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Karen Bass vows to ‘solve homelessness’ and to be an agent of change as first female mayor of Los Angeles

Los Angeles Mayor-elect Karen Bass speaks at a news conference in Los Angeles, Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022. Bass defeated developer Rick Caruso to become the next mayor of Los Angeles on Wednesday, making her the first Black woman to hold the post as City Hall contends with an out-of-control homeless crisis, rising crime rates and multiple scandals that have shaken trust in government. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Originally Published: 17 NOV 22 18:25 ET
Updated: 17 NOV 22 19:49 ET

(CNN) — Los Angeles Mayor-elect Karen Bass promised to solve the city’s homelessness crisis in her first address after winning election as the first woman to lead the nation’s second-largest city.

In a speech Thursday at the historic Wilshire Ebell Theatre, the Democratic congresswoman called on voters from across the city to become part of the solution as she embarks on an effort to try to house more than 40,000 people who are living on the streets. Touching on her own roots as a coalition builder, she sent a warning shot to wealthier neighborhoods that have resisted plans to build affordable housing in their areas: “You’re not going to be able to house 40,000 people in only the low-income areas — that is just not the case.”

“The crisis we face affects us all and all of us must be part of the solution,” Bass said. “Being a coalition builder is not coming together to sing Kumbaya. … Being a coalition builder is about marshalling all of the resources, all of the skills, the knowledge, the talent of this city.”

“The people of Los Angeles have sent a clear message. It’s time for change, and it’s time for urgency,” Bass continued. “Many Angelenos do not feel safe in their neighborhoods, and families are being priced out of their communities. This must change. … To the people of Los Angeles, my message is we are going to solve homelessness. We are going to prevent and respond urgently to crime, and Los Angeles will no longer be unaffordable for working families.”

Bass is embarking on those enormous tasks after defeating real estate magnate Rick Caruso, CNN projects, in a race in which he spent more than $104 million — outspending his opponent by more than 11-to-1.

She put together a winning coalition of voters by building on the two constituencies that have powered her earlier wins in her Los Angeles-area congressional district — Black voters and White progressives from the city’s west side — and expanding on that base as she promised to bring together LA’s diverse communities, while dismissing Caruso’s broadsides against longtime politicians who he said had failed to solve the city’s most pressing problems.

Caruso, a former Republican-turned-independent who became a Democrat before announcing his run in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, had hoped to increase turnout among independents, moderates and Latinos — putting more than $10 million into Spanish-language media to drive his message that an outsider would be best suited to tackle voters’ concerns about crime, homelessness and corruption at City Hall. Tens of thousands of ballots are still being counted in Los Angeles County, but Bass was able to build an insurmountable lead — in part by deploying an army of volunteers to knock on doors across the city.

Bass, who will succeed term-limited Mayor Eric Garcetti, will take charge of the city’s government at a moment of upheaval at City Hall. A recently leaked audio recording revealed several city councilmembers making openly racist remarks behind closed doors in a 2021 meeting in which they discussed their frustration with maps proposed by the city’s redistricting commission.

The leaked audio, which was posted anonymously on Reddit and obtained by the Los Angeles Times, burst into public view in early October after the newspaper detailed the racist remarks in an October 9 story — sparking widespread calls for the councilmembers involved to resign. The audio was from a year-old conversation between then-City Council President Nury Martinez, Councilmembers Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León and then-Los Angeles County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera.

In an October 10 tweet, Bass said that Los Angeles “must move in a new direction and that is not possible unless the four individuals caught on that tape resign from their offices immediately.” (Bass, who had been endorsed by Martinez, was criticized for not calling for their resignations immediately after the details emerged in the October 9 LA Times story). Martinez at first stepped down as Council president. Ultimately, she and Herrera both resigned. Cedillo and de León apologized for their roles in the conversation but resisted calls to step down.

“I will not accept corruption or cronyism,” Bass said on Thursday.

Bass will assume the new office on December 12 — a notably quick transition. When she takes office, the four largest cities in the US will all have Black mayors — that includes Eric Adams of New York City, Lori Lightfoot of Chicago and Sylvester Turner of Houston.

Bass noted Thursday that one of her first acts as mayor will be to declare a state of emergency on homelessness and to identify “very specific areas where we will get people housed.”

Both Bass and Caruso had said they would declare a state of emergency on homelessness — though critics have said it will largely be a symbolic move.

Speaking with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room” later Thursday, Bass said that “it’s absolutely not a symbolic gesture.”

“We have a lot of bureaucratic red tape that needs to be eliminated, and that’s the basis of calling a state of emergency so I can have the power, not to eliminate all of the red tape, but specifically to address some burdens — some hurdles that people have to go through in order to build,” she said.

Bass said in her Thursday speech that she would outline her plans in more detail when she assumes office in December.

The six-term congresswoman had emphasized the depth of her policy experience in her campaign after winning accolades from colleagues on both sides of the aisle for her work on areas such as criminal justice and prison reform, foster care and child welfare. She began her career as a physician assistant in the emergency room in Los Angeles County, and later sought to bring together Black and Latino community organizers in South LA in the early 1990s to address the root causes of crime and the crack epidemic through the nonprofit she co-founded, Community Coalition.

In 2004, she was elected to the California state Assembly, where she made history some four years later as the first Black woman to serve as speaker of a state. Following the 2008 financial crisis, her work with other state legislative leaders to make tough budget decisions earned her a John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in 2010.

During his presidential campaign, Joe Biden vetted Bass, the then-chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, to be his running mate in 2020 while she was leading negotiations on legislation to create greater police accountability following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

On Thursday, she said she welcomed Caruso voters “in every aspect of my administration” and said she hoped to be able to collaborate with her former opponent as she begins her new role.

When asked whether she would still consider Caruso a friend after their fierce contest — given that he spent more than $100 million, much of it his own money, to defeat her — she said she viewed campaigns “like an athletic competition. You fight with everything that you have. But when the game is over, it’s over.”

This story has been updated with additional details.

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