Most mayoral elections barely make the national news. In fact, most people don’t even care about mayoral elections in their own towns: A 2016 study found that fewer than 15 percent of eligible voters show up for local elections, and the numbers haven’t changed a whole lot since.

But the 2022 mayoral race in Los Angeles was different. Of course, the world-famous nature of the metropolis, home to Hollywood and near mythic places like Malibu, made the election significant, but the race drew lots of attention for other reasons too. It pitted a billionaire with money to burn, Rick Caruso, against a former grassroots organizer, Karen Bass; it had a white male former Republican (who changed his affiliation to Democrat in time for the race) taking on a lifelong Democratic Black woman; and saw high-powered celebrities endorsing candidates in ways that, to the public, seemed like a declaration of their overall values.

After a couple of grueling months, which saw Caruso spend $100 million of his own money, and more than a week of nail-biting suspense as ballots continued to be counted well after voting day, Bass became L.A.’s second Black mayor ever and the first Black woman in the office. More voters than ever cast votes. Though it was hardly a walloping victory — Bass, who’d previously served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2011 to 2022, won by just nine percentage points — it was a win nonetheless, one that sent a message about what people in the United States’ second-biggest city want and believe.

“I was worried that the city was headed in two different directions,” she tells Shondaland from her office one early morning in March. “One direction was a punitive direction — just get rid of these people — or a direction that says that people are suffering, and we need to help the folks. And so that is what compelled me to run. I didn’t want to see the city take a turn to the right.”

los angeles, ca february 16 mayor karen bass, left, chats with craig corbett, 44, a houseless person living under a tent behind academy museum of motion pictures on thursday, feb 16, 2023 in los angeles, ca irfan khan los angeles times via getty images
Mayor Karen Bass chats with Craig Corbett, a unhoused person living under a tent behind Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in February 2023 in Los Angeles.
Irfan Khan

The “these people” she’s referring to is L.A.’s population of unhoused people — at more than 69,000, it’s the largest in the country. What to do with the population became a central point in the campaign, and rightfully so: Residents of the city and visitors alike often find themselves shocked and saddened to see people living in rows and rows of tents in freeway underpasses or on city sidewalks, living out of cars, or roaming the streets. The problem only intensified during the pandemic, and with unhoused people making up some 24 percent of murder victims and responsible for nearly 21 fires a day in the city, finding a solution became the main issue.

Yet the promises and approaches from both then-candidates seemed to be rich with symbolism that could be read as indicative of the mood nationwide. While Caruso, a developer, promised to “quickly house those who are living on our streets,” it was the how that seemed to have earned him skepticism; in the end, people trusted Bass, with a proven track record of community service and a softer, “for the people” message, to actually take charge.

“The people of Los Angeles, in spite of their exasperation, had not given up hope,” she says of what her win signifies. “I think if they had given up hope, they would have gone for the quick solution. My vision for the city is a city where people actually feel safe. A comprehensive approach to safety that doesn’t always involve law enforcement. And that we’d begin to address the health, social, and economic conditions that lead to the social problems that we have. Next is world peace.”

Bass joins a number of Black women in high-visibility public office positions; not least of them is Vice President Kamala Harris, who swore Bass in on December 11, 2022. And Bass believes that both her gender and race are inexplicably tied to perceptions of her, as well as her character.

los angeles, ca december 11 vice president kamala harris, the first woman of color to hold the office, administers the oath of office to karen bass, the first woman of color to serve as mayor of los angeles, on december 11, 2022 in los angeles, california as rep karen bass becomes mayor, black people will be leading the four largest cities in america bass has pledged to immediately address the citys homelessness crisis by declaring a state of emergency on day one photo by david mcnewgetty images
Vice President Kamala Harris administers the Oath of Office to Mayor Karen Bass in Los Angeles.
David McNew

“Being female and being African American has absolutely impacted my work,” she says. “My father raised me with a sense of justice, and my mother raised me with a sense of compassion. That led to me making a life decision that I wanted to devote my life to fighting for social and economic justice. The gender view,” she continues, “is typically that women are extremely underestimated. I found that all along, as though I didn’t have a mind or a body of experience. As a female, you’re liable to be underestimated.” Her advice to other women in leadership positions? “Learn how to embrace that, and use it. It’s actually very powerful.”

Her days are packed now as she seeks to tackle one monumental challenge after another: up by 5 a.m., reading “a gazillion” newspapers and articles, and then back-to-back meetings and events until nightfall. The role doesn’t really leave a lot of time for self-care, but when she does get to squeeze some Karen time in, she likes to zone out. “I like mindless comedies,” she says. “I haven’t been able to do it much lately, but I like to swim and bike ride.” Naturally, her job puts her in close proximity to Hollywood A-listers too, some of whom, like Steven Spielberg and Shonda Rhimes, supported her campaign. Not that she’s often starstruck.

“I tend to be blown away by individuals’ work, as opposed to how many movies they were in — the quality of their work and influence,” she says, citing Rhimes’ string of successes as an example. “That, to me, is phenomenal.” And while she’s got way more on her mind now than playing the Hollywood fame game or clapping back at the celebs who voted against her (“As far as I’m concerned, the race is history”), she is not shy about setting the record straight when it comes to famous followers.

“It was so funny because the perception was Caruso would win because he had a couple of high-profile celebrities,” she says. “I had far more entertainment industry support and far more celebrity support than he did.”

Touché, Madame Mayor. Touché.

Malcolm Venable is a Senior Staff Writer at Shondaland. Follow him on Twitter @malcolmvenable.

Get Shondaland directly in your inbox: SUBSCRIBE TODAY