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Joe Biden's Potential Running Mate: Who Is Karen Bass?


California Congresswoman Karen Bass was a relative unknown on the national stage until recently, and now she's believed to be among the contenders to be Joe Biden's running mate. A former community organizer and head of the Congressional Black Caucus, she's gaining support not just as a VP hopeful but as a leader in the party as NPR's Kelsey Snell reports.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: There are a lot of hard-edge leadership styles in Washington, demanding, cajoling and will-bending types. Karen Bass says she approaches things a little differently.

KAREN BASS: And the work that I do is anchored in pushing for social and economic justice. I believe in working in a very collaborative, collective work style, which means that it's team driven. It's never personality driven.

SNELL: It's a style Bass says she developed in Los Angeles in the 1980s. At the time, she co-founded an organization aimed at fighting addiction, crime and poverty in the community. Congresswoman Barbara Lee, a fellow California Democrat, says she remembers meeting Bass in the 1990s. Lee was in the state assembly and Bass was lobbying for liquor store regulations to keep kids from buying alcohol.

BARBARA LEE: She was really a community organizer, but she also knew how to strategically work within the system, within a legislative body, to get a bill passed.

SNELL: When a state legislative seat opened up, Lee says Bass was the only person on most lists for who should run. She became the first Black woman to lead a state assembly, was elected to Congress in 2011 and was picked to chair the Congressional Black Caucus in 2018. But when it comes to being Biden's running mate, some colleagues privately acknowledge that she lacks a national profile and hasn't been tested for this kind of role. But they say her background in activism and social justice make her a logical fit for Biden's list as the country grapples with racial injustice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.


NANCY PELOSI: We are blessed to be led by the CBC chair, Karen Bass, who brings 47 years of leadership advocating for racial justice and an end to police brutality.

SNELL: That's House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the steps of the Capitol explaining why she chose Bass to lead Democrats in rewriting the nation's policing standards. The surge of attention in America on social and racial justice has created a unique moment for Democrats. At least four Black women in Congress are rumored to be on Biden's list. But Bass says any attempt to frame this as a competition or a cutthroat showdown are unfair and reductive. South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn, who was an influential voice in the Democratic Party and was one of the first people to float Bass as a vice presidential contender, says women and African Americans are a critical part of the Democratic coalition.

JIM CLYBURN: The party is supposed to guarantee opportunity, and this party has guaranteed opportunity for women.

SNELL: Bass may be in the vice presidential mix, but unlike some of the others, she hasn't worked closely with Biden. Critics say she also lacks a strong background in foreign policy. It's a shortcoming that led to a dust-up with Florida Democrats over a seemingly supportive statement she made about former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. She walked that back, but critics say it could hurt her appeal in a key battleground state. Bass wouldn't say if she's campaigning for vice president, but Lee says Bass is well equipped to lead the party even if it's not from the White House.

LEE: She understands the moment that we're in and that we must seize the time on behalf of not only our communities, communities of color, but for the entire country.

SNELL: Democrats say one benefit of the vice presidential search is that it's elevating women leaders like Bass to the national stage. Kelsey Snell, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.
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