Ethics probe may hurt other Democrats, but not Maxine Waters

When the congresswoman entered, the crowd rose up like a congregation on Sunday morning for one, two, then three standing ovations.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D- Los Angeles) stood facing her cheering supporters. She wore a pencil skirt, pearls and a smile that looked curiously triumphant, considering the month she has had.

Waters, 71, has been at the center of a political battle since the House Ethics Committee revealed that it was investigating whether she had used her influence to gain advantage for OneUnited, a Massachusetts-based bank in which her husband has a financial interest.

Characteristically, she has fought back, denying any wrongdoing as her allies suggest that the ethics committee, which has also brought charges against New York Democrat Charles Rangel, is unfairly targeting black members of Congress.

On Monday, the committee released the accusations against Waters, charging her with three counts of ethics violations including an allegation that she allowed her chief of staff, who is also her grandson, to intervene on behalf of the bank even after she had been warned by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), head of the House Financial Services Committee, to stay clear of the issue.

Republican strategists hope the investigations will taint Democrats before the November elections. Democrats fret that the charges may hurt some of their candidates in swing districts. But in Waters’ own South Los Angeles County district, where she has won nine elections with more than 70% of the vote, neither ethics charges nor changing demographics appear to have shaken her support.

Outside of the Church of God True Foundation in Watts on Sunday afternoon, Daiquiri Jackson said she has heard about the ethics investigation but questions the motives of the committee carrying it out.

“She’s a target just for being a minority woman,” Jackson said.

Jackson said most people she knows think Waters has done a lot for the 35th District, a mostly working-class area that stretches from Westchester and Playa del Rey through Inglewood and South Los Angeles to Lawndale and Gardena. Supporters praise Waters’ stands against police brutality and predatory lenders, and her efforts to prevent closure of Martin Luther King Jr. hospital in nearby Willowbrook. Jackson’s aunt found work after attending classes at a Watts job-training facility Waters helped open.

Jackson’s father, the preacher at the storefront church, called Waters a defender of minorities and poor people.

“As far as we’re concerned, she’s been doing a beautiful job,” said the pastor, who goes by the name Minister Tilmno. “There’s a lot of poor black people here, and poor Asian people and poor Hispanic people, for that matter, and she’s representing them.”

“She’s given part of her life away for people,” he said. “Everybody’s got a skeleton in the closet.”

Waters developed a reputation as a voice for the African American community early on in her political career, when, as a member of the state Assembly, she helped pass an anti-apartheid bill requiring state pension funds to divest from South Africa.

“She’s more closely identified with racial politics than anything else,” said Joe Hicks, the former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Los Angeles chapter. “She’s come to be known as tough on white folks.”

Hicks, a Republican, considers such attitudes “old school” and thinks future African American politicians will sound more like President Obama, who has sought to distance himself from racial politics. But Waters — and the African American political machine that she helms — still make up a potent political force in Los Angeles.

The crowd that cheered her at First African Methodist Episcopal Church on Saturday during a conference on U.S. relief efforts in Haiti included a who’s who of local African American leaders. City Council members Bernard Parks and Jan Perry were there, as was the Rev. John J. Hunter, one of L.A.'s most influential pastors.

At times, the session had the feeling of a pep rally.

“Whenever you are a leader, you’re going to be attacked,” Hunter said, referring to Waters. Maulana Karenga, a South Los Angeles political activist for decades, said Waters “is in the tradition of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, and so we must stand by her.”

They’ve stood by her before.

In 2004, The Times reported that Waters’ family members had made more than $1 million by doing business with companies and candidates the congresswoman had helped. That year, Waters won reelection with more than 80% of the vote.

The solid support from within the black community is crucial. Even as the district’s demographics have shifted, African Americans still cast the lion’s share of the votes and black Republicans have been her strongest opponents.

When Waters was first elected to Congress in 1990, African Americans made up 41% of her district. In 2008, with the growth of the Latino population, African Americans accounted for 28%.

But Latino political participation has grown more slowly. Anthony Rojas, who owns Las Fronteras Piñatas in Inglewood, said most Latinos he knows in the district don’t know who Waters is.

“The Hispanics aren’t voting,” he said. He blamed that in part on the number of undocumented workers. Others who are eligible to vote may distrust politics, he said.

In 10 years, Rojas predicted, the area’s political landscape will more closely reflect the strip mall where his store is located, next to businesses such as La Lumbre Tacos and Llamarada Nightclub.

“If you want to know why she’s still in power, it’s because change takes time,” said Rojas, 35. Latinos, he said, “would have to have someone to vote for. And to challenge her now would be fatal.”

Richard Simon in Tribune’s Washington Bureau contributed to this report.