California’s Organizer in the State House

Posted by Bobbi Murray on May 16, 2008

It just ain’t natural for a policy-type blogger to stray into ray-of-sunshine territory — we’re talking politics here, after all, so it’s smarter to expect disappointment.

But a wonderful thing happened on May 13: Karen Bass was sworn in as Speaker of the California Assembly on Tuesday, the first African-American woman in United States history to head a legislative body.

That’s cool in and of itself, but even better, in Karen Bass, California now has an extraordinary and gifted organizer in a top leadership position.

In 1990, 14 years before Bass started in the Assembly, she launched a Los Angeles institution initially called the Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment now simply called the Community Coalition.

She built the coalition’s political muscle by organizing and involving the people who live in the impoverished area south of LA’s Santa Monica Freeway, bringing resources and development into schools and neighborhoods..

No wonder Bass has such a finely calibrated political gyroscope, one that has enabled her to figure out effective strategies while negotiating the ethical swamp that is realpolitik.

She’s also warm and down-to-earth, and a woman of enormous courage who has pressed on in public service despite enduring what no parent should, the loss of her only daughter in a car accident in 2006.

Certified at the University of Southern California as a physician’s assistant, Bass was road-tested in one of the city’s gnarliest public hospitals, USC County General.

When crack cocaine and attendant crime flooded South LA streets in the late 1980s and devastated largely African-American neighborhoods, it was called an epidemic.

Bass took the term literally, analyzing the crack crisis as a public-health problem with physical, emotional, and economic dimensions that required an integrated, multifaceted response.

The Los Angeles Police Department, of course, saw it strictly as a law enforcement issue and rolled out the paramilitary Operation Hammer, a feet-back-and-spread-‘em system of sweeps that jacked up young African-American and Latino guys.

But Bass saw larger societal forces fueling the epidemic and attendant crime.

The affected neighborhoods had been left for dead. The manufacturing jobs that had built a middle class there had long since shuttled offshore. Not much was left — few jobs outside the drug trade, little infrastructure, plenty of liquor stores. The Community Coalition counts 728 alcohol outlets prior to 1992. They were the closest thing to grocery stores — and served as nuisance magnets.

The Community Coalition set about a plan to replace those with real amenities.

Then Los Angeles was rocked by a social explosion that some call a riot and many call an uprising. Both are right.

On April 29, 1992, a jury far removed from LA’s center acquitted the four police officers caught on tape as directly involved in the beating and tasering of African-American driver Rodney King , as a host of other officers stood by.

The days of violence that followed left as many as 60 dead, hundreds injured, perhaps a billion dollars in damage. Some 3,600 fires burned all over the city, from Hollywood through the impoverished majority-Latino neighborhood of Pico-Union.

Also horrifying was the racial splintering it laid bare.
Korean-Americans owned most of the liquor stores in South LA — often the only source of groceries in economically depressed area. It was a scenario ripe for tension.

Less than two weeks after the Rodney King beating, South LA store owner Soon Ja Du fatally shot African-American teenager Latasha Harlins in the back of the head in an altercation over a bottle of orange juice.

Du was convicted of voluntary manslaughter. Her sentence: five years probation and community service.

The chaos and looting that began April 29 was citywide, with multi-racial participation, but Korean-American-owned stores were especially hard-hit, incurring 47 percent of the losses by some estimates. In the district known as Koreatown, far north of there, buildings burned and armed merchants stood on the roofs.

It was so traumatic for the Korean-Americans in LA they gave it a name — sa-i-gu,4/29/92, numbers with the resonance of 9/11.

After the riots, Karen Bass stepped up once again as a leader, looking for solutions that addressed the economic devastation that underlay much racial tension.

She teamed up with Bong Hwan Kim, then of the Korean Youth and Community Center, now head of the city Department of Neighborhood Empowerment. They did their best to broker interracial meetings, build bridges, and forge coalitions.

Bass steered the Community Coalition toward practical economic projects to benefit a fractured community.

This is the crucible that forged Karen Bass.

In the years that followed, the Community Coalition supported the development of 44 non-alcohol-related businesses — like markets and laundromats — that benefited the community while owners made a living.

Bass was happily and effectively doing her coalition work when she went to see the late Miguel Confreres, the head of the LA County Federation of Labor, to ask him to buy a table at the Community Coalition annual fundraising dinner. He persuaded her to run for assembly. The County Fed threw down and all her past alliances — and a wicked smart field operation — helped Bass to victory.

Now Assembly Speaker Bass must wade into California’s budget mess — which is too much craziness to examine here just now.

Let’s leave it at this: There’s a $15.2-billion shortfall, the state controller says we may be out of money by August and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposal includes borrowing $15 million over three years against future lottery earnings.

Borrowing against future lottery earnings! This, while all day long CNN is yelling at me about financial responsibility and credit-card debt.

Like I say, that’s another post. Which will also include a discussion of the gov’s proposed $627 million in cuts in funding that now goes toward the aged and disabled and their home-care workers. And proposed further whittling of the education budget..

So, Assembly Speaker Bass, we Californians hope and trust you can handle all this with your usual intelligence and grace.

See, I warned you all about the sunshine. My next post will be crabbier. Promise.

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