Karen Bass was inaugurated a month ago as the first black woman to serve as Mayor of Los Angeles. I served as an advisor to her opponent in November’s general election, Rick Caruso. I think we all, regardless of who we supported, appreciate the historic nature of this event, and are rooting for Mayor Bass to be successful in tackling the many epically difficult and urgent problems our city faces.
The first few major decisions that Mayor Bass has had the opportunity to make since the election results were confirmed make it hard to know how she will govern. Some announcements, like her emergency declaration on homelessness (something Caruso also promised to do if elected) show a genuine and sincere intent to get started quickly on addressing the quagmire we’re in on that front.
The big question though, regardless of her good intentions, is whether she will be effective in actually implementing substantive changes and reforms. The fact she allowed some of former Mayor Eric Garcetti’s staff the opportunity to stay on the job through April 2023 make me question whether she has the willingness or resolve to do what’s needed even if it’s uncomfortable or difficult.
A perfect example of the type of tough, unapologetic decision-making that’s needed here in LA is the recent news out of New York City from their Mayor, Eric Adams. Adams, an African American Democrat, announced (despite overwhelming pressure from the liberal intelligentsia and establishment not to) that he would involuntarily commit those of the homeless on the streets of New York who have mental health problems and engage in erratic and sometimes violent behavior.
I’m not necessarily advocating that LA do exactly what New York is doing. I’m not familiar with all the intricacies and nuances of Mayor Adams’ plan. But I do know that any chance we’ve got of finally solving this colossal disaster of homelessness will take a willingness from our political leaders and from the public to make tough decisions and do what’s right, which doesn’t always fall in line with mainstream thinking or what’s easy or popular.
I fully recognize that the position of LA Mayor is very distinct from that of the Mayor of New York; it’s structured in a different way and has disparate levels of authority and power. The main difference is that it’s the Los Angeles County Supervisors that have more power of government policies than the Mayor of LA. That separate, broader and larger system which sometimes usurps the city makes it harder for the LA Mayor to effectively implement their agenda.
But, as Rick Caruso himself said during the mayoral campaign, the Mayor does have a large platform on which to exert political pressure and influence public opinion. The Mayor is a high profile figure who can advocate for certain policies and shape the context and narrative. I urge Mayor Bass to use her bully pulpit to fight for smart and effective, solutions-focused policies instead of paying heed to those who are more interested in ideological purity and political correctness than results.
I have been a committed, strident Democrat for as long as I can remember. When given a choice, I have almost always voted for the more progressive candidate. I voted for Gavin Newsom over Antonio Villaraigosa for Governor of California in the 2018 Democratic primary; I voted for the more liberal alternative, Kevin De Leon (long before the racist audio tape leak) when he ran against Dianne Feinstein for the Democratic Senate nomination that same year.
I strongly believe that, given the roadblocks in front of us, that we need bold, forceful, unapologetic progressive leaders in office as opposed those (like Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, for instance) who defend the status quo by refusing to support real reforms that will tangibly improve people’s lives. While at first glance Rick Caruso may not have seem like the most obviously conventionally progressive choice, I firmly believed that he would be most effective in actually achieving the big goals that many Democrats passionately care about- change and progress on solving homelessness and providing responsive, competent and efficient government co-operation to underserved communities that may not have sway among city elites but desperately need help and support.
I know many were puzzled that someone like me, a vocal gay activist from the age of 14, would endorse and work for someone like Rick. I remember when back in July I organized a tour for him of the LGBT Center in Hollywood. Just like he said to the folks we met during our tour, I believed that instead of just spouting out the politically correct, often toothless and purely performative “woke” word salad we hear from many politicians, that he would actually deliver for our community and truly address homelessness and crime, issues that disproportionately impact the LGBTQ+ community.
I hope Mayor Bass has the courage to take on the establishment and the voices who falsely claim the mantle of progressivism but actually are just extreme and driven by ideology versus the public good. Since when did it become the compassionate or liberal position to be all right with people living on the street and mentally ill people running around, engaging in sometimes violent acts against innocent pedestrians?
There’s also the fact that Bass’s actions so far fail to address the public safety component of this issue, likely because of pressure from those in the “defund the police” crowd who have a lot of sway in LA politics these days, having just elected 3 new members of the Los Angeles City Council. The new city controller, Kenneth Meija, is also amongst their ranks. The only way we are going to effectively solve this problem is by supporting law enforcement while also addressing the systemic reforms that are needed to prevent police overreach. Both can be done simultaneously, but I’m afraid Mayor Bass is showing timidity in this area, which is exactly the wrong approach in the face of extremism.
The Democratic Party and progressive movement needs to do seriously re-evaluate their position because even though Caruso lost the election in November, he still won 45% of the vote- almost half the city which shows that a lot of people, many of whom like me are Democrats, are clamoring for a change in direction. The Democratic Party can’t afford to continue this irrational head in the sand stubbornness and timidity. If we do we risk continuing the trend of losing seats in places like Long Island, New York which handed Republicans the House majority. The safety of the public is what matters above all else, and many voters don’t feel that has been Democrats’ top priority at times.
In short: in order to solve what is a gigantic humanitarian crisis of homelessness that exists in Los Angeles, across California and in every major city in this country, it will require leadership that puts real, substantive action ahead of political trends or triangulation. That kind of leadership is hard to find in public life these days, but I sincerely pray that Mayor Bass steps up to the plate and lives up to this historically challenging moment. God knows LA needs it.
James Duke Mason is a writer, activist and political commentator who served as a special advisor to Rick Caruso’s campaign for Mayor of Los Angeles.