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Rep. Karen Bass Is On The Short List To Be Joe Biden's Running Mate

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Maybe we could call this part of the program, they could be vice president. We are meeting some of the people on Democrat Joe Biden's short list of potential running mates. And this morning, we get to know Representative Karen Bass. She's a Democrat whose district includes a good bit of Los Angeles. She's the daughter of a postal worker. She supports universal health care. She's an advocate of gun control and wants to reform the criminal justice system. She's also chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. I started by asking if she would describe herself and her political goals.

KAREN BASS: I would describe myself as a lifelong activist committed to fighting for social and economic justice my entire life.

GREENE: Some have described you as more of a progressive than a moderate. Is that an assessment that you're claiming?

BASS: Yes. Absolutely. Proud.

GREENE: At the same time, you had this veteran conservative commentator recently, George Will, come out and back you and say that he would love to see you as Joe Biden's running mate. Why do you think someone like George Will would see you as the best choice for that job?

BASS: Well, not even speaking about the job, I think what Mr. Will was referring to is my willingness to work with anyone and everyone to achieve the goal of change.

GREENE: I want to ask you one other thing that George Will wrote. He said he knows an admirer of yours who said she's not someone who bristles. And this person also said that they had never heard you raise your voice. Do you never raise your voice?

BASS: No. I do not. I think that's unacceptable. If I raise my voice, it's either because I'm joking or need to contact somebody that's far away. I think it's absolutely unacceptable to have an adult temper tantrum.

GREENE: This feels like such an angry moment for a lot of people. And, I mean, I know you have guided your community in California through some angry moments, I mean, in the wake of police violence against African Americans - Rodney King's beating, the Watts riots. And we're at this - you know, another moment in our country. What do you say to people who say, with respect, this is a moment to raise voices?

BASS: Well, not Watts, by the way. I was just a child (laughter). But...

GREENE: Sorry. I mean, you lived through it. I apologize.

BASS: I did. I did live through it. I just don't think that's productive. I mean, what do I produce by screaming and yelling? What does that get me? Again, I am so laser-focused on making a very serious difference for people. So you know, yelling and screaming might make me feel good. But how does that help anyone? And so I think I can be extremely effective with, again, not having an adult temper tantrum. I just don't think it's acceptable behavior.

GREENE: The people who are on the streets crying out for racial justice in cities like Portland, Ore., and elsewhere, are - do you support them being out there very angry and raising their voices?

BASS: Well, oh, absolutely. Let me just tell you that the reason, in my opinion, why we were able to get the George Floyd Justice in Policing Bill even brought up in the House, let alone being passed, is because people were on the street protesting. I think that's an extremely important role. But let me draw a very big distinction between that and the violence that we're seeing, because one of the things that really concerns me about Portland and some of the other cities is that I'm not really sure what the agenda is.

And I'm really worried that it's going to have a negative effect on African Americans because if you look up at Portland, that's not - those aren't African Americans protesting. Now, they might be protesting on behalf of Black Lives Matter. But when they're setting fire to things, when they're vandalizing things, I really worry that that's going to have a backlash that's going to hurt Black people because we are going to be held responsible for what's going on when it's not even Black people that are doing it.

GREENE: You've said that defund the police, which has been part of this rallying cry right now, is not an effective slogan. Why is that? And is there a different rallying cry under which you think people could gather?

BASS: Well, let me just tell you that I think that the whole defund movement has raised such an important issue. I say it differently. I say refund. I say refund the communities because the whole point is that over the last 30 years, we have had no problem pouring however amount of money into police, into prisons, into jails, while we have cut funding for social services and, in particular, for mental health. Why don't we help people, as opposed to - why do we criminalize mental illness, which is what we have done? Why do we criminalize poverty? Why do we criminalize people who have social and economic issues? So we need to reinvest in our communities. And I completely agree with that.

GREENE: I want to ask you, if I can, about one fire you put out recently. You walked back a comment you had made some years ago after Cuban leader Fidel Castro died. You sort of praised him at the time of his death, calling him comandante en jefe - commander and chief. And some Florida Democrats are deeply worried that this could hurt not just your efforts, but also Joe Biden's efforts to battle the socialist label. I mean, what do you think of the word socialist?

BASS: Well, I mean, I think that Joe Biden is going to be called a socialist. I think the entire Democratic party is going to be called a socialist. I think that that is rhetoric on the right wing that is red meat in the same way now that the president is talking about law and order. He is trying to do everything he can to be divisive racially. So his message to the suburbs is complete racial coding. I think he's going back to messages of the past. And a socialist label of the Democratic Party is going back to the Cold War. I believe that what is happening in Florida now that is the No. 1 concern is the pandemic that is completely out of control because you have a governor who's a mini-me to the president, who has used denial as a strategy. And people in Florida are dying. I think that's the most important issue.

Now, I was clear in terms of my comments that you won't hear that again. Lesson learned. But I just think that, you know, to brand me or anyone else with that label is just Cold War rhetoric that is targeting a specific population, and that's the population that remembers and lived through the Cold War. The racial coding of law and order is also to target a specific population, a population that is being led to believe that the reason why they are experiencing economic insecurity is because of people of color.

GREENE: Representative Bass, real pleasure talking to you. We really appreciate the time. Thank you so much.

BASS: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAMASI WASHINGTON'S "CONNECTIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.