As she crusades across the country, from hotel ballrooms to college campuses, from talk radio to the Internet, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) asks a series of troubling questions at almost every stop: "Who knew what? When did they know it? And how high did it go?"
For six months, she has been demanding answers to a controversial and disputed San Jose Mercury News series that suggested the federal government aided the spread of crack cocaine in the inner city.
Waters' questions imply a willingness to take the allegations further than even the Mercury News was prepared to go. Never mind that most of the news media and the political establishment months ago dismissed the CIA-crack link as overstated or unprovable. This is a Maxine Waters kind of issue: full of rage, full of history, easily grasped by many of her constituents, misunderstood by much of the outside world.
The story of how Waters has seized and run with the CIA allegations is a story of why a combative, polarizing, inspiring lone wolf is arguably America's most visible black politician.
She walks a tightrope. On one hand, she blames the government for somehow betraying its poorest citizens. "It doesn't matter whether [the CIA] delivered the kilo of cocaine themselves or turned their back on it to let somebody else do it," she said with cold deliberateness that built into an engaging rhythm two weeks ago at a Baltimore Urban League dinner. "They're guilty just the same."
On the other hand, she is trying to use the crack issue to mobilize those same citizens against the pitfalls of drugs. The allegations against the CIA matter, she says, because crack has so viciously undermined personal responsibility and exacerbated other social problems such as crime.
"You have to be stronger, you have to be better," she tells young audiences. "You can't do that if you're cracked out, you can't do it if you are alcoholed out."
Watching as Crack Ravages City
To understand why the 58-year-old Waters takes the CIA allegations so seriously, listen to her talk about an incident that happened in the 1980s, when crack was surging through the neighborhoods of her inner-city state Assembly district.
At the time, she said, she was involved in a job training program that provided $10 a day to men and women who finished the classes. The money was supposed to help out with incidental expenses. But often the money seemed to make it no further than the door of a neighborhood crack house.
Ultimately, she said, the program was paralyzed until the employment counselors and trainers confronted participants with the evils of drug addiction.
"We put up signs saying, 'I'm not going to give the crack man my $10 today,' " she said.
The lesson, to Waters, was that all the social programs so dear to liberals are meaningless unless drugs are eradicated.
"You can't talk about job training, teenage pregnancy, welfare reform or even communities turning themselves around until you talk about drugs," she said.
Last August, the San Jose Mercury News reported that Nicaraguan drug dealers Norvin Meneses and Danilo Blandon had set up one of the original cocaine pipelines in the early 1980s with a Los Angeles dealer named "Freeway" Ricky Ross and funneled millions in drug profits to the CIA-supported Contras. The newspaper suggested that the CIA either approved of the scheme or turned a blind eye as the pipeline ignited a cocaine epidemic that spread from South-Central Los Angeles to urban centers across the nation.
Eventually, Meneses landed in jail. His partner, Blandon, became a paid drug enforcement agent, participating in a sting that nabbed Ross, who is serving life in prison.
Other publications, including the Los Angeles Times, found significant lapses in reporting in the Mercury News series. For example, The Times found that the crack epidemic was triggered by myriad drug networks and that little money from the Nicaraguan drug dealers made its way back to the Contras. A preliminary report by the CIA also cleared the agency.
A Puzzle's Missing Pieces
But Waters was captivated--and enraged. The allegations touched a raw nerve with her and throughout communities like those in her 35th Congressional District, which includes Inglewood, Hawthorne, Gardena and part of South-Central Los Angeles. Through the 1980s, blocks had been devastated by the seemingly sudden influx of affordable, highly addictive crack cocaine. The Mercury News allegations, Waters said, provided the missing pieces to a puzzle many had been trying to figure out: Why was crack so easily available in the inner city?
"It made my heart pound," she said.
It sent her on a mission. She met with Ricky Ross in prison in San Diego and organized a workshop on crack and the CIA at the annual Congressional Black Caucus weekend. She put together her own makeshift probe on the controversy, saying it was needed to "hold the feet to the fire" of those responsible for the investigations being conducted by the CIA, the Justice Department and both houses of Congress.
"I'm glad to see someone with an in-your-face, here-I-am, I'm-right-you're-wrong philosophy on the scene," said noted civil rights activist Julian Bond. "She's got this issue by the throat and she is not going to let it go."
Waters' dominance of the issue was hammered home in November when Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Carson) hosted a town hall meeting in Watts for CIA Director John Deutsch to answer residents' questions about the agency's alleged misdeeds. Deutsch's answers were drowned out by angry crowds who denounced the visit and chanted, "Where's Maxine?"
Waters was not there because she had dismissed the CIA director's visit as meaningless. Meanwhile, she was quietly consolidating support to capture the chairmanship of the Congressional Black Caucus, making drug abuse her top issue.
She won a close fight, and was also elected to the House Democratic leadership as vice chairwoman of the Steering Committee. Suddenly, she had two high-profile posts, providing her with an instant national platform and a greater voice and negotiating power in Congress. It was a dramatic change for a four-term Democrat whose influence seemed to have evaporated once the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994.
During the congressional recess, Waters pulled off another surprise while vacationing in the Bahamas, where her husband, Sidney Williams, is the U.S. ambassador. She slipped away for a five-hour visit to Nicaragua to interview a drug dealer in a prison outside Managua.
"Sometimes we don't learn until the last minute just where she is or what she is doing," said one of her staff members. "We get a call from someone saying, 'Your boss is on the television,' and there she is."
To Stanley Sheinbaum, a longtime Democratic Party contributor, former Los Angeles police commissioner and longtime friend of Waters, one of her strongest characteristics is that she "refuses to be ignored."
"She is always carrying things to the White House on things they overlook," he said.
Determined to Be Heard
The fifth of 13 children raised by a single mother in St. Louis, Waters could not afford to be meek.
"When you have 12 sisters and brothers and you are competing for everything from space in the bathroom to the most favorable bed," she once said in an interview, "I suppose it helps to shape the personality an awful lot."
She got her first job cleaning tables in a segregated restaurant at the age of 12. By 23, she was married with two children, holding down a series of odd jobs. Her first marriage ended in the 1970s. She earned a college degree at Cal State L.A., became a social worker at a Head Start program, and turned into a political organizer, which ultimately landed her in the California Assembly. A year after her election, she married Williams, a luxury-car salesman and former professional football player.
In 14 years in the Assembly, she rose through the ranks, sponsoring legislation that focused on creating set-aside programs for minorities and women and initiating legislation that forced the state to cease investing in South Africa. She was instrumental in helping San Francisco Democrat Willie Brown form a coalition to capture the speakership. She co-chaired the Rev. Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential campaign and seconded Bill Clinton's nomination at the 1992 Democratic Convention.
LaVerne McCain Gill, the author of "African American Women in Congress," said Waters has the feisty nature of the first African American woman elected to Congress, Shirley Chisholm--"a community activist in Congress."
Gill recalled Waters' audaciousness in 1993 when Midwestern members of the House were trying to push through an emergency relief bill for flood-ravaged areas in their districts. Waters attached an amendment to the bill requesting $10 million for job training in South-Central Los Angeles.
Through backdoor bargaining, the amendment was removed to expedite the passage of the emergency legislation; in exchange, sponsors promised Waters they would set aside the money through another source.
"It was the kind of incident for which she was derided by her critics for her tactics, but admired for her tenacity," Gill said.
While Waters enjoys close ties with the president, she does not shy away from pushing him on issues.
At a recent speech at Bowie State University in Maryland, she criticized Clinton's State of the Union address for not saying enough about the poor.
"It was a good speech, and if you are a middle-class American, you would say, 'Oh, I can get a tax break,' " she said. "If you are a welfare recipient, you better wonder where are the jobs going to come from. It was a wonderful speech for some folks, but there are a lot of people it didn't touch."
Her supporters hope her toughness will give the Congressional Black Caucus a more aggressive stance in confronting the Republican leadership.
"Her style is needed to be able to focus the attention on the real disparities that exist," said Kweisi Mfume, the former Congressional Black Caucus chairman who now is president of the NAACP. "Maxine does that better than anyone I know."
Those who oppose her tend to see her in one-dimensional terms. Friends see a more complex picture, someone who can be engaging one minute and coldly dismissive the next. Many say the best time to reach her is at work after office hours, when she is still answering the phone.
"She is a living contradiction, one day she mothers you, caring about your health, your family and the next she can just walk right by you and never say a word," said a longtime friend.
Waters, he said, often uses statesman Lord Henry Palmerston's description of Britain to describe her own plight. "She always says she has 'no permanent friends; only permanent interests,' " he said.
At her field office in South-Central Los Angeles, national interest in her CIA crusade can be measured by the boxfuls: Thousands of prisoners serving time under the nation's stiff crack laws have written offering their support.
Critics accuse Waters of being a showboat with no real hope of indicting the CIA, of wanting to make the government a scapegoat for social problems that go much deeper than drugs, of having no concrete goal. But she is already willing to offer one plan.
It involves those mountains of letters that her staff is now categorizing by state and length of the prisoner's sentence. She wants to take the letters to the street corners in her district and have gang members and families read them.
"It is the only way I can think of to have them understand what happens to young people who sell drugs," she said.