When Rep. Karen Bass’ “friend and mentor” died three years ago, she eulogized the community organizer’s passing in remarks she inserted into the Congressional Record.
The California congresswoman described Oneil Marion Cannon as a one-man force in progressive politics who became the “union printer to the left” in Los Angeles, where he worked for “interracial and intercultural understanding,” opened a community hub and even once “belonged to the Independent Progressive Party.”
Left out of the 406-word eulogy: Cannon was a top member of the Communist Party USA for decades.
That omitted detail and her little-noticed 2017 eulogy today takes on outsized importance now that Bass is on Joe Biden’s VP shortlist. As quickly as the congresswoman and former speaker of the California state Assembly shot into serious contention for Biden’s No. 2, she has come under intense scrutiny, prompting questions about whether Biden would be risking too much by selecting a politician just now coming under the glare of the national spotlight.
President Donald Trump and his campaign have seized on the spate of stories about Bass’ ties to Cuba, and some Democrats in Florida fear she could cost Biden the swing state and drag down congressional and state senate candidates, particularly in Miami.
Biden’s campaign has taken incoming since POLITICO first reported in late June that she referred to Cuban dictator Fidel Castro as “comandante en jefe,” a sobriquet of respect used by the island’s communist party, in November 2016, about two months before her remarks about Cannon. Bass’ office stood by her Castro remarks in June, but she backed away from them Sunday in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
A spokesman for Bass downplayed her affiliation with Cannon, comparing her friendship with him to her relationship with the House Republican leader.
“Karen Bass has always been a Democrat and only a Democrat. The Congresswoman is friends with Kevin McCarthy and is not a Republican. She knew Oneil Cannon but never shared the political ideology he may have had at one time in his life,” Bass spokesman Zach Seidl wrote in a statement.
“While she and Cannon differed politically, she recognizes work he did in the community,” he wrote. “He taught the printing trade to generations of young people in South Los Angeles and he co-founded a wellness center, which is South LA’s first organic produce market and a local food hub increasing access to healthy local food for the entire South Los Angeles community.”
On Monday, Bass repeated the message to NBC for a profile about her life, activism and political affiliations.
“I am not a communist,” Bass said.
In the ensuing months as reporters and conservatives have dug into her record, Bass’ communist associations appear deeper and longer than her office initially indicated.
Tablet Magazine last week revealed that Bass belonged to an organization called the Venceremos Brigade, founded in the 1970s by pro-Cuba leftists. She was described as a leader of the group in a 1975 communist publication, but her office denied she had that role. An anti-communist writer in the conservative Epoch Times on Sunday dug into her past — including comments she once made about how “I grew up with a lot of red diaper babies” — and asked in a headline “Karen Bass: Will Joe Biden Choose a Pro-Communist Running Mate?”
Separately, Bass in recent days has also had to answer for her past praise of the Church of Scientology and its founder L. Ron Hubbard. And she was forced to deny any association with Louis Farrakhan after The Daily Caller reported that she posed for a picture with Tony Muhammad, director of the Nation of Islam’s Western division.
“Rep. Bass has never met Louis Farrakhan, has never spoken to Louis Farrakhan and has no ties to Louis Farrakhan,” a spokesperson for Bass told the site.
Biden’s campaign would not comment on Bass or the VP selection process.
One Democrat who spoke with former Sen. Chris Dodd, who leads Biden’s selection process, said he has advocated for Bass because she doesn’t harbor ambitions to run for higher office and was an alternative, of sorts, to California Sen. Kamala Harris. Her admirers point to her work in L.A., her popularity with progressives, her record on health care and for opposing police brutality. As an African American, they said, Bass could help Biden boost Black voter turnout.
In her eulogy of Cannon, Bass attributed the trajectory of her politics to Cannon.
“Oneil was instrumental in supporting my own work as a community organizer early in my life, and without his help my life would have taken a very different path,” she said in the eulogy, which called him a “friend and mentor” but did not mention his communist past.
Communist Party USA mourned Cannon’s loss on its Facebook page, saying he “participated in nearly every civil rights, labor and democratic struggle for nearly a century. He lived a partisan, committed life. RIP Oneil!!” It linked to an obituary from People’s World, a communist publication, that bore the headline “Oneil Cannon, longtime Communist, centenarian” and described him as the party’s “education director in the Southern California District, and a member of the Party’s Southern California and National Central Committees.”
Los Angeles City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who met and began working with Bass and Cannon in the mid-’90s, said that “the only party Karen has been a member of is the Democratic Party. In southern California, what you find is a lot of people in activism now were part of more radical things in the ’70s and prior to that. They were the ones who pushed for desegregation and pushed back against police abuse.”
Harris-Dawson chuckled in a light-hearted way about the controversy over Cannon, saying “it’s probably my fault” that Bass had the eulogy of Cannon placed into the Congressional Record on Jan. 30, 2017. Harris-Dawson said he didn’t know Cannon was a longtime communist and that many in the community don’t associate him with communism.
He said Bass is a political leader who would work with anyone and, since Cannon advocated for free public education, health care and racial justice, it was natural they would work with each other.
Outside of California, however, Bass’ past could be a liability for Biden.
“’The fact that Joe Biden is even considering a communist sympathizer like Karen Bass as a potential vice president proves that no matter who he selects as his running mate, he has been compromised by the radical left and must be rejected by the American people in November — our way of life depends on it,” said Mercedes Schlapp, a Trump adviser, who noted she is the daughter of a Cuban political prisoner.
One top Democratic National Committee member said that while Bass is well-liked and respected by Democrats, “we probably lose Florida if it’s Bass.”
Democratic pollster Fernand Amandi, who is based in Florida and advised Barack Obama’s two campaigns on Hispanic engagements, agreed.
“Karen Bass says she is not a communist,” Amandi said, “but she clearly has no qualms associating with or praising communists, which to most Hispanic voters in Florida, fairly or unfairly, is tantamount to being one.”