Saturday, May 25, 2024

Seven Takeaways From Karen Bass’ First 50 Days

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On Sunday, December 11, Vice President Kamala Harris administered the oath of office to Karen Bass. That was 50 days ago.

It has been an eventful 1,200 hours or so for the city’s 43rd mayor (and first female chief executive). There has been a mix of planned moves and unpredictable events that demanded her reaction. Bass has been on the go and in the spotlight from the moment of her inauguration

Fifty days is not enough time to judge her performance, and it would be foolish to predict how she will fare in the long run, but the period does provide a sense of what kind of mayor she is, and how she operates in a job that no other position—even being a member of Congress for a decade—adequately prepares one for. Here are some takeaways.

She’s Good at Branding

During her inauguration speech in the Microsoft Theater, Bass uttered the phrase “lock arms” multiple times, describing her coalition-building strategy to address homelessness. She has frequently deployed it since, sort of an effort to speak an operative mission into existence. Others are picking it up—during last Monday’s event announcing the new head of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, not only did Bass say “lock arms,” but so did incoming LAHSA leader La Vecia Adams Kellum and County Supervisor Janice Hahn.

It may seem trivial, but branding matters, as it helps define what a leader cares about, particularly for the large portion of the populace that doesn’t pay close attention to politics. Recall how early in his mayoralty Eric Garcetti frequently evoked his “Back to Basics” mantra. Forget all that transpired later—the public understood his initial nuts-and-bolts agenda.

So it is with Bass and “lock arms.” I’m kinda surprised the phrase hasn’t yet appeared on Bass-branded buttons and T-shirts.

That Coalition Thing Is Real

During the campaign, Bass supporters rah-rah’ed her as a coalition builder. They touted her founding the South L.A. social justice nonprofit the Community Coalition, the cat-herding skills she employed as Speaker of the State Assembly, and her work dealing with the many egos and agendas in Congress.

The tactic has continued in her first 50 days as mayor, as Bass has indeed assembled a coalition to combat homelessness. On her first day in office she declared a State of Emergency, and got the City Council to get behind her, including providing $50 million. She marched over to a meeting of the County Board of Supervisors to speak with the officials who, crucially, oversee regional health and mental health efforts (and they have a lot of money available). They, too, declared a State of Emergency. And she’s been working with state and federal officials (who have even more money).

This is not to pretend the crisis is solved or close to it, but creating a unified front—with cash and resources behind it—is key.

She Is Open to More Than Permanent Housing

Bass, like Garcetti before her, knows the city needs hundreds of thousands of new residential units, and she has launched efforts to speed up affordable housing permitting and construction. Crucially, she is also taking aim at the most salient element of the homelessness crisis: encampments.

Her Inside Safe initiative may be the most important component of the city’s response, and it doesn’t rely on permanent supportive housing. Instead, it seeks to get people out of tents and into hotels, motels or other short-term solutions so they can receive services and embark on the path to gaining a longterm home. This is nothing new—Garcetti did it with his Bridge Home projects, and politicians including Kevin de León and former Councilman Mitch O’Farrell each got hundreds of people into Tiny Homes Villages in their districts. But Bass, as the mayor, has drawn copious attention for getting people in Venice and Hollywood into temporary housing.

These are baby steps, as Inside Safe has gotten about 120 people off the streets—this in a city with nearly 42,000 people experiencing homelessness. Plus, when some encampments disappear, others pop up nearby.

But her public push for temporary housing solutions is notable.

The Wins Are Limited

Bass is earning headlines for her public-facing efforts, but some smart city observers I have spoken with are waiting for much more. There have been questions about whether the response to homelessness would have been broader if Bass’ vanquished foe Rick Caruso had become mayor. There are also concerns about a slow pace to name people to important committees and boards, and to fill out her staff.

No one is slamming her—it’s more an attempt to not get swayed by the new mayor hype. There remains limited patience and a demand for widespread, concrete and forceful action.

She Can Tamp Down Controversy

Remember that flare of controversy amid an effort to fast track a second term for Police Chief Michel Moore? The matter has already quieted, and that didn’t happen by accident. I don’t know the behind-the-scenes machinations, but I do know that this could have gotten loud and uncomfortable, and other mayors might have blown it up—intentionally or accidentally. One has to assume that Bass, who selects the members of the Police Commission, helped slow the process. Moore is now on a measured campaign to convince the public he deserves a second term. Keeping this low key as the city wrestles with greater challenges is better for Bass.

She Is Kind of a Mystery

We are seeing a lot of Bass, but does the public really feel like they know her personally or have a strong sense of what is important to her beyond politics? I don’t think so. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and she is likable, which counts. But this public figure feels awfully private. It will be interesting to see if this perception changes over time.

She Seems to Understand Leadership

What’s the most important task for a mayor? Right now addressing homelessness is topic one, and keeping the economy afloat through a potential coming recession will be vital. But being mayor is also about being a capital letter L Leader. The job involves making Angelenos excited about the L.A.’s potential, but also calming the populace at moments of crisis.

Bass seems to grasp that the position is about more than policy and Inside Safe. She spoke up in the wake of the tragedy in Monterey Park. She was public after the horror in Memphis and, when speaking with Elex Michaelson on FOX 11, she had the right level of gravitas while also being able to reference the need for police reform that she pushed while in Congress.

Leadership expectations will change as 50 days in office moves to 100, and then beyond as her mayoral honeymoon ends. But Bass so far understands Los Angeles’ mood. That’s no small thing.

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