Karen Bass becomes first woman to be elected mayor of Los Angeles

The Democratic congresswoman prevailed over billionaire developer Rick Caruso after a week of uncertainty in the vote count

Karen Bass addressing supporters on the night of the midterms, on November 8.
Karen Bass addressing supporters on the night of the midterms, on November 8.Jae C. Hong (AP)

Karen Bass, a 69-year-old Black woman, made history on Wednesday by becoming the first female mayor of Los Angeles in its 241-year history. The Associated Press called the race, declaring the Democratic congresswoman the winner after a week of uncertainty following the midterm elections of November 8. The first few hours after the vote showed Bass tied with billionaire developer Rick Caruso. One week later, after factoring in the mail vote, Bass’s advantage over Caruso has been increasing, making the trend irreversible.

The milestone puts California’s largest city on a par with other major urban centers in the United States, including Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, Houston and Boston, which have all had women leaders. In addition, Bass will be the second African-American to occupy City Hall after the long-serving Tom Bradley, who stepped down in 1993 after 20 years in the mayor’s office.

Caruso, 63, failed despite pumping more than $100 million of his own fortune into the effort. His investment was 10 times larger than what Bass managed to secure through donations. Caruso, a former Republican who registered as a Democrat this year, campaigned on a message of law-and-order in a bastion of progressive politics, but it resonated with voters who believe that Los Angeles has been in a state of advanced deterioration for years.

Caruso promised to clean the city of crime and reduce the homelessness problem, one of the worst in the west of the country. Bass, however, challenged this claim during the race, noting that in decades of working as a real estate developer, Caruso had not built a single residential unit for the working classes.

The battle between both candidates became particularly intense during the last weeks of the campaign, an indicator that the initial advantage of several points was closing. In an attempt to discredit his rival, Caruso linked Bass to the controversial Church of Scientology, which the politician had given a favorable speech about. Bass accused the businessman of keeping quiet about a sexual abuse scandal when he was on the board of trustees at the University of Southern California, USC. On election day, the distance between the two was less than 3,000 votes. This difference has been growing, and Bass now leads by approximately 10,000 votes.

Bass is a veteran politician with experience as a social worker and community leader. Her victory comes at a crucial moment for the Los Angeles City Council, weakened by a scandal that exposed the power struggle between Latino and African-American councilmembers. Bass strongly condemned the racist statements of the politicians involved (who supported her run for office). Now she will have to work to heal the wounds in a city where racial tensions can flare up at any time.

Bass has been in Washington for 11 years as part of the progressive bloc in Congress. She is one of the women closest to President Joe Biden, who once considered her a vice-presidential candidate, a role that ultimately went to another California politician, Kamala Harris.

Bass was born in South Los Angeles and grew up in the downtown Fairfax area. For years she has represented the 37th district of California, a densely populated area of the city that is home to neighborhoods such as Baldwin Hills, where her own home is located and viewed as the African-American Beverly Hills. Nearby neighborhoods such as Crenshaw and Inglewood are also home to many Black Angelinos, who represent 9% of the region’s diverse ethnic makeup.

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