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California Democratic Rep. Karen Bass has served as chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus since 2019, after the 2018 midterm elections swept in the most diverse Congress in U.S. history, including a record 25 Black women.
During the 2020 election cycle, Bass’ profile rose as one of the six Black women on the shortlist to become then-Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s running mate, a process that required her to navigate racial and gendered narratives, and that ultimately led to the historic selection of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
Harris heading to the White House leaves the Senate with no Black women, and Bass is among those rumored to be a potential successor. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, will fill Harris’ vacancy, but the timing is not clear, as she has not yet stepped down. Bass’ name has also been mentioned for potential cabinet roles, including Housing and Urban Development secretary, Health and Human Services secretary or U.N. Ambassador.
The 19th’s editor-at-large, Errin Haines, spoke to Bass on Friday about her future as she prepares to step down as CBC chair, and what’s next for Black women in political leadership in the wake of an election that saw them in prominent roles as voters, candidates, organizers and elected officials.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The 19th: We’re so focused on what Black women’s political leadership has meant in 2020, so looking ahead to 2021, talk about some of the Black women in the House who you think could be elevated as a result of appointments that could be made in a Biden-Harris administration.
Karen Bass: Oh, sure. [Ohio Democratic Rep.] Marcia Fudge for secretary of Agriculture, [Illinois Democratic Rep.] Robin Kelly has a long history [and could be considered for secretary of] Health and Human Services, she heads up our Health Braintrust. Now, we don’t want to deplete too many people, but I would start with those two. [Michigan Democratic Rep.] Brenda Lawrence could be postmaster general; she’s got a long history of working for the U.S. Postal Service. [Texas Democratic Rep.] Sheila Jackson Lee for Homeland Security. [Alabama Democratic Rep.] Terri Sewell for Treasury or Commerce.
You have a relationship with President-elect Biden. Are these names that you are passing along to him as he is thinking about the transition?
Oh, that’s a very good question. We are in the middle of that right now. As a matter of fact, in 30 minutes, we have a phone call with the transition team. So we’re compiling African American appointees, period.
I want to ask you about Black women who could potentially be elevated to the Senate. Vice President-elect Harris is the only Black woman in the Senate and her vacancy is going to create an opening. Are there other potential cabinet appointments that could create vacancies in the Senate that you think could be filled by a Black woman?
[Delaware Rep.] Lisa Blunt Rochester, I would think she would be number one because of [Delaware Democratic Sen.] Chris Coons, if he becomes secretary of state or national security advisor.
Speaking of Vice President-elect Harris, her vacancy would mean that there would be no Black women in the Senate. Do you think that her vacancy should be filled by a Black woman specifically?
Sure, of course. I think that it will leave a vacuum to not have a Black woman there. And there are members of the [California] Legislative Black Caucus and other Black leaders that are calling for that. The main problem we’re talking about here is diversifying the Senate, a body that really was only diverse at one time in history for a very short period of time.
I mean, obviously, your name has come up for this, so I have to ask you if this is a job that you want, or that you would be interested in?
You know, I’ll tell you, there’s three of us from California, and two of our names have been put forward: Barbara Lee and myself. Barbara Lee and I have a lifelong history of serving, and I know either one of us would be willing and happy to serve in whatever capacity is needed, especially at this point in time.
Your term as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus ends in January. What are the prospects for Black women in leadership in the House in this next Congress?
Well, you should know that there are Black women running for leadership right now. Robin Kelly is running to be vice chair of the [Democratic] caucus. Brenda Lawrence is running for a seat that is reserved for someone in Congress who has served five terms or less.
A Black woman has never been elected to leadership in the House. Barbara Lee was appointed by Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi to be the co-chair of steering and policy, but there has never been a Black woman elected.
Why is it time for that to change now?
I think that the nation has seen the role the Black women play in our country, in our Democratic party, and in our Democratic Caucus. It is surprising that hasn’t happened before, but it hasn’t and it certainly should.