Karen Bass said that Councilmember Kevin de León broke her heart over racist comments he and other civic leaders made on a leaked audio recording and his refusal so far to resign from office. “I hope that he comes to grips with reality,” she said. Bass also accused her adversary Rick Caruso of lying about her acceptance of a scholarship at USC. “My opponent, who has spent $72 million, can do and say anything,” she complained.
The mayoral candidate responded to a series of questions from Boyle Heights Beat youth reporters during a Zoom call early Saturday. Bass had originally scheduled an in-person meeting in Boyle Heights but switched to a virtual interview at the last minute because of scheduling conflicts.
Bass was warm and friendly as she responded – even complimenting students on their preparation. “By the way, all of your questions are excellent,” the congresswoman commented before tackling a tough issue.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Boyle Heights Beat: You have made several stops in Boyle Heights during your campaign to engage with the Latinx community. Growing up in South Central LA, how do you relate to a community of working-class residents who are struggling because of rising house prices and gentrification?
Karen Bass: Well, I mean, I relate to them because I’m one of them. It’s a part of who I have been all my life. And the sad thing about LA… and I worry about all of you in this room because LA has become so expensive… What I worry about is that when you finish your education, I want you to be able to afford to live in LA if that’s what you choose to do. So if I’m elected mayor, what I have to get busy and do before you guys finish your education is make sure that enough affordable housing is built. And trust me, that will be my focus.
The reason why I decided to run is that I’m just really worried about the people who are unhoused and the fact that so many people tomorrow could lose their housing, and then other people who can’t even afford housing. I don’t think it’s right, that you have to work three jobs in order to pay rent. And I don’t think it’s right that three families have to live together. Now if they choose to live together, that’s wonderful. But a lot of families living together have no choice. They can’t afford to live anywhere else. So that’s the main reason why I decided to leave Congress. I love my work there. But when your hometown is suffering, and you have the possibility [of running for office,] then that’s what you do. Make sense?
BHB: How do you relate to the struggles within the Latinx community?
KB: Well, you know, I’ve worked for decades with the Latinx community, since I was barely out of college. Actually, I wasn’t done with college. When I was growing up as a young activist decades ago, we used to all work together – black folks, brown folks, Asian folks, white folks, because we all identify with each other’s struggles.
It’s not a matter of how I would relate, It’s what I do every day. My kids are Latino. My grandkids are Latino.
BHB: LA has made national news after leaked audio exposed racist comments made by Council Members Nury Martínez, Gil Cedillo, and Kevin de León. How do you think the racist comments by the three Latino council members impact the solidarity between black and brown communities in Los Angeles?
KB: Know what? We have to fight hard to make sure it doesn’t impact, that those were [just] three individuals. Now, for me, it’s particularly hurtful because I know them. I’ve known Kevin for almost 20 years, I’ve known Gil for 40 years. Nury and Ron [Herrera] are relatively new to me. So it hurts when you hear people you know… Ron and Nury were involved in my campaign. It’s bad enough that you hear the language that’s used, but that’s not as bad as what they were actually doing. Which is, you know, cutting up the pie in a way that would hurt black people.
But anytime you have a problem like this, you also have to view it as an opportunity. Because it’s an opportunity to lift struggles that are happening within our community. And it’s an opportunity to address stuff. I hate to say it this way, but sometimes a crisis, if you use it correctly, can be helpful and move the needle forward. So what I did is, I convened a group of civic leaders on Tuesday. Multiracial, everybody was in the room. Frankly, everybody that was on that tape was represented in the room. And if we start a discussion, the first part has to be just talking about what happened. But what’s most important is to figure out what you’re going to do about it. And that’s what we’re doing now. So there’ll be some specific action steps. But there’s no way, no how I’m going to let a conversation between four people impact black and brown relations. What we’ve built over these last 40 or so years, is extremely important.
I don’t know if you guys are familiar with it or if you’ve heard of Community Coalition. Have some of you heard of Community Coalition in South LA, or Inner City Struggle in East LA? We’re sister organizations, have you heard of those organizations?
KB: Okay. I started Community Coalition in 1990. And the Latino population in 1990 was small. But when we built Community Coalition, we deliberately built it as a black-brown organization. The organization is 32 years old now. And we have raised a couple of generations of young people, black-brown folks who are steeped in each other’s history. And they understand the history of oppression of black people and Latino people. And they also understand our history of working together.
You know, Gil and I met when we were barely out of our teens. We worked together on immigration reform and police reform. And when the Central American civil wars happened, on integrating refugees and making sure that they were treated well in the 80s. We have long histories together. So we can’t allow the behavior of four people to disrupt very deliberate work that has been going on for the last few decades.
BHB: Because Boyle Heights has had a history of corrupt councilmen, many community members are angry because Kevin de León has not resigned. What do you make of the fact that he hasn’t resigned?
KB: That it breaks my heart, that’s all I can say. Kevin and I served in the state assembly together. I first knew Kevin when he was an activist on immigration reform. And it breaks my heart, and I hope that he comes to grips with reality. I think that Kevin and Gil are in denial right now. I think that both of them think they can ride it out. And they are misdiagnosing that; they are misassessing.
And by the way, I don’t accept that Boyle Heights has had a history of corrupt politicians. I think, okay, José Huízar, Kevin De León… but the history of Boyle Heights goes back much longer than two councilpeople. And Boyle Heights has a rich, rich history of organizing and activism. I mean, going back… You guys know, Edward Roybal. You know, I have the honor in Congress of working with his daughter, Lucille Roybal-Allard. She’s one of my mentors. She’s one of the icons in Congress. If you look at the Centers for Disease Control, you guys know of the CDC because of COVID, right? Well, if you look at that massive building in Atlanta, Georgia, it’s called the Roybal Center. So the legacy from Boyle Heights is way bigger than two councilmen.
BHB: We’ve been working on a story looking at how Boyle Heights residents have taken the issue of street trash into their own hands. We know that street cleaning hasn’t been a central aspect of your campaign. Do you think it’s fair that community organizations and residents have taken up the goal of cleaning their BoyleHeights streets…?
BHB: …or do you think that should be the responsibility of the city? What would you propose to address this issue?
KB: You know what? It’s absolutely the responsibility of the city. You know what happens to the affluent areas if they need their streets cleaned? Number one, the city is more responsible. And number two, they just get together and hire somebody to do it. That is totally not right. And an issue in our city that’s super important is equity. And what happens now is that the pie gets divided up 15 ways, but it ain’t about 15. You know, Boyle Heights, South LA, Pico-Union, Northeast Valley… our communities need more resources. Not equal, they need more. Our housing stock is older, our infrastructure is older. And so consequently, we need more support. And that’s a real big commitment for me, is to fight for equity within a city, not equality.
BHB: What plan do you propose to address this issue?
KB: That’s what I’m saying, equity. It’s the fight for equity, which means that there needs to be more street cleaning. There need to be more resources. The other thing too, that I would push for when I talk about more services, is looking at more job opportunities. So for example, you need more people to do this work. Those are good city jobs. People of Boyle Heights want those jobs. And when it comes to things like jobs or business opportunities, we never hear about them. We’re always the last ones to know. I want to make sure that our communities are the first ones to know because our communities need the resources more, we need the jobs, we need the small business opportunity.
BHB: Recently LAUSD announced they would provide naloxone to every school in the district after a Bernstein High School student died of an overdose. What could the mayor of LA do to further prevent student overdoses from happening again? How would you involve the youth in addressing this issue?
KB: I used to work in the medical field. I actually used to work in Boyle Heights. I worked at White Memorial. I worked at a clinic on César Chávez and I worked at County Hospital. So, I talked to the superintendent [of LAUSD]. First of all, I think all schools should have Narcan. I call it Narcan. All schools should have it. It hurts my heart that students would want to take Percocet, because they don’t plan to take Fentanyl, they don’t realize that… they’re trying to take something else, what they’re trying to take is a narcotic and it’s a sedative, which means they’re going to go to sleep. And what they don’t know, of course, is if somebody has put Fentanyl in it.
And so my question is why [do] the students want to take drugs, you got to address why. And I know that students have been having serious mental health issues before COVID, and COVID made it worse. So we need to address the why. Of course, if anybody’s selling it they should be arrested and all of that. But that doesn’t stop the problem, you have to address why people are taking drugs.
And I’m a big believer in peer counseling. So your question about how I would involve the youth, well the youth are the only ones that can answer the why. So you involve the youth from day one. And you do it in a series of discussions, you bring these together, and then you ask youth to step forward, [those] who want to be trained as counselors. And you can have youth counselors that do peer counseling. And you do it a lot through discussion. But you could also train youth that are interested in how to spot people with mental health issues. So, if you know somebody that’s not coming to school, they’re sleeping in class, they’re dressing differently, they’re not taking care of themselves, those are warning signs. And you can teach teens to identify that in their peers.
I already talked to the superintendent about it. I said that’s what I wanted to work with him on. And that was before the students [overdose]. It’s an absolute heartbreak. They weren’t killing themselves. It was an accident.
BHB: Recently, the proposal to use the Boyle Heights Sears building to house homeless people was scaled from 10,000 to 2,500 beds after protests from many residents. How will you deal with opposition from residents when a central part of your campaign to reduce homelessness is repurposing buildings in the city? Are you a proponent of the Sears project?
KB: By the way, all of your questions are excellent. I think that the problem is if that [the] developer came up with a plan for the community and then gave them the plan. I don’t think that’s the way you do it. I think you say: “I am going to buy the Sears building. Let’s talk about what we should do with it.” Or “I’m thinking of buying the Sears building to do X, Y, and Z. What do you think?” I think if the community had been brought in from the beginning, they might not be opposed. Now they might have come up with different ideas and different numbers. But they might not have been so opposed. I think he went about it the wrong way. And yes, I do hope that that building can be used for the unhoused. I do. But in what way, how many, all of that the community has to be [involved]. Our communities are particularly upset by that because if that Sears building had been located in the neighborhood where I am now, which is near Century City, that developer wouldn’t have thought about doing that. He would have tried to convince the residents, whatever it was going to be. We desperately, desperately need buildings for the unhoused. And so I hope it’s used for that. But I hope that the community and the developer can come to an agreement.
“Our communities need more resources. Not equal, they need more. Our housing stock is older, our infrastructure is older. And so consequently, we need more support. And that’s a real big commitment for me, is to fight for equity within a city, not equality.”
BHB: And would you have any idea of what that agreement might look like? What are some aspects of repurposing that you would be able to compromise with residents who might not want it at all?
KB: It’s not a matter of me. What I would hope for is that it could be used for unhoused people, for housing. [Part of it could be used to treat] substance [abuse], and other parts could be used for worker training. But that’s not my decision. You asked for my ideas, those are my thoughts. It’s up to the community.
BHB: So while you do support the project, you’re willing to scrap it if the community is completely opposed to it.
KB: If they’re opposed to it in the community, you can’t force that. And If [the developer] had thought about it differently… it’s really hard to come back from what he did. You know what I’m saying? Because the problem is that he blew up the trust that the community might have had. And then he doesn’t have the support of the councilman. And now the councilman is in trouble and probably will leave.
BHB: To follow up on the previous question: you have talked about creating both interim and permanent housing as a solution for homelessness. Aside from providing housing, can you talk about other plans you may have for unhoused people to get back on their feet?
KB: Sure. First of all, there are a lot of different categories of people who lose their housing. Some people in those tents work full time. They just can’t afford rent, and they might have a credit problem, or there might be some other reasons. Some of them are veterans. Thousands of the unhoused are children. Some of them are with their mothers, because their mothers were fleeing domestic violence. Some of them are former foster youth who we put out after they turn 18 or 21. Some of them were formerly incarcerated, some have substance abuse or mental health issues. I list those categories, because each category needs a different thing. It’s not enough just to get somebody in housing, you have got to take care of them while they’re in housing. There’s a stereotype that people who are unhoused are all meth addicts who want to be on the streets, and that’s not true.
BHB: As youth reporters and as residents of Boyle Heights, we know that community members are concerned about gang violence, and younger people don’t always feel comfortable around law enforcement. With the recent increase in the LAPD budget, do you think more funding would make communities like Boyle Heights feel safer amid a rise of crime?
KB: No. I think that for me, and again, I’m telling you my ideas, I would not impose this. But there are some communities that want to see more police. Traditionally, Boyle Heights and South central aren’t two communities that want to see more police. Now, maybe that’s changed. But I think that our communities want to see a deeper investment in the prevention programs. So of course, the most famous prevention program is Homeboy Industries, but there’s a lot of programs. What I’ve been doing in Congress is working to get money for those programs. And recently, I’m collaborating with Congressman Tony Cárdenas, from the Valley. And we’ve submitted a proposal for millions of dollars to fund these organizations because, I mean, this is one of the reasons why I want to be there. Because I feel like we’ve never really supported community-based organizations, we just give them a little bit of money, barely to survive.
BHB: You say certain communities feel safer with [more] police. And then, you know, Boyle Heights feels a little less safe. Do you think that’s a contradiction, if some communities get more police than others?
KB: I don’t think so. For example, the communities I’m talking about are the more affluent communities. I mean, as I’ve gone through South LA, nobody’s asking me for more police. I haven’t heard that. But I absolutely hear about more programs for our youth. The bottom line is, it’s not one size fits all.
BHB: Many students in LA are on the verge of taking out loans and applying for scholarships to pay for their college education. Recently, you made news for receiving a full-tuition scholarship that is tied to a federal corruption scandal. Why did you accept a scholarship for your master’s at USC when you had the salary of a congress representative?
KB: So my scholarship is not tied to an investigation of corruption. But my opponent, who has spent $72 million, can do and say anything. And so he has lied about who he is, and he has lied about who I am. I was on the faculty at USC for 15 years. And being a member of the faculty, we were awarded scholarships. Now they changed the rules after I left. The deans have the ability to give scholarships, and so they gave me one. My salary might sound like a lot of money, but I lived in two cities. I lived in Washington D.C and in Los Angeles, and I had to pay rent in two of the most expensive cities in the country.
The reason why I went to school was that I worked a lot in the foster care system trying to improve that system. And I wanted to be a better legislator. I don’t think most people go and get a social work degree so they can be rich. I went to school, and frankly, if I didn’t have the scholarship, I wouldn’t have been able to go to school.
The sad thing is that when you have a lot of money in a campaign, you can do and say anything.
BHB: Given that youth can’t vote and are usually not addressed in politics, how do you plan to engage them in this election and during your potential term as mayor?
KB: Well, I’m already engaging youth. We have a Youth for Bass component to the campaign. And they are teenagers from about 15 to early 20s. When I first became politically active, I was 14. So right now, the young people are preparing for a rally with Bernie Sanders. And I’ll let you guys know about it, if you’re interested, that’s going to be the last week of October. The youth just finished organizing the town hall a week ago. And they organized a series of events to get young people involved.
I have always involved young people in work that I’ve done and I will continue to do that as mayor. I involved young people when I was in the state assembly. I started an organization in Congress called the National Foster Youth Institute. And we work with young people in the foster care system, we bring about 100 of them to Washington DC every year, teach them about Congress and have them shadow members of Congress. So I have always believed that it is a very important part of my responsibility to prepare the next generation of leaders, which is why I would take the time to talk to a group of high school students like you, and why after I run this race, and hopefully win, I’d be happy to meet with you in person. I believe very, very deeply in investing and training the next generation of youth because I was very fortunate when I was your age. I had adults that helped promote my activism. And so I believe in doing that now.
BHB: So you talked about mental health as one of the root causes of drug abuse and homelessness. What do you plan to do as mayor to help those who are struggling with mental health issues?
KB: So I described what I would do with youth who are involved in school and I do recognize there’s a lot of people [with mental health issues] who aren’t in school. What I’m doing right now is working with Hilda Solís, your supervisor. We’re good friends. As a matter of fact, we were together just this week with President Biden here in LA. And Hilda Solís is trying to open up the old General Hospital building to be a hospital again, for mental health. And I’m working with her and the governor and the people in Washington, DC, to try to get that reopened. So that’s specifically what I’m doing. And I plan to do more if I win as mayor.
BHB: Thank you so much for taking these questions this morning.
KB: You’re very welcome. And let me just say I thought that all of your questions were outstanding.
Boyle Heights Beat reporters Dania Alejandres, Terra Alvarez, Angela Caliz, Adrian Casillas-Sáenz, James Chambers, Priscilla Cuevas, Diego Hernandez, Ethan Fernandez, Eimee Mendieta Soto, Kathryn Mora and Stephanie Pérez participated in the interview. Reporters April Aguilera and Karen Perez contributed to the story.
Read the Boyle Heights Beat interview with Rick Caruso:
Rick Caruso: to deal with gentrification, LA needs a mayor who knows how to build
In an interview with Boyle Heights Beat youth reporters, the mayoral candidate insisted on his pro-choice stand, said that Boyle Heights needs to be cleaner and safer, and accused his opponent Karen Bass of lacking experience to run the city