Rep. Karen Bass has made history as Los Angeles’ first female mayor, CNN projects, overcoming more than $104 million in spending by her rival Rick Caruso to win the race.
The six-term congresswoman, who represents south and west Los Angeles, was able to put together a strong coalition of Black voters in South Los Angeles and White progressives on the city’s west side to prevail over the shopping mall magnate.
In her campaign, Bass emphasized the depth of her policy experience and her reputation as collaborative listener and legislator. She also highlighted her early work as a physician assistant in the emergency room and her experience bringing together Black and Latino community organizers in South LA in the early 1990s to address the root causes of crime and the crack epidemic – work she did through the nonprofit she founded, Community Coalition.
Joe Biden had vetted Bass, the then-chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, to be his running mate in 2020 as she helped lead the negotiations on legislation to create greater police accountability following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
She had won the respect of her Democratic colleagues and her constituents with her decades of experience shaping public policy in areas like child welfare, foster care and prison reform.
Bass argued that her experience would give her a unique perspective and understanding of the problems with homelessness in Los Angeles. She said her experience in the emergency room had given her a depth of understanding of the problem that her primary rivals, including Caruso, did not have.
“I have a background in the medical field. I’ve worked with these patients,” she told CNN in an interview earlier this year. “I spent several years in the emergency room at (LA) county. My patients were homeless. My patients were mentally ill. They had substance abuse. I know these systems.”
She said she would declare a state of emergency on homelessness that would set a new tone on addressing the issue citywide: “It should be dealt with like a natural disaster,” she told CNN. “I’m really hoping that we begin to build a new spirit in this city, where people understand that this problem is everyone’s problem.”
She cast Caruso as a political opportunist who had registered as a Democrat merely to improve his chances of winning the office. Noting his past donations to conservative Republicans, she and her allies tried to raise questions about his support for abortion rights – criticism Caruso said was unfair, unfounded and an attack on his Catholic faith.
Caruso had toyed with the idea of running for mayor for years after serving in other civic roles, including as a city police commissioner and the former head of the USC Board of Trustees. One of his biggest hurdles was his history as a former Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat vying for the top job in an overwhelmingly Democratic city.
But he seized on the frustration that many of the city’s voters are feeling about homelessness, crime and corruption at City Hall – spending tens of millions of dollars of his own money on ads that portrayed him as a fixer with the executive credentials to address those problems and improve the city’s efficiency and responsiveness.
While Bass accused Caruso of trying to buy the mayor’s office as they vied to replace term-limited Mayor Eric Garcetti, Caruso suggested that she and other “career politicians” had been ineffective and that it would take an outsider to clean up the city’s streets and speed up efforts to shelter the homeless.
During the campaign, Bass also highlighted her role as a dealmaker when she led the California State Assembly after the 2008 financial crisis – making budget decisions that earned her a John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in 2010. She also made history in that role – becoming the first Black woman to serve as speaker of a state legislature in 2008.
This story has been updated with additional details.