Rep. Maxine Waters knows what “throwing shade” means now. She urges people to “stay woke.”
In the past few months, young people have embraced 78-year-old Waters and her acerbic comments about President Trump, bringing the Los Angeles Democrat national fame in her 14th term, and a new nickname: Auntie Maxine.
“It’s unusual for elected officials to step outside of the box,” Waters said in an interview. “The millennials keep telling me for the most part they’ve never heard someone talk like that before.”
Since refusing to attend Trump’s inauguration, Waters, the longest-serving black woman in the House, has achieved icon-level status. Her image and quotes appear on T-shirts and posters. Twitter and Facebook are full of people rubbing their virtual hands in glee at what she might say next.
“When I grow up, I want to be @MaxineWaters. Thank you, Rep. Waters, for being unafraid to speak the truth,” Crystal Webb, a young Twitter user, posted.
“On a different note, @MaxineWaters clap black game is sooooo strong!! #goals,” said another.
Young black activists in particular see a powerful and familiar figure in the impeccably dressed older woman expressing her opinion, even if it might be painfully honest, said Rashad Robinson, who leads the New York-based Color of Change, a progressive civil rights group.
“Maxine Waters has given us the viral videos to go along with our rants,” Robinson said. “People are shaking their heads when she talks, and they are saying, ‘Thank God someone said that.’
“I think for many young black folks, they have that sort of auntie or matriarch in their family that sort of says it like it is,” Robinson said.
The congresswoman’s sudden popularity has led to interview after interview in the likes of Teen Vogue, Jet, Elle, Essence, Cosmopolitan and millennial-focused news sites like Mic and BuzzFeed, with headlines like, “Maxine Waters Is Back and She’s Not Here to Play.”
Southern Californians have long been familiar with Waters, who lives in the Vermont Knolls section of South Los Angeles and is not known for holding her tongue.
But her derision of Trump goes far beyond previous criticism of political foes, and the new, norm-breaking president has energized her in a way other Republicans she’s opposed have not. In an age when the call from many on her side of the aisle is “Resistance,” Waters has become a de facto leader of the charge.
She couldn’t fathom Trump’s rise during the election, she said, pointing to his insulting comments about former presidential rivals Carly Fiorina and Hillary Clinton, the lewd “Access Hollywood” video in which he bragged about grabbing women and his mocking imitation of a disabled reporter.
“I can’t get it out of my head,” she said. “I’ve never seen anybody as disgusting or as disrespectful as he is.”
The attention began when Waters refused to go to the presidential inauguration. She also stayed away when Trump gave his first speech to Congress, telling the Los Angeles Times, “I don’t honor this president. I don’t respect this president. And I’m not joyful in the presence of this president.”
She has been saying she thinks Trump is headed for impeachment since even before he was sworn in. At an anti-Trump tax march in April, she said she’ll “fight every day until he is impeached.” She refers to his staff as the “Kremlin Klan” and has pushed for an independent investigation into Russian interference in the election and possible collusion by the Trump campaign.
Waters has made it clear she doesn’t want to be in the same room with Trump, much less extend the courtesies commonly afforded the president, regardless of party. She has put politeness aside.
Waters has always been a target of conservative media, but the attacks have increased since she began in January to speak of impeachment. Last month, the far-right news magazine American Thinker called her unhinged and the “poster child for Trump Derangement Syndrome.”
Now-ousted Fox News host Bill O’Reilly joked earlier this month that he was too distracted by her “James Brown wig” to hear her comments on the House floor about patriotism under Trump. He later apologized.
Waters responded on MSNBC: “Let me just say this: I’m a strong black woman, and I cannot be intimidated. I cannot be undermined. I cannot be thought to be afraid of Bill O’Reilly or anybody.” Her comments quickly went viral.
The congresswoman says she’s just being herself.
“Some people see me as a rabble-rouser. Some people see me as someone who does not care about what other people think about me. Some people see me as someone who makes other people look bad. … I often get a feeling most people don’t know who I am, or have a clue, and I live with that,” Waters said. “I don’t try to prove anything by talking.”
Amid a black population that has receded in Los Angeles, Waters is one of the last powerful black politicians in Southern California and is known for her ability to rally South L.A. voters. Her endorsement has long been sought by seasoned and novice politicians alike, and she’s played a leadership role in the national Democratic Party for decades. Jewett Walker, who ran the campaigns of several South Los Angeles politicians and is now a Baptist pastor at a church near the border of Waters’ district, said he expects her endorsement to carry even more weight in 2018 because of the attention she’s getting now.
“You don’t walk up to Auntie Maxine and ask for an endorsement without having some really important things to say about what you hope to accomplish and what qualifies you to run at this time,” Walker said. “When Maxine gets on board and the community realizes that she is supporting a particular candidate, that brings a lot of sway to a particular race, if everything else is equal.”
Waters, the fifth of 13 children raised by a single mother in St. Louis, began working in factories and restaurants at age 13. After high school, she moved with her family to Southern California, where she began her career in public service as a teacher and a volunteer coordinator of the newly created Head Start program. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree at what is now Cal State L.A. and served as chief deputy for then-City Councilman David S. Cunningham.
She won her first election for a state Assembly seat in 1977, where she became long-time Speaker Willie Brown’s right hand. Waters led the drive to force the state pension system to divest billions of dollars in shares of companies with business in South Africa. She also helped pass legislation ending police strip searches for nonviolent misdemeanors and sponsored legislation to create a state program to help keep children safe from sexual assault.
“In the state Legislature, she could get anything through, anything done,” said Fernando Guerra, director of Loyola Marymount University’s Center for the Study of Los Angeles. “Some people try to depict her as a left-wing bomb-thrower. She’s also the ultimate insider, knowing how to move things.”
Guerra said in South Los Angeles, Waters’ endorsement remains second only to that of L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti.
Waters was elected to Congress in 1991. The following April, her district was besieged by riots triggered by the acquittal of four white police officers in the beating of Rodney King. She brought food and diapers to the area and said it wasn’t right to characterize what happened as riots.
“I maintain it was somewhat understandable, if not acceptable. So I call it a rebellion,” she said at the time.
Waters has been criticized because her daughter charged candidates a fee to appear on Waters’ sample ballots — mailers she sends to hundreds of thousands of residents listing candidates she supports. She came under fire in 2009 when the House Ethics Committee investigated allegations she helped a bank in which her husband owned stock receive bailout money during the financial crisis. The committee unanimously decided Waters did not break any rules, clearing the way for her to become the top Democrat on the Financial Services Committee in 2013, a position she’s held since.
Controversy has not hurt her standing in the district she’s championed over the past four decades. She has consistently been reelected with more than 70% of the vote.
In the district, she’s helped found organizations that promote black women and provide job training to young people in public housing. A technical and adult education center serving Watts bears her name.
A former chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Waters spent the 1990s calling for investigations into whether U.S. intelligence agencies contributed to the crack cocaine epidemic in Los Angeles, and helped create funding to treat the spread of HIV in minority communities.
She also helped write the Dodd-Frank act, which instituted broad new oversight of the banking industry after the 2008 market collapse.
Her time on the Financial Services Committee has given her the chance to work on homelessness, housing and poverty. Waters has said she often stops along skid row when she’s at home, a consistent reminder of why she’s in Congress.
“I’ve seen a lot of poverty — coming up as a young child, lost hopes and dreams and people that never had a chance to have a decent quality of life. I believe we can do a lot greater than that,” Waters said.
Rep. Karen Bass, a Democrat who represents the district next door to Waters’, isn’t shocked her colleague’s forthrightness seems to have made her a millennial darling.
“She’s been consistent, and it’s playing a very important role right now,” said Bass, who met Waters when she organized marches in Los Angeles in the 1980s to oppose South African apartheid. “She’s a fighter, and that’s what people are looking for: the resistance. People want to see somebody fight.”
Waters said they’re just looking for someone who speaks honestly. “For them, it’s quite refreshing,” she said.
At a time when many progressives are looking for the next head of their movement, Waters said she’s hoping to use the surge in attention to act as a magnet for the Democratic Party.
“I’m not their leader,” she said. “I’m an enabler.”