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Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times
Erika D. Smith

Erika D. Smith: Representation matters. But a Mayor Karen Bass means more for Black women in LA

Watching Karen Bass be given her flowers for becoming the first woman and only the second Black person to be elected mayor of Los Angeles, I can't help but think of how much has changed in California over the past two years.

For it was in December 2020 that I had a long conversation with then-Assemblymember Shirley Weber about the "bleak" state of political power for Black women in this proudly liberal and diverse state.

At the time, she was irritated. Joe Biden, then the president-elect, had selected Kamala Harris to be his vice president, leaving her seat in the U.S. Senate vacant. Gov. Gavin Newsom was leaning toward picking then- Secretary of State Alex Padilla to replace her (and eventually did).

But Weber and a long list of other Black leaders were demanding that Newsom pick another Black woman — Bass or Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland — instead. The San Diego Democrat told me about how hard it is for Black women to get elected to positions of real power in California, especially statewide.

And "if you don't have a seat at the table," she lamented, "then you're on the menu."

Back then, Black women in California were very much on the menu. But no longer.

Bass will soon be sworn in as mayor of the state's largest city after beating billionaire businessman Rick Caruso. Initially, it had appeared to be a close race. Then the vote-by-mail ballots started rolling in.

"This is my home, and with my whole heart, I'm ready to serve, and my pledge to you is that we will hit the ground running on Day One," Bass said in a statement after she was declared the victor on Wednesday night. "I am honored and humbled that the people have chosen me to be the next mayor of Los Angeles."

Her winning is a big deal. Not just because of the ceilings that the 69-year-old congresswoman is shattering, but because Bass was victorious despite Caruso spending more than $100 million to saturate L.A. in advertising and send canvassers door to door for votes.

Bass said that she "received a gracious call" from Caruso and hopes — as I do — that he "continues his civic participation in the city that we both love."

On Tuesday, Malia Cohen was officially elected state controller, winning a surprisingly competitive race with Republican Lahnee Chen. She will be the first Black person to serve in the position.

"As your controller, I will make sure our tax dollars address the homelessness crisis, protect our environment, and provide access to healthcare and reproductive freedom," Cohen said in a statement. "Let's build a California where everyone thrives."

And Weber is now California's secretary of state — appointed by Newsom. That's two Black women who hold statewide elected positions, up from one when Harris was attorney general and then a U.S. senator.

There's also Sydney Kamlager, the state senator who was elected this month to replace Bass in Congress. She joins Lee and longtime Rep. Maxine Waters.

In San Francisco, Brooke Jenkins held onto her job as San Francisco district attorney, beating former Police Commissioner John Hamasaki. She was first appointed by Mayor London Breed, another Black woman.

In Los Angeles County, Holly Mitchell is a member of the powerful Board of Supervisors and could, at some point, be chair.

And, of course, Harris is the first woman of Black and South Asian descent to serve as the nation's vice president.

Many of these Black women joined Bass on the campaign trail, pushing to get more Black women into elected office just as Weber was so determined to do in 2020. This includes Harris.

"Karen Bass has a long history of always being on the side of the people and fighting for the people whose voices aren't in the room but must be present," Harris said last week at UCLA. "That's who Karen Bass has always been. It's what she will always be and that's why she will be the next mayor."

But that's the irony of what's happened since I spoke with Weber in December 2020. Black women are becoming more powerful politically, but Black women overall — like far too many people in California — are feeling more powerless. This is especially true in Los Angeles.

As Black women, we're disproportionately poor, disproportionately unhoused, disproportionately underemployed, disproportionately the victims of crimes, disproportionately overpoliced, disproportionately lacking access to healthcare.

Representation matters. Having a seat at the table matters. But not nearly as much as using it to bring about change in the lives of people — all people — as so many Black women in elected office have promised to do.

Bass made that promise again on Wednesday night:

"Los Angeles is the greatest city on earth," she said in a statement. "I know, if we come together, hold each other accountable, and focus on the best of who we are and what we can achieve, we can create better neighborhoods today and a better future for our children."

If she can pull that off, that would be true Black girl magic.


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