Rep. Karen Bass, the five-term California congresswoman and potential Joe Biden running mate, urged Cuban American voters Monday to “not believe the lies” of Republicans.
“I’m not a socialist. I’m not a communist. I’ve belonged to one party my entire life and that’s the Democratic Party and I’m a Christian,” Bass told NBC News.
As Bass has emerged as a potential vice presidential pick, Republicans have seized on Bass’ history of visits to Cuba. It's an overture to the significant segment of Cuban American and other Latino voters in the swing state of Florida who have backed Republican candidates over their hardline stances against the communist country. Recent polls show President Donald Trump is lagging there.
“I don’t believe that it’s right to paint the Latino population with one brush, even the Cuban population,” Bass said. “The Latino population is often painted as only being interested in immigration, and the black population is painted as only interested in race. I don’t think any of those are true,” Bass said.
Bass said Republicans are trying to pivot from the main issues.
“How do they explain the death rate in Florida? How do they explain the fact that COVID is completely out of control in the United States?" Bass said. "How do they explain the fact that the economy dropped to its lowest point in U.S. history? They have nothing to say, so resurrecting the ghost of Joe McCarthy and George Wallace is their best game right now.”
The focus on her Cuba record has diverted attention and headlines from what Bass said is her almost five decades of work with Latinos, first as a community organizer, then in the California Assembly and as a congresswoman representing a Los Angeles district that is 39 percent Latino, 25 percent Black, 25 percent white and 8 percent Asian.
The "socialism" issue
Amanda Renteria, Hillary Clinton’s national political director in her 2016 campaign, said Democratic candidates are forced year after year to respond to Republican accusations that they are socialists or soft on communism.
She said the GOP has more material to work with because Bass did accompany President Barack Obama to Cuba when he normalized relations with the country and she traveled to the country several times starting at 19, when she went to build houses.
Renteria said that while Florida is key in the race, "what Biden needs is someone who understands how state legislatures work" alongside the federal government, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. Renteria said Bass has this experience as a member and later speaker of the California Assembly, the first African-American woman in that position.
Juan Proaño, founder of Miami-based Plus Three, a technology firm that does work for nonprofits and political groups, said that "in regards to Cuba, the demographic has changed so much that it would be a mistake for anyone to think that she's not going to add anything to the ticket with regards to Latino outreach—they're talking about one piece of her that mischaracterized the entire person who is Karen Bass."
But Eduardo Gamarra, a political science professor at Florida International University, said Bass may be too much of a liability—regardless of her work with Latinos—and it would make a Democratic win in Florida difficult, especially in a state where the winner will probably win by 1 percent.
Polling that his university does with AdsMovil, a Hispanic advertising company, shows that a large share of Latinos who support Trump are solidly Trumpists and about 55 percent of Cuban Americans say they are pro-Trump.
“What we are finding is the socialism drives people very strongly,” Gamarra said. Voters are not swayed so much by the policy of Trump on Cuba or Venezuela, but “it’s the way in which Republicans have said, if you vote for Biden, they are going to make the U.S. into another Venezuela, into another Cuba.”
People who associate socialism with violence in countries they or their families or others were forced to flee are associating violence in protests during Black Lives Matter demonstrations with the turmoil of the countries they fled, ideas that are fed by local media coverage, Gamarra said.
A record of cross-cultural alliances
In 1990, while working as an emergency room physicians assistant, Bass started the Community Coalition organization, which she said she formed “consciously” as an African American and Latino group to address health needs amid the crack cocaine epidemic and provide alternatives to the government’s punitive response to the issues.
In her 14 years with Community Coalition, Bass said the group fought California’s anti-immigrant Proposition 187 and helped undocumented students “before the word Dreamer existed." The group also worked on health care and police reform with Latino organizers such as Antonio Villaraigosa, who later became mayor of Los Angeles.
By the time she left in 2005, the group had raised a whole generation of Black-brown youth "who understand each other’s history, understand each other’s struggle and work together," she said.
“When I was growing up and in my late teens, that’s the way we worked. Our words were different. We referred to it as third-world unity, but we always worked together,” said Bass.
Bass’ former husband, Jesús Lechuga, was Chicano and a leader in the Chicano Movement, she said. They met on her first trip to Cuba; Bass changed her name to Bass Lechuga while she was married. Their daughter, Emilia Lechuga-Bass, who died in a 2006 car accident, identified as "Blacxican," Bass said.
Lechuga had three other children after his marriage to Bass ended. But because they remained friends, the children were part of her life from the day they were born and remain so after his death in 2018, Bass said.
"We raised them together. The youngest one, about a month ago asked me to formally adopt her because of her son," said Bass.
Bass worked at the public hospital in L.A. County where she said she often had to use Spanish. Though she's not fluent, she knows medical terms. “I know dueles (hurts),” she said.
Bass, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, said she's working on a proposal with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Asian American Pacific Islander Caucus and the Native American women serving in Congress for targeted intervention in their communities to address COVID-19.
They plan to announce on Wednesday that they have recruited a group of Black, Latino, AAPI and Native American researchers to gather data and information on the health and economic impacts of the pandemic on their specific communities.
“I don’t need to be vice president to work on this,” she said.
Renteria said that “in the lead up of getting to know a candidate, it’s really validating to say who this person is. When the cameras were off, she was with the community. That’s an important piece of the story."