Insulting and belittling California Congresswoman Maxine Waters is how President Trump revs up his base, mocking her in ways meant to reflect badly on her race and gender. For Democrats, his brand of biased mockery is job insurance for Waters, not that she needs any.
The biggest new class of Democrats since Watergate is coming to Washington to challenge entrenched power, but nobody’s looking to oust Waters, who turned 80 this year and has served 28 years in Congress, every one of them on what was originally the House Banking committee.
Next year, she will chair what’s now the Financial Services Committee, and Wall Street knows she won’t be greenlighting any more backtracking on Dodd-Frank, the Obama-era legislation that reined in the banking industry.
A longtime prominent voice within the Congressional Black Caucus, “Auntie Maxine” has now become a favorite of millennials who admire her early calls for Trump’s impeachment and her take-no-prisoners style.
Her journey from a childhood of poverty to a pinnacle of economic power says a lot that’s good about America. It also explains the strong, often intimidating drive that motivates Waters, who was first elected in 1990.
She has a compelling personal story that together with her increasing prominence prompted me to revisit interviews with her that my late husband and I conducted in 1993 and 1994 for our book, War Without Bloodshed: The Art of Politics.
Born in 1938, she was the fifth child of her mother’s 13 children, and, she told us then, “the first child in my family to come out too skinny, too black, and too looking like they say my father looked.” Her father left the family when she was two, and except for a vague memory from when she was 6 or 7 years old, she recalls no contact with him. Except everybody said she looked like him, the husband her mother wanted to forget. The fourth daughter in the family, Maxine had to scramble for everything—space, clothes, recognition.
She learned to draw attention to herself in a positive way, making good use of everything that the public schools and a local community center could offer in her low income St. Louis neighborhood. She took ballet, she swam competitively, she ran track, she played baseball, volleyball and softball, and she got good grades. Years later, long after she had to, she visited thrift stores, proud of her ability honed at an early age to “pick the best stuff.”
Thanks to public education and government programs, she found her own way outside of her family. When bill collectors came to the house, Maxine was defiant, daring them to take the furniture. She absorbed the lesson from teachers who were strong black women and took an interest in her that being poor did not make her a lesser person.
She got a degree in sociology from California State University, a major that drew directly from her life experience. The social workers came to your house if you were on welfare, and told you how much money you would get. They drove a car when nobody in her neighborhood had one. They wore nice clothes and they were educated. And they were the only ones who could control her mother, a friend said. “She thought that was where the power was.”
Head Start launched Waters as an activist. She got a job as an assistant teacher and through government-sponsored encounter groups, trendy at the time, learned to better understand the dynamics of race and class. She would become every conservative’s worst nightmare—a liberal activist shaped and funded by taxpayer money.
“Head Start changed my life,” she says.
From there it was a short leap to California politics and a kinship with Willie Brown, who from the same cauldron of race and poverty rose from working as a shoeshine boy to becoming the longest serving and most powerful Speaker of the California assembly from 1980 to 1995. Working alongside Brown, Waters achieved a series of firsts for a woman—from majority whip to the first person without a law degree to sit on the Judiciary committee—along with a reputation for striking deals. It was said, “Maxine never met a back room she didn’t like.”
When the courtly Augustus Hawkins retired in 1990 after 28 years in the Congress, Waters won the South Central Los Angeles district with 79 percent of the vote. She hasn’t had a close race since. In Washington, she lobbied for a seat on two of the most powerful committees, Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce. The old bulls running the committees turned her down, and she settled for Banking and Veterans Affairs.
“They think I’m a troublemaker, and I cannot be contained,” she told us, of the early rejections. “They don’t understand my ability to disagree and then to help work things out with them.”
The veterans committee then was chaired by a 24-year veteran Mississippi Congressman, G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery, whom she asked to stop addressing her in committee hearings by her first name. She told a friend he sounded like he was talking to his maid. She also convinced him to integrate the committee’s all-white staff, pointing out that a quarter of the armed forces at that time were black.
She took on then Speaker Tom Foley, whose reverence for tradition got in her way. “He can sit and talk to you all day about the history of somebody’s desk,” she complained. One day at a meeting with the Black Caucus, she told him: “Look at us. We represent all the misery in America. We represent all the poverty in America.”
Recalling that encounter in an interview, she said: “I am not a ‘yes suh, massuh’ person. He just wished I would go away.”
Waters hung in there, and now she is in a position to exercise real power. Nancy Pelosi, the likely next Speaker, is a close friend and ally. They have known each other forever through California politics. When Waters earlier this year urged Democrats to challenge Trump administration officials when they were out in public, in restaurants, Pelosi publicly rebuked her and Waters quickly backed off, something she rarely does.
Waters does not think of herself as an angry person, but when she sees injustice and unfairness, she is still the little girl who stood up to the bill collector. “You have to understand, this is the honest-to-goodness truth. I don’t always quite understand why people can’t be frontal and just tell people what they think,” she said.
“If you’re African-American in America today and you’re not angry, something’s wrong with you.”
Those words spoken a quarter century ago ring true today, and they’re why Trump can’t rattle Waters. She says what she thinks, something like he does. She’s his foil, but she’s so much more than the caricature he invokes.
The president has no idea yet what he’ll be confronting in the next Congress.