Maxine Waters spends her weekends at home. For most people, this is not an unusual habit. But for Waters, it requires extra effort: Each Monday Congress has been in session over the past 26 years, she has embarked on a 2,300-mile commute from her home in Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., where she currently serves as one of the most powerful Democrats in the House of Representatives.
A pre-dawn, cross-country flight to head to work in D.C. is irritating business. Former staffers say the six-hour journey suits the 78-year-old congresswoman just about as well as you’d expect. Her 5 p.m. Monday meetings can get hot. Aides who have spent the weekend gathering Capitol Hill intelligence, studying the intricacies of securities law and trying to win new political allies report to the full staff in front of a one-woman firing squad.
“It’s definitely a situation that can be slightly intimidating,” said one former staffer, comparing the grillings to the Trump administration’s televised press conferences. “She interrupts, doesn’t let them finish, scolds them. These are people who are just trying to get her up to speed on what’s happening.”
Waters yells at staffers for things like making eye contact with other aides. She unceremoniously fires people who give presentations that don’t live up to her standards.
The scene, at first, might clash with the image of Waters that has taken off on the internet since the election of Donald Trump. The meme-ified image of “Auntie Maxine” ― a fearless, quirky black woman who may not be related to you, but whom you love and respect for her straight talk just the same ― has become a favorite of millennials and brought Waters’ Twitter account up to hundreds of thousands of followers. But, at a closer look, her staff meetings actually fit with her internet persona: Auntie Maxine, like many black women when it’s time to buckle down at work, isn’t about to play with you.
“There’s a genuineness,” said R. Eric Thomas, a columnist for Elle.com who has written several viral articles with headlines like “You Will Never, In Your Entire Life, Get The Best Of Maxine Waters.”
“With Maxine, she’s talking like everyone you respect in your life talks, but whom you wouldn’t expect to be in Washington,” he said. “If my mom and my aunt were running Washington, everyone would straighten up and fly right. I think a lot of people feel that way.”
And Waters’ comments about Trump have fit that bill.
“I think that he is disrespectful of most people,” Waters told The Huffington Post. “He has no respect for other human beings. He lies, he cannot be trusted, I don’t know what it means to sit down with someone like that who you cannot believe one word that they say once you get up by talking to them. I have no trust and no faith in him whatsoever.”
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) said he helped coax Waters to come to Georgia for an upcoming event, given her overwhelming popularity in the black community. “She’s hard-edged, hard-nosed, hard-driving, firm in her beliefs, and she is an institution unto herself. African Americans adore her,” Johnson said.
Waters’ experience as a black woman in America gives the rage in her voice an added dose of authenticity. Waters has come about that anger honestly: Black people, particularly women, have generally been treated horribly throughout American history. Black men began serving as sheriffs, congressmen and senators as early as 1870, and black women often did a bulk of the work necessary to advance men into those positions and support them while in office. But it wasn’t until 1968 ― when Maxine Waters was 30 ― that Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman elected to Congress.
When Trump or his surrogates take on Waters, as they have since she began speaking out against his policies, the attacks come with a barely sheathed racist edge. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly recently mocked her “James Brown wig,” saying he wouldn’t listen to her concerns about Trump’s politics because of it.
In a viral response, Waters made clear who she is. “I’m a strong black woman, and I cannot be intimidated,” she said. “I cannot be thought to be afraid of Bill O’Reilly or anybody. And I’d like to say to women out there everywhere: Don’t allow these right-wing talking heads, these dishonorable people, to intimidate you or scare you. Be who you are. Do what you do. And let us get on with discussing the real issues of this country.”
The O’Reillys of the world see Waters as nothing but an angry black woman. And she is, indeed, an angry black woman ― rightfully and unapologetically so.
“It’s not good advice to get in a fight with Maxine Waters,” said Zev Yaroslavsky, a former LA county supervisor who has known Waters for decades and who noted that O’Reilly apologized with uncharacteristic speed. “What’s the ‘Man of La Mancha’ quote? ‘Whether the stone hits the pitcher or the pitcher hits the stone, it’s going to be bad for the pitcher.’”
Waters’ anger wards off rivals. It enhances her moral authority. And it comforts and amplifies her often equally angry constituents.
“She can sometimes be animated, and I think people might think that that is evidence of lack of control,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), who has long served with Waters on the Financial Services Committee. “But it is not. It is quite calculated, and most of the time, it is very effective.”
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Maxine Waters, one of 13 children, was born in 1938 in St. Louis, a city that was a capital of black culture and politics at the time. Waters’ high school yearbook predicted she’d become speaker of the House ― an impressively optimistic prediction, given that she graduated a decade before the Voting Rights Act mandated African Americans’ right to vote.
Waters started her family at a young age and had two children before moving west to LA and finding a gig as a service representative for Pacific Telephone, while working her way slowly toward a sociology degree. She later became a supervisor for a head start program in Watts, a black working-class neighborhood in South Los Angeles ― her first foray into professional public service.
One night in August 1965, cops pulled over an African-American motorist in Watts and beat him badly. Then, as now, police violence was a not-unheard-of occurrence. But there’s no telling when a single moment becomes a spark that lights a fire, and this one lit up Watts. The neighborhood erupted in protest, leading to what became known as the Watts Rebellion — or, to white America, the Watts Riots.
Following the rebellion, a small group of black politicians and organizers came together at a crucial meeting in Bakersfield in 1966. Waters, whose activism in the community was becoming increasingly high profile, was among them. From that meeting came a long-term, statewide wave of black politicians from California, focused on improving conditions for communities of color.
“Anybody who became ‘somebody’ was there,” James Richardson, a Sacramento Bee reporter who covered much of Waters’ early career, said of the Bakersfield summit. “They plotted over how to gain electoral power and it was a watershed moment that wasn’t really seen.”
Waters’ work in the community eventually led to a gig that would define her approach to politics the rest of her life: serving as a top aide to LA Councilman David Cunningham Jr. When she’s been asked since why she continues flying cross-country every single week, despite facing no political threat to her seat, she recalls what she learned as a chief deputy to Cunningham: the importance of constituent service. In 1976, Waters ran for and won a seat in the California State Assembly. She has been in elected office ever since.
“It’s as if she never left the public housing projects in Watts in all of her life,” said her longtime ally Willie Brown, a speaker of the Assembly who went on to become mayor of San Francisco.
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Waters has been in political life long enough to see the Democratic Party transform several times over. She is, in many ways, a holdover from another time. But the world seems to be coming full circle. Today, nearly every Democrat identifies as “progressive,” but decades ago the word had a specific meaning and referred to a movement launched in opposition to urban machine politicians who relied on transactional politics and constituent service to consolidate power.
Progressives prioritized anti-corruption and the integrity of the political process. The penny-ante palm greasing of the city machine gave way to the sanitized, large-scale corruption of national politics by corporate money. With government watchdogs on the prowl, politicians lost the ability to bestow jobs and other benefits on supporters in the community. It was all well-intentioned, but as the power to better the community moved to the private sector and out of politicians’ hands, quality of life in the community steadily declined.
Waters is not a good-government progressive. She is an old-school liberal, one who believes that outcomes matter more than process. She prides herself on constituent service. And she often wins.
“It is hard to think of any single member of Congress who has done more than Maxine to protect the financial reforms and prevent another financial crisis,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “Her work touches every family in America. She’s really been good.”
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Waters’ keen sense of public opinion is as strong as that of any member of Congress. She has leaned right into the Auntie Maxine persona as yet another method of relating to constituents. At a private meeting of her House colleagues earlier this year, Democrats were debating the stunning level of grassroots energy around the country — and how it could be harnessed to regain power. Waters rose to address her colleagues, stressing the importance of learning the language the kids use today — and explained the meaning of the phrase “stay woke.” (The phrase originated as a way for black activists to remind each other of systemic inequality; it has since evolved to describe anybody who professes concern for social justice ― up to and including ride-share companies.)
Waters’ grassroots touch — combined with her grueling work ethic and endless frequent flyer miles — is what allowed Waters to know long before national groups, and before federal regulators, that big banks were engaging in rampant mortgage servicing fraud and foreclosure scams. It has helped her stay far ahead of the national curve on issues such as mass incarceration, the drug war and police brutality. And by sensing — and leaping to satiate — a tremendous hunger among the Democratic base to not only delegitimize and de-normalize Trump, but to actually impeach him, she’s fueled her latest star turn.
“Maxine is a grassroots person,” said Yaroslavsky, the former LA county supervisor. “She’s as comfortable in the district as she is in the committee. ... You learn to take care of the people who pay your salary. And sometimes she steps on toes doing that, but usually she takes the populist position because that’s what she thinks is her role.”
“Maxine was a tough person. You didn’t cross her. She could give a fiery speech on the floor and send your bill to the dumper. Some nicknamed her ‘Mad Max’ behind her back,” Richardson said of her state Assembly years. “She would represent [Assembly Speaker Willie Brown] in budget meetings, so everyone knew that Maxine was to be taken seriously because she was speaking for him. And for herself.”
Waters’ crowning achievement in the Assembly was a bill she co-authored with Brown, who’d also been at the Bakersfield meeting, and convinced Republican Gov. George Deukmejian to sign. It divested California’s mammoth pension system from South African interests in protest of apartheid. Convincing the governor was difficult, Brown reported, but Waters got to work, demonstrating an interest in issues that Deukmejian cared about, such as farming regulations in California’s Central Valley, coastline and water resources in Los Angeles. She was able to demonstrate her commitment to his issues enough to engender the goodwill necessary to receive his support, Brown said. It was in stark contrast to the image of the blustering demagogue, and it’s one colleagues said they’ve seen over and over in the years since. The coastal and farming policy insights she picked up in pursuit of Nelson Mandela’s freedom, indeed, would become handy as she helped shape a flood insurance bill 30 years later.
(Brown is selling himself a bit short, as he always played a major role. Richardson notes that the speaker effectively appealed to Deukmejian’s family history. The governor, who was of Armenian descent, lost family in the Armenian genocide.)
California blocked its huge pension fund from investing in South African interests in 1986. It was a watershed moment in the anti-apartheid movement, and Mandela was released in 1990. Brown said Mandela traveled to California during his first United States tour following his release to thank Waters for her part in freeing him. “Maxine’s history is replete with successes, but none greater than freeing Nelson Mandela,” Brown said.
That may sound like too much credit for a collective action, but Brown says Waters’ move set off a chain reaction ― as she hoped it would ― that led to his release. “Nelson Mandela was freed because Maxine Waters orchestrated a process in the legislature to divest our pension fund on the basis of apartheid,” Brown said. “This was quickly followed by Congress and other municipalities and it led clearly to the ultimate freedom of Nelson Mandela.”
Indeed, Waters’ dominance of the Assembly in the 1980s is hard to overstate. Nobody who saw the authority the diminutive young woman wielded in the chamber is surprised at what she has become today. “The things going on in California in the ‘80s make DC look like nothing,” Richardson said. “We’d go months without a government, everything shut down, over pensions and benefits for teachers and the poor.”
Waters withstood all of that. Persisted, even, you could say.
“That’s her style. She will not be intimidated,” Richardson said, echoing language Waters used in response to O’Reilly’s recent racist attack on her.
Although Waters worked the inside game in the Assembly, she held on to her outsider status throughout the 1980s, twice going against the party establishment in backing Jesse Jackson’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. When he fell short, she floated the possibility that black voters should support a third party if Democrats remained unresponsive to their concerns. And so when she ran for Congress in 1990, the party endorsed her primary opponent ― but Waters won anyway.
She has been fighting established power ever since, and her natural impulse with Trump taking the White House this year was to charge right at him. Immediately after the election, the Democratic Party was caught in a debate over how to approach a Trump presidency. Would they try to work with him where possible, or resist his agenda across the board? Waters, who boycotted his inauguration, seems to see the answer as simple and has promised a full-blown rejection of Trump.
“As I said earlier to someone I was talking to,” Waters told HuffPost, “I became very offended by him during his campaign the way he mocked disabled journalists, the way he talked about grabbing women by their private parts ... the way he stalked Hillary Clinton at the debate that I attended in Missouri where he circled her as she was standing trying to give her petition on the issues. The way he has praised [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and talked about the great leader he was. And the way that he pushed back even on Bill O’Reilly on the Fox show when Bill O’Reilly said in so many words, ‘Why are you so supportive of Putin? He’s a killer.’ And he said, ‘so what,’ in so many words, ‘[it’s] the United States, people get killed here all the time’ or something like that.”
“I think that for the future, we have to deal with this administration and organizing to try and take back the House and the White House,” she continued.
Mikael Moore, Waters’ grandson who served as a longtime aide to her in Congress, put it succinctly: “She runs toward the fight.”
“She is operating no differently than she did prior to Trump’s arrival,” Brown said. “She generated just as much attention during the Bush years. [During Obama’s and Clinton’s terms] she had the great joy of not having to do that.”
During the 2016 election, Waters clashed with Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders when she backed Hillary Clinton in the primary instead. Some of her staffers were frustrated by Waters’ early enthusiasm for Clinton, whom they saw as much weaker on Waters’ signature issue of bank reform. When Sanders was invited to address the Democratic caucus in July 2016 — after the primary was effectively over, but while Sanders was continuing to campaign — some members of the Congressional Black Caucus, of which Waters is a member, heckled him.
The CBC has a long, fraught relationship with Wall Street, often allying with big banks for fundraising purposes (much like the rest of the party). And since 2013, Waters had been the banks’ chief adversary in leadership, warning members of the caucus that helping Wall Street could result in a lot of pain for their black constituents a few years down the line. But at the Sanders address, Waters gave her colleagues cover by taking on Sanders.
“Basically her question was, ‘Why do you keep talking about breaking up the banks when we already fixed this with Dodd-Frank?’” recalls one Democratic staffer who witnessed the confrontation.
This fed a narrative the Clinton campaign was trying to foster — Bernie was a dreamer who didn’t understand policy. Most members of Congress, of course, do not understand financial policy ― they defer to leaders on the Financial Services Committee. Here was the top Democrat on that committee saying Sanders didn’t get it. It was powerful. But Waters’ own staffers knew their boss was twisting the policy. “Too big to fail” is alive and well in American banking.
Dodd-Frank gave regulators the tools to fix the problem, but they haven’t used them, and Sanders wanted to force their hands. “It was pretty deflating,” one former Waters staffer says.
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Waters combined her fierce nature with her constituent savvy after the 1992 LA riots, with a response that would come to define her career: She took a hard line with colleagues, but used a soft touch with her those who would vote for her.
In April 1992, communities across South Los Angeles, enraged by the acquittals of four white police officers in the beating of Rodney King, launched what locals still refer to as an uprising — known nationally as the LA riots.
In the wake of the chaos, Waters, who was then in her first term in Congress, showed up uninvited to a meeting President George H.W. Bush had called to discuss “urban problems,” according to a New York Times report.
“I’ve been out here trying to define these issues,” she told Speaker Thomas S. Foley. “I don’t intend to be excluded or dismissed. We have an awful lot to say.”
Back home, she struck a more poetic note, addressing constituents in a letter reprinted by the Los Angeles Times. In it, she employed a canny understanding of the zeitgeist and the language of the moment:
My dear children, my friends, my brothers, life is sometimes cold-blooded and rotten. And it seems nobody, nobody cares.
But there are the good times, the happy moments.
I’m talking about the special times when a baby is born and when gospel music sounds good on Sunday morning. When Cube is kickin’ and Public Enemy is runnin’ it. When peach cobbler and ice cream tastes too good, the down-home blues makes you sing and shout, and someone simply saying, ‘I love you’ makes you want to cry.
Her letter went on to condemn police brutality, predatory lending in communities of color, for-profit schools and a racist justice system. Save a few names, it could have been written today.
In 1994, Republicans won control of Congress and Waters immediately joined the resistance. When activists from the affordable housing group ACORN were arrested early the next year for protesting newly minted Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) demanded that the Capitol Police release them, but he had no luck. Waters did more than demand. She marched down to the station herself and refused to leave until the protesters were let go. The police relented.
Those are exactly the sort of moments that have made Waters’ resistance to Trump so resonant: She stands up to power on behalf of causes and people who are not broadly popular across the political spectrum. Yet she goes there.
In one of Waters’ first votes in Congress, on the 1994 crime bill that has since become infamous as an avatar of mass incarceration, she and other Democrats were under tremendous pressure to do something about rising crime rates. Hillary Clinton, who was then first lady, warned of “super predators,” language she apologized for 22 years later.
Sanders, an independent representing Vermont in the House, voted for it — a capitulation he would regret during his 2016 presidential campaign. Two-thirds of the Congressional Black Caucus ended up voting for the bill, including a former Black Panther. Waters voted no.
But Waters hasn’t just stuck to issues considered traditionally liberal, or to issues that affect a disproportionate number of black Americans, such as criminal justice or housing policy. When Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-Pa.) was defeated in 2010, “everybody assumed” Waters would stay on the housing subcommittee, former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) recalled.
She chose securities, not housing. “That surprised people,” he said, “but it was very sensible” — savvy, even, given the rising importance of Wall Street issues to the liberal base — and defied “the notion that she was just some bleeding-heart who could be for poor people but couldn’t handle the hard stuff.”
Two years later, when Frank retired, the top position became available. Despite a widespread presumption on K Street that she would be passed over for Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a white New York lawmaker much friendlier to Wall Street, Waters took the ranking member position. “She has made a career out of people underestimating her,” said Lynch, who serves with her on the committee. “She really has.”
Bank lobbyists quickly found that Waters didn’t need to be a policy wonk on Day One to handle the job. “When Mr. Frank had the committee, he was so well-versed in many of the subjects that the debate tended to center around him, but when Ms. Waters became ranking member, she really sought out members who had expertise in certain areas and it really became more of a team,” Lynch said. “Barney was a wonk, financial policy wonk, a very, very bright guy and has a whole different style than Maxine. She comes to that job with a whole different set of tools and she uses them quite effectively.”
She’s been forced into wonk mode since taking the job. “Yeah, she’s not happy about it, but she’s become much more embroiled in the nuances of finance and economic policy,” he said.
In 2013, during the fall of her first year as ranking member, Wall Street pushed a bill that would offer taxpayer backing for derivatives trades. It was pitched as a modest technical change and had coasted through the House the session before. Some of Waters’ CBC colleagues were working hard for the bill and trying to get the entire caucus to back it as a bloc.
Waters saw it as undermining the safeguards Dodd-Frank had put in place, but it flew through committee on a 53-6 vote, over Waters’ opposition. Then Waters went to war behind the scenes, forcing the caucus to take no position on the bill. On the House floor, it passed, but a majority of Democrats voted against it, rendering it dead in the Senate and meaning it would have less sway with regulators who look to vote totals for guidance.
Waters’ bomb-throwing reputation belies an ability to work with Republicans when she needs to. The GOP chairman of the Financial Services Committee, Rep. Jeb Hensarling of West Texas, for instance, had no plans to take up a major priority of Waters’, a reform of flood insurance that was critical to a coastal state like California. “West Texas hasn’t had a flood since Noah and he was not open to the idea at all,” Lynch said of the 2013 fight.
So Waters went to work. “She actually formed a coalition with coastal Republicans and coastal Democrats and got that bill taken away from Mr. Hensarling. The speaker took control of it and we eventually got it passed, and I thought that was masterful to be in the minority and be able to do that,” Lynch said. “She built those coalitions with Republicans from Mississippi and Florida and California, Louisiana. I thought that was probably the toughest fight but she was very successful.”
Wall Street fought Waters again during the lame-duck session of 2014. The period after an election and before a new Congress is sworn in is supposed to be a bit of a time-limited, all-you-can-eat buffet for K Street. A year earlier, Republicans had forced a government shutdown by demanding that Congress repeal the Affordable Care Act as part of any deal to maintain federal operations. Democrats had gone to the mat to stand up for their most high-profile achievement.
This time around, Wall Street reform was on the menu. Senate leaders in both parties had agreed to include a new slate of federal subsidies for credit default swaps — the risky trades that demolished AIG in 2008.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and President Barack Obama seemed poised to give the GOP the win. Nancy Pelosi, the Democrats’ leader in the House, did not like confronting Obama in public, and she certainly didn’t want to risk a public relations debacle that could result from a government shutdown — not for an obscure Dodd-Frank provision.
Waters didn’t give her a choice. She decried the bill in press conferences and TV appearances. More importantly, she started whipping members against the bill. If funding the government required subsidizing risky Wall Street speculation, Democrats should force the shutdown and let Republicans explain why they wanted to help big banks so much, Waters argued. She set up a makeshift war room in her Capitol Hill office, and even recruited Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) — a frequent friend of banks on the House Financial Services Committee — to call members and urge them to shoot down the spending bill.
She brought another recruit to the fight, too, reaching out to Rep. Frank, who just a few weeks before had voiced support for the provision Republicans were trying to push through. Frank joined Waters for a phone call with reporters and advocated for killing the bill.
“I didn’t change my substantive position,” Frank insists today, putting his advocacy effort in the broader context of a fight to defend the integrity of Dodd-Frank. “I didn’t think [the measure in question] was very important. But I thought it set a very bad precedent to open up Dodd-Frank to amendment without debate.” Frank had become convinced by the argument Waters was making, that the politics were just as important as the policy ― and caving on the politics could lead to much worse policy.
“She sometimes seems like a bomb thrower, but the people at whom she threw the bombs often turn out to have deserved it.”
The bill, which had been expected to pass with little fanfare, faltered. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) didn’t have the votes. He knew he couldn’t bring around the hard-liners in his own caucus, who were building their own careers by opposing Boehner as a big-spending liberal sellout. He needed Democrats, and the Waters war room was working. Even Pelosi came out against the bill, granting angry Democrats all the cover they needed to vote no.
The bill looked dead. Then Obama and JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon began making personal phone calls to individual House members imploring them to support the package. They eventually got the votes. Waters dinged the president as a Wall Street collaborator.
“I know that the president was whipping and he was supporting this bill and I know that Jamie Dimon was whipping,” she told reporters after the vote. “That’s an odd combination.”
The December 2014 fight was painful. Waters lost. But the fight galvanized the party against Wall Street and embarrassed the president. Waters and her allies made their point. Obama and Reid never agreed to slip pro-bank measures into spending bills again.
“Maxine led the charge to defeat that bill in the House,” Sen. Warren recalled.
That success all goes back to Waters’ connection to her constituents. Former Reps. Brad Miller (D-N.C.) and Mary Jo Kilroy (D-Ohio) both served on the Financial Services Committee with Waters, and both recall that she was the first person they heard identify mortgage servicing fraud as an issue that needed attention. Going around her district, it was something she kept hearing about. “I recall Maxine as being relentless in calling out Wells Fargo and other loan servicers on their policies and practices with respect to the slow place and many obstacles they put on loan modifications,” Kilroy said.
“She was really one of the first, maybe the very first, to raise the issue of mortgage servicer conduct, which she heard about from her constituents in California. That was before the national advocacy groups were really on it,” Miller said.
“She kept asking witnesses at hearings about servicing problems,” Miller said. “I thought it was a distraction at the time. But it gradually became more and more evident what a problem servicer conduct was.”
By 2011, Waters wanted to force the issue. That January, she joined with Miller, Lynch and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) to write a letter to the inspector general of the Federal Housing Finance Agency challenging a recent settlement with Bank of America, suggesting it had failed to address the problem. Miller thought Waters’ draft was too strongly worded. “I insisted she dial it back,” he recalled, an insistence Lynch recalls as well. She did.
Months later, when Miller read the inspector general’s report that had been sparked by the letter, he concluded that her initial scathing letter had been entirely appropriate. “When we got the IG’s report, I wished that we’d sent a letter harsher than her draft,” Miller said. “She sometimes seems like a bomb thrower, but the people at whom she threw the bombs often turn out to have deserved it.”
Taryn Finley contributed reporting.