running rampant in the state Capitol, especially in this year when the two parties must somehow reconcile their wildly-different budgetary philosophies and find a way to balance a remaining $8 billion deficit.
Bass had already earned wide respect among her peers as an unflappable Assembly majority floor leader, top assistant to final-term Speaker Fabian Núñez. And now Núñez has said he will gradually turn over his post to Bass in coming months, reversing his previous intention to hold onto power through the end of the 2008 session this autumn.
Oh, by the way, Bass just happens to be the nation’s first African-American woman ever to lead a legislative house. She was one of 10 candidates vying to succeed Núñez as Assembly speaker, which is generally considered California’s second most powerful political job. In order to win, Bass hadto promise her peers that she would serve until her final term ends in 2010 — which could make her unavailable for potentially longer-lasting opportunities coming up in the state Senate and the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors.
Originally employed as a physician’s assistant, Bass became politically energized by L.A.’s inner city crack epidemic and created the nonprofit Community Coalition, a grass-roots organization that achieved some successes in cutting back neighborhood liquor stores and obtaining additional funds for struggling schools. Bass was elected to the Assembly in 2004 and has been particularly active in getting legislation passed on child welfare issues, particularly foster care.
A lawmaker such as Bass, who has won undisputed recognition for her impressive political talents, also exemplifies some of the unintended consequences of California’s term limits. With all the shuffling of vacancies in the Legislature, she was able to rise to Assembly speaker in less than four years. But she can only serve as speaker for two years before being termed out.
Obviously nobody should expect Karen Bass to single-handedly eliminate the Legislature’s partisan gridlock and its seemingly chronic inability to take tough actions on the budget morass. But the historic ascension of a black woman as speaker of the Assembly entitles Californians to a feel-good moment plus the reasonable hope that a leader as well-liked as Bass could only make the Capitol better.