Waters at Center Stage in King/Drew Drama

Times Staff Writers

A day after she helped marshal more than 1,000 people to protest the proposed closure of Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center’s trauma unit, Rep. Maxine Waters on Tuesday sat at the center aisle, second row, of the county Board of Supervisors meeting room, planning her next move.

She and other foes of the closure plan were there to voice their concerns to the supervisors. But it was Waters getting most of the attention. Every few minutes, a protester, a union leader, a policy analyst or an elected official would stop by for a quick huddle.

State Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) exchanged kisses with Waters and sat down as the board was still considering other items.

“Do you have a good relationship with Gloria?” she asked Cedillo, referring to Supervisor Gloria Molina.

At one point, Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke even rose from the board dais to chat with Waters.

Waters, who has represented South Los Angeles for two decades, is in her element these days. Her outspoken liberal views have left her somewhat isolated in an increasingly conservative Washington. In Los Angeles, by contrast, she has long been known as one of the few politicians who can energize a community into action. She even calls herself “The Organizer.”

“There’s no one like her who can generate buzz around an issue in the African American community,” said Kerman Maddox, a political consultant. “She can explain it in a way that normal people can understand. She doesn’t have the John Kerry dilemma.”

To Maddox and others, the fight over King/Drew is perfect for Waters: It involves a hospital created after the 1965 Watts riots to improve access to healthcare in one of Los Angeles’ poorest areas.

Waters, 66, has long crusaded for issues of concern to African Americans. In the early 1980s, when the Los Angeles Police Department employed chokeholds to subdue suspects, she organized a protest at Parker Center and succeeded in stopping use of the tactic. She also rallied the community over allegations in a 1996 San Jose Mercury News story, later disputed by other newspapers and government officials, that the CIA had aided the spread of crack cocaine in South L.A.

“I’m an organizer,” she said of her latest fight, “and this issue runs deep.”

When county officials announced in September that they planned to close the trauma center, the opposition was vocal but somewhat diffuse — made up of unions, community groups and radio hosts.

But by Tuesday, Waters had emerged as the undisputed leader of what has become a highly coordinated campaign. She has organized weekly Saturday strategy sessions and urged dozens of South L.A. pastors to talk about the issue at Sunday services. She and other opponents helped lure actress Angela Bassett, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King Jr.'s daughter to the effort.

At the first of the Saturday meetings, held Sept. 25 at Grant AME Church in Watts, she laid out for a crowd of 100 people exactly how the campaign would proceed.

“When I heard the announcements, I was driven spiritually to say, ‘They will not close the trauma center at Martin Luther King,’ ” she said at the meeting.

Walters told the group she wanted to break Los Angeles into districts for people to carry petitions from door to door. She asked that everyone take a petition to church and take a letter about the trauma unit closure to introduce the campaign to their pastors or ministers. She then listened to two hours of suggestions from the audience about making bumper stickers and T-shirts and persuading minority-owned businesses in South L.A. to post signs in their windows.

Monday’s hearing at King/Drew Magnet High School was called by the Board of Supervisors, but it became clear early that Waters was running the show. As the roughly six-hour hearing came to a close, she once again grabbed the spotlight. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky was in the midst of a motion when Waters returned to the podium, demanded to know what time the supervisors meeting was on Tuesday, then turned to the crowd and reminded them to go to it.

Yaroslavsky protested to her that he was still trying to speak. But she kept talking as if he hadn’t.

Afterward, the supervisors left and Waters made her way out, stopping to hug every other person. Teenagers took pictures of her with their cellphones. Bleary-eyed, she began to strategize with her staff for the next day’s battle.

Yaroslavsky said Tuesday that he was not offended by Waters’ actions at the hearing. “I’ve seen her far more animated in the past,” he said.

“I’d rather be on her side than on the other side of an issue,” he said. “But I feel we’re on the same side of the issue here. We’re just coming at it from different angles.”

But Supervisor Mike Antonovich had harsh words for Waters’ performance at the hearing: “Pathetic,” he said. “I was embarrassed for her, for her actions…. She leads with her mouth instead of her mind. As a result of that you get demagoguery instead of solutions.”

The board could vote as early as Tuesday on whether to close the trauma center. Officials said shuttering the unit, which served about 2,150 of the most severely injured patients last year, is a crucial step in the effort to reform the Willowbrook hospital, which has been beset with patient-care problems, including several deaths.

Waters and other critics say that closing the trauma unit would hurt the quality of medical care in South Los Angeles. They believe that the county can fix King/Drew’s problems without such drastic action.

Many community members said Tuesday that Waters had helped energize the fight to keep the trauma center open.

“Maxine without a doubt is a catalyst,” said Celes King IV, vice chairman of the California Congress on Racial Equality. “But had not the community wanted this, it wouldn’t have made a difference…. Other people are coming on board I’m sure because the name ‘Waters’ is there.”

King said his group and others had been rallying around King/Drew for years and ratcheted up their efforts earlier this year. But he said Waters’ outspokenness had magnified their impact.

“Maxine comes in with a preexisting infrastructure that she can readily tap into that she has built up over various struggles in South L.A., including neighborhood block clubs,” said John Jackson of ACORN, a community group. Jackson credited Waters with bringing in people from Brentwood and the Westside, not just South L.A.

Waters and the other closure foes still have an uphill fight. Burke is the only supervisor to say she opposes the immediate closure. The four others have expressed some support for the proposal in the past but have said they are keeping an open mind.

Waters remains undaunted.

“We’ve got resources and connections we can pull together when needed,” she said. “You haven’t seen the half of it. We’ll have half our entertainment and sports community out here if needed.”


Times staff writers Jack Leonard and Tracy Weber contributed to this report.