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Karen Bass and Kevin McCarthy are old political pals. Does that mean anything anymore?

LA Times logo LA Times 1/20/2023 Melanie Mason, Benjamin Oreskes
Then-Reps. Kevin McCarthy and Karen Bass embrace during a ceremony in 2019 to mark the 400th anniversary of the first recorded forced arrival in the U.S. of enslaved African people. (Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images) © (Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images) Then-Reps. Kevin McCarthy and Karen Bass embrace during a ceremony in 2019 to mark the 400th anniversary of the first recorded forced arrival in the U.S. of enslaved African people. (Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images)

Several days after the November election, two Californians in political limbo chatted on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Bakersfield Rep. Kevin McCarthy was waiting on a handful of uncalled congressional races to determine if his wish for a GOP majority, and eventually, the speaker's gavel, would come true. At that moment, however, another contest was on his mind.

“He asked me if I had won" the mayoral election, "and I told him, ‘not yet,’" recalled Karen Bass, who had returned to Washington to pack up her condo, while back in Los Angeles thousands of ballots had yet to be counted. But, she informed him, the odds of beating her rival, Rick Caruso, were looking good.

"I bet you didn't know he contributed to me," McCarthy teased her.

Reps. Karen Bass and Kevin McCarthy talk as Rep. Dennis Kucinich looks on before a 9/11 congressional remembrance ceremony on Sept. 11, 2012. (Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call) © (Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call) Reps. Karen Bass and Kevin McCarthy talk as Rep. Dennis Kucinich looks on before a 9/11 congressional remembrance ceremony on Sept. 11, 2012. (Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call)

"Oh, yes, I knew," shot back Bass, whose campaign had gleefully and repeatedly tied Caruso to McCarthy and other Republicans in her advertising.

"We put you in all our mail. We put you in all our TV," she said as they laughed at the thought of McCarthy starring in Bass' attack ads.

It’s hard to imagine in these times of bitter partisan antagonism, but the top House Republican and the Democratic mayor of Los Angeles are friends. Not in the Washington sense, where "my friend" borders on insult, but a genuine affinity that has spanned two decades and both coasts.

The next two years will test whether that kind of personal chemistry can still yield substantive accomplishments. Bass' hope to win additional federal support for the city's battle against homelessness could be stymied by McCarthy's political vulnerabilities to an ascendant Republican right wing that sees deep-blue cities largely as rhetorical punching bags.

McCarthy has kept up the partisan attacks on Democrats, including fellow Californians such as Reps. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) and Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin). Still, Bass, who returned to Washington last week for the first time since becoming mayor, is undeterred.

When McCarthy finally won the speakership, after a protracted 15 rounds of balloting, Bass texted congratulations and mentioned her upcoming visit.

"I'm coming to collect," she told him.

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Bass’ trip to the nation’s capital focused on the urgent stakes of Los Angeles’ homelessness crisis. In addition to meeting with White House and Cabinet officials, she attended the U.S. Conference of Mayors winter meeting with an eye toward hearing from other big-city mayors about what’s working in their locales.

Last month, President Biden announced a goal of reducing homelessness nationally by 25% in the next two years. Bass has been quick to point out that a big reduction in Los Angeles would go a long way toward hitting that objective.

Bass campaigned for mayor stressing her connections with the Biden administration and how those could pay off for L.A. Earlier this month, Susan Rice, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, joined the mayor in visiting skid row and other areas of the city with significant homeless populations, talking to outreach workers and unhoused residents.

The mayor sees particular urgency to tap into federal resources now, aware that if the Republicans win the White House in 2024, they may be less solicitous toward a big city than the Biden administration. Her predecessor, Eric Garcetti, spent many months unsuccessfully courting Trump administration officials for more funding and material support for homelessness.

Bass hopes she'll be able to deftly navigate Department of Housing and Urban Development regulations for increased federal housing assistance and secure more healthcare support from agencies such as Health and Human Services. Last week, she met with federal department heads including Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas as well as White House senior advisor Mitch Landrieu, who is the former mayor of New Orleans. She also visited the White House on Friday.

At a Conference of Mayors session on affordable housing, Bass came in late and introduced herself as Los Angeles mayor "as of a month and a few days ago." The room gave her a round of applause.

While in the nation's capital, Bass didn't visit Congress, which may prove to be a challenge in her quest for federal help. Los Angeles would benefit from more money to expand housing vouchers for low-income Angelenos and to address the underlying causes of homelessness, but House Republicans are focused on steep spending cuts rather than expanding safety-net programs.

Bass’ hopes for blunting that threat may come down to a nearly 20-year-old friendship with the new speaker.

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Karen Bass is sworn in as speaker of the California Assembly in Sacramento in 2008. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press) © (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press) Karen Bass is sworn in as speaker of the California Assembly in Sacramento in 2008. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press) Then-Assemblyman Kevin McCarthy, left, with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, second from right, and others in 2014. (Steve Yeater / Associated Press) © (Steve Yeater / Associated Press) Then-Assemblyman Kevin McCarthy, left, with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, second from right, and others in 2014. (Steve Yeater / Associated Press)

They met in the California Legislature. McCarthy was the top Assembly Republican and Bass was a first-term legislator. After Bass was appointed to a leadership role by then-Speaker Fabian Núñez, McCarthy witnessed her corral Democratic lawmakers and shepherd the Democratic agenda on the floor. He predicted she'd eventually nab the top Assembly post.

“I told her one day she would be speaker, but she didn’t believe me. And she became speaker,” McCarthy told the Hill when Biden considered choosing Bass as his running mate in 2020.

"She’s got a lot of natural ability. … Even though we have a difference of opinion, we can always talk. We can always work through and find common ground," he said.

McCarthy's office did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Mutual colleagues said the traits that propelled both Bass and McCarthy to leadership roles — their knack for reading people and making them feel heard, their undogmatic approach — also fostered their friendship.

Bass with Republican Assembly leader Sam Blakeslee in 2009. (Max Whittaker / Getty Images) © (Max Whittaker / Getty Images) Bass with Republican Assembly leader Sam Blakeslee in 2009. (Max Whittaker / Getty Images)

“What they have in common is they both love politics,” said Carrie Kohns, Bass’ former congressional chief of staff. “They’re drawn to the workings of it — almost like a chess match, [though] not as if they see it as a game. It’s more that I think they have an appreciation for the process and the systems and understanding how the levers work.”

The state Capitol fostered a sense of small-town familiarity among lawmakers. While there was plenty of sniping across the aisle, the requirement that existed then for a supermajority to pass a budget made deal-making between Democrats and Republicans a necessity.

“When we were all in Sacramento together, there was a lot more camaraderie amongst all of us in the Assembly on a bipartisan basis,” said Republican former Assemblyman Doug LaMalfa, now a congressman from Richvale.

Bass became Assembly speaker just as the Great Recession decimated California’s finances, requiring her to travel to Washington multiple times to lobby for help. McCarthy, who by then was ascending the GOP hierarchy in Congress, was "receptive," Bass recalled, but also blunt about the partisan realities.

In 2010, Bass was elected to Congress, one of nine freshman Democrats vastly outnumbered by 87 Republicans newly elected in that year's tea party wave. Former Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock), who served with Bass in the Legislature, recalled the new congresswoman approaching him during orientation with the small band of Democratic freshmen in tow.

Then-Assembly Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, second from right, in 2004. (Ken James / Bloomberg) © (Ken James / Bloomberg) Then-Assembly Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, second from right, in 2004. (Ken James / Bloomberg)

“Karen brought [them] over to me and said, 'Can we introduce everybody together?'” Denham said.

“When she came into Congress, I think members that had served with her in Sacramento knew that they were going to have a friend and were actually excited about her coming in.”

There was an element of political savvy in preserving those old Sacramento ties.

“She was very conscious about having a constructive relationship and connection with Kevin, because she's smart,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who headed the state Senate when she ran the Assembly. "She knew that it would be good for her as she was starting in Congress and good for the district."

One of Bass' main issues in Sacramento was increasing funding for foster youth programs. When she arrived in Washington, her hope was to attack that issue from a federal vantage point. But she did not receive a warm reception when she tried to find Republicans to join a new congressional caucus focused on foster youth.

“The environment was so partisan. Nobody would pay attention to me," Bass said.

Seeking McCarthy’s help, she learned he was planning a trip to Eastern Europe to commemorate former President Reagan’s 100th birthday. So she proposed a trade.

“I said I would go on a trip if he recruited Republicans to come to the Foster Care Caucus, and he did that,” she said.

McCarthy even let Bass use his personal conference room to host caucus meetings, Kohns said.

In private conversation, they would promote each other's accomplishments — even when the other wasn't around, recalled Mike Villines, a former GOP asemblyman who is close to both. McCarthy was especially effusive about Bass’ work chairing the subcommittee on Africa, telling Villines that African heads of state would seek an audience with Bass when visiting Washington.

Bass and McCarthy, along with other veterans of the Legislature, made efforts to replicate the pleasantries of their statehouse days. The two took turns organizing bipartisan dinners for Sacramento alumni.

As the Obama administration came to a close and the early years of the Trump presidency began, McCarthy continued to attend, even as the number of GOP guests began to dwindle, said Rep. Norma Torres (D-Pomona).

“He always attended, and he was very nice and cordial to all of us,” Torres said. "Oftentimes he would be the only Republican sitting at the table, and when that started to happen, she realized that we were endangering him more than we were helping.”

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There is always wistfulness for the bygone days of bipartisan comity — which is often exaggerated in the rearview mirror — but cross-party collegiality seems especially quaint these days. The divisiveness of the Trump presidency and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol have sunk the parties’ relationships to a new low.

While McCarthy poured most of his efforts into building a Republican majority — including embracing Trump weeks after the Jan. 6 incursion — his relationships with prominent Democrats deteriorated.

By the end of the Trump presidency, he and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) were openly hostile. The Democratic leader derided McCarthy as “such a moron” while he made “firing Pelosi” a centerpiece of his midterm messaging.

Bass, a close ally of Pelosi, was able to maintain some levity with McCarthy by ribbing him about antics coming from his caucus, Kohns said. He’d jab back about Democrats’ incessant salvos against Trump.

“They would tease each other about the nastiness of the moment,” Kohns said.

That rapport forged in Sacramento is much harder to replicate under current partisan pressures, said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), who overlapped with Bass and McCarthy in the statehouse.

“There were a number of Republicans [in Sacramento who] weren’t crazy and they weren’t radical,” Lieu said. “He has a caucus now, where he does have a number of extreme and radical members. And given the incredibly thin majority that they have, they are able to exert an outsize influence.”

While that may complicate Bass’ hopes for increased federal funds for Los Angeles, Lieu predicted McCarthy will be “fairly helpful to help stop Republicans from doing stupid stuff against Los Angeles or other cities.”

“It's hard to intentionally discriminate against a city,” Lieu added, noting that many federal dollars are allocated by a formula. “And I do think Karen will be very forceful in making sure that that doesn't happen against Los Angeles.”

Núñez, who preceded Bass as speaker and now works as a lobbyist, said Bass would get “as good an audience as anyone” in making the case for Los Angeles to McCarthy. She may end up proving helpful to him as well, he said.

“There will be times when Kevin is going to look in the House to garner votes from Democrats from time to time,” Núñez said. “Karen is someone who could be very skillful at finding how to identify people” the GOP speaker could work with.

The bipartisan friendship between Bass and McCarthy “is rare, but not as rare as you may think,” Núñez said. But few politicians want to publicize those bonds.

“This is the era of finger pointing,” he said. “If you don’t demonize the other side, something’s wrong with you. … [But] at some point the parties have to govern. And it’s important that people develop relationships.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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