Assembly Speaker Karen Bass: Our society will be judged on the way it cares for its people

Having just been officially sworn in, Speaker Karen Bass stepped up Tuesday to lead the California Assembly, the first Black woman in U.S. history to head a state legislative body. Photo – Speaker’s Office.

Sacramento – On Tuesday, members of the California Assembly elected by acclamation their 67th speaker – and the first Black woman to serve as speaker, the second most powerful position in California – Assemblymember Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles. She says she has only three things on her to do list: solving this year’s budget mess, examining systemic reform of the state tax code and strengthening California’s overburdened and often neglected foster care system. Here are excerpts from Speaker Bass’ swearing in address:

I feel the weight of history on my shoulders today – as the first African American woman in U.S. history elected to head a state legislative body.

Consistent with the African side of African-American tradition, I begin today by acknowledging and honoring those people who have shaped my life but are no longer here to share my life.

My mother who taught all of us that the most important words in our vocabulary must be dignity, integrity and honor. My last image of her was watching her walking down the hospital corridor – she held her head high – yet I knew she knew her life was about to end. 

My father who never wanted me to run for office – because he was afraid I’d be hurt. But yet he was the one who introduced me to politics, watching the civil rights movement on the nightly news and trying to help me understand the concept of legal segregation in the South where he was from. He instilled in me the passion to fight for justice and equality. 

Members, throughout the past 18 months I have experienced the best of your hearts, and I’m not sure I can fully express how much that has meant to me. So many of us have faced personal tragedies and losses. We have stood with each other; we have embraced each other and helped each other though the bad times.

If we could only harness the power of our common humanity, I don’t think there’s anything we couldn’t do for the people of this state. And members, they truly do need us now.

People are losing their homes. People are losing their jobs. People are scared about the future in a state that should be all about hope for the future.

Think about it. We represent California – the eighth largest economy on the planet. If California was our own nation, we would be better off than Russia or India or Spain. We have it all.

The movie studios I represent in the 47th Assembly District use software created in Ms. Lieber’s district. Professors at Ms. Wolk’s UC Davis help Mr. Berryhill’s farmers improve their crops. And who wouldn’t enjoy a glass of Ms. Evans Napa Valley chardonnay watching the sun set over Mr. Plescia’s La Jolla coast?

More than 50,000 companies in our districts export products around the globe. Twenty percent of all U.S. trade – about a half a trillion dollars – passes in some way through California. Workers at our ports handle more than 40 percent of the nation’s container cargo. 

Almost one-third of all U.S. biotech firms are located in California, and we have more biotech jobs here than all the other states put together. And it’s no coincidence the biotech industry was founded here when more than 50 Nobel Prize winners have been associated with the University of California. 

We are a $94 billion tourism industry and the nation’s top travel destination. Millions of visitors come here every year to enjoy 1,100 miles of coast and 300-foot redwood trees.

The laptops on our desk should remind all of us that the California visionaries who founded Silicon Valley in a garage have changed the way the world lives, learns and leads. Thanks to California you can find anything you could possibly want on Google. And then when you get tired of it, you can turn around and sell it on E-bay.

Our 80,000 farms and ranches produce more than $30 billion worth of goods. And we export more than $10 billion of those goods – 350 commodities in all – everything from almonds and artichokes to turkeys and tangerines. 

Among us we represent Koreatown, Little Saigon, Little Ethiopia, Little India and Little Armenia – little pieces of a lot of places.

California is a giant of a state – but we are a giant in crisis. Over the last two months I have visited with business leaders in the Silicon Valley who are relocating overseas. I’ve met with farmers in the Central Valley who cannot afford to plant crops – resulting in the abandonment of the workforce in nearby small towns. I have visited schools and met with teachers and school board members in San Diego and Norwalk where teachers received layoff notices. 

I have met with students who are saddled with debt when they finish college. We should be able to provide more opportunity than that for the next generation. 

California is a giant in crisis – and now it is up to us to solve that crisis. It is up to us to take the fear out of California’s future.

Tomorrow, the governor will unveil his May budget revision. By all accounts it will not be good news. We have to decide how we will address that news. We have to decide how we will come together to mobilize the incredible assets and resources at this state’s command to solve the budget crisis.

If we can mobilize our resources to respond to major disasters like Northridge and Whittier and Loma Prieta, we must be able to respond to the budget crisis. 

The wildfires in Sierra Madre in April reminded us all too well of the infernos we faced in 2007. The combination of economic recession, the mortgage meltdown and skyrocketing prices for food and fuel are having the same destructive force as an earthquake or fire.

When you lose your home, can’t feed your family, or can’t afford health care for your kids, it’s an earthquake. When there is a disaster like that, an earthquake or a fire or a flood, leaders put their ideologies aside and step up and say: “People are suffering. What do we do to alleviate the pain?”

Members, we have to respond to the current economic crisis the same way we would a natural disaster. We have to toss aside the boxes we put ourselves in and the labels we place on others and come together to get the job done. 

I believe part of that job has got to involve looking at the big picture and really examining California’s overall economic structure. Most importantly, we have to ask the question of whether a tax structure that was established in the 1930s is sufficient to meet the needs of Californians in 2008.

And, frankly, members, I think we need an answer to that question that is developed outside the day to day give and take here in the legislature.

To answer this question I have asked for help. I have asked two former governors, Gov. Pete Wilson and Gov. Grey Davis, to assist the legislature in identifying the leadership and membership of an independent commission to examine California’s tax structure. This will be a bipartisan group of California’s brightest to work together for one year to develop recommendations on how we can identify more consistent sources of revenue – the way 12 other states have already done. 

As we work to resolve the immediate challenge before us, the efforts of this commission can help us find ways to prevent California from cycling through crisis after crisis after crisis. I want to urgency of our cause to be matched by the unity of our commitment.

The weight of history is not just on my shoulders. As we all move forward, it should be with the understanding that a society will be judged on the way it cares for its people.

As speaker, I want you to judge me on how I am able to bring together the best of your talents, your experience, and, yes – the best of your hearts – to help build the kind of society that California deserves.

Thank you, members. Let’s get to work.

Contact Speaker Karen Bass at State Capitol, P.O. Box 942849, Sacramento, CA 94249-0047, (916) 319-2047, fax (916) 319-2147, http://democrats.assembly.ca.gov/members/a47/