Karen Bass’ first act as LA’s mayor: Declaring homelessness an emergency
By Soumya Karlamangla and Katie Rogers
Karen Bass was sworn in as the first female mayor of Los Angeles on Sunday and vowed to build consensus among elected leaders as Angelenos contend with racial tensions, surging homelessness and a new rise in coronavirus cases.
Vice President Kamala Harris swore in Bass in a ceremony that celebrated her historic win but also underscored the obstacles she will face. Bass said that her first act as mayor Monday would be to declare a state of emergency on homelessness.
“If we are going to bring Angelenos inside and move our city in a new direction,” Bass said during her inaugural speech, which was interrupted by protesters at one point, “we must have a single strategy to unite our city and county and engage the state, the federal government, the private sector and every other stakeholder.”
Bass, a former Democratic congresswoman who was on the shortlist to be President Joe Biden’s 2020 running mate, won election against Rick Caruso, a billionaire real estate developer, in a hard-fought race that remained too close to call until a week after the election.
Los Angeles, a city of 4 million people, has been rocked by a surge in post-pandemic homelessness and violent crime, prompting an outcry from citizens who say their quality of life has spiraled in recent years. A citywide poll conducted early this year by the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University found that for the first time since 2012, a majority of Angelenos felt the city was going in the wrong direction.
The coronavirus itself also remains a scourge: Officials at the event required attendees to wear masks amid an alarming rise in case numbers in the city.
Bass, 69, said she entered the race because the heightened racial divisions and civic unease reminded her of the unrest that preceded the riots that tore the city apart in 1992. In September, her home was burglarized. Bass, who has long been an advocate for liberal crime-prevention policies, promised during her campaign to put more police officers on the streets.
She has also promised to declare a state of emergency on homelessness and find homes for 17,000 homeless people in her first year. In practice, she will have to rely on a broad coalition of city and county officials to enact any sweeping plans to bolster social service programs. According to a September report from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, about 69,000 people are experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County.
Fesia Davenport, CEO of Los Angeles County, attended Bass’ swearing-in ceremony. She said she was hopeful that the new mayor would collaborate with the county to help address homelessness.
Davenport said she did not usually attend political events but made an exception this time.
“I wanted to help celebrate and commemorate this momentous occasion,” Davenport said. “I really feel like she has signaled that she’s willing to tackle the really tough issues, not just manage them.”
Although voters have said they are frustrated and cynical about whether a course correction is possible, thousands gathered at the Microsoft Theater on Sunday to celebrate the election of the first woman to lead the city and the second Black mayor after Tom Bradley, who retired in 1993 as the longest-tenured executive in Los Angeles history. Bass is the latest in a growing number of women who have been elected to local leadership positions.
The ceremony featured musicians including Stevie Wonder — whose performance of “Living for the City” brought the new mayor to her feet — Chloe Bailey and the duo Mary Mary. The event also featured a reading from poet Amanda Gorman, who ended with a line that drew a standing ovation: “Where there’s a will, there is women, and where there’s women, there’s forever a way.”
Attendees wore rain jackets and carried umbrellas as they waited to go through security. Some were decked out in suits, others in sequins and Santa hats. While the lines wound through the L.A. Live complex, guests held out their phones to snap selfies in front of the theater’s marquee, showing Bass’ smiling face and her motto: “A New Day for Los Angeles.”
Earle Charles, a professor at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, approached the front of the line for his first mayoral inauguration in Los Angeles, where he has lived for almost four decades. He said he is a longtime supporter of Bass’ and trusts her to carry through on her campaign promises.
“One of the first things, of course, is to take care of the homeless situation,” said Charles, 69, who lives in Granada Hills in the San Fernando Valley. “To me, that’s the primary issue.”
Other attendees agreed that homelessness should be at the top of the new mayor’s agenda. Bertha Scott-Smith, 54, said she felt as if Bass’ predecessor, Eric Garcetti, had not had the easiest time making real progress on the issue.
“I hope she doesn’t meet that same pushback,” said Scott-Smith, who lives in the historically Black neighborhood of Leimert Park.
She said Bass’ inauguration felt like a historic moment, particularly with Harris attending.
Harris — the first female vice president, the first woman of color to hold her job, a former California attorney general and a former senator — flew to Los Angeles for the occasion with a planeload of Democrats. The roster included Delegate Stacey Plaskett of the Virgin Islands and Reps. Frederica Wilson of Florida, Bobby Rush of Illinois, Nanette Barragán of California and Tony Cárdenas of California.
Kirsten Allen, Harris’ spokesperson, said Bass had asked Harris to swear her in.
“The vice president is invested in her success and knows what she’s up against,” Allen said, “and will do what she needs to do to make sure she’s successful.”
At the ceremony, Tamaqua Jackson, wrapped in a beret and a scarf, said she believed in Bass’ ability to tackle homelessness and also help heal a splintered city.
“She seems like she can bring Los Angeles together as one,” Jackson said, adding she would like to see Bass “clean up” the City Council, which has been besieged by controversy in recent months.
Jackson, 48, has lived in Los Angeles all her life, but this was her first mayoral inauguration, she said. She said Harris’ appearance added to the appeal of attending in person.
“That’s another high for me: To actually see two people I’ve voted for in person is awesome,” said Jackson, who works as a commercial driver. “Go, women!”