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Maxine Waters: 'I don't pretend to be nice no matter what....' (congresswoman) (Interview)

Maxine Waters had no sooner arrived in Washington as a freshman in Congress in 1991 than she plunged into the debate over U.S. military action against Iraq. She spoke with considerable passion, as is her custom, and she not only voted ahead of time against using force but was also one of six negative votes on a resolution supporting President Bush's decision once war began.

Last year, this outspoken African-American woman, who had for a time been the most powerful woman in California politics through her role in the state legislature and alliance with Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, strode even further into the national spotlight during the disturbances in Los Angeles. She wouldn't use the word "riot" to describe the violence that broke out after the acquittals in the first trial of four Los Angeles police officers accused of beating Rodney King; she called it a "rebellion," and she wouldn't let Sam Donaldson or anybody else badger her into condemning the people who participated.

Waters was an early supporter of Bill Clinton during the Presidential campaign after having strongly backed Jesse Jackson's two previous bids. Waters said she didn't agree with every position candidate Clinton took, but she wanted to have some ability to influence a Democratic President if he won. Besides, she thinks he's smart and "a wonderful, personable guy."

Waters, who turned fifty-five in August, greeted me warmly when I arrived at her district office at 102nd and Broadway in South Central Los Angeles. We've known each other for fifteen years now, and she speaks candidly to me, although I suspect she does that with most people. She doesn't plan what she's going to say to improve her image or position herself. Her memento-filled office, with blinds drawn against the sunlight, is new to her; the old one was destroyed when an adjoining bank building was torched during last year's violence.

Q: I sometimes think that you have almost a political sput personality. In L.A. you're kind of an in-your-face person, but in Washington or Sacramento you're the legislator.

Maxine Waters: In Washington and in Sacramento they thought I was an abrasive, in-your-face woman.

Q: And at times you were.

Waters: Yes. I have this thing about life: You fit your lines of action. If I am at a cocktail party, talking nicey-nice, I talk nicey-nice. If I'm in a back room where the fight is on, I know how to say son-of-a-bitch as well as anybody, and will fight as hard as anybody. But it really is fitting your lines of action. I don't pretend to be happy all the time. I don't pretend to be nice no matter what. I don't take insults no matter what. Some people are trained to do that better than others. When you've basically come from a poor background, you're not really trained that way. I didn't go to finishing school.

This is not planned. I really mostly work from the gut.

Q: I heard you were annoyed when Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Sonny Montgomery called you by your first name.

Waters: It was the first day that I was there. With a Sonny Montgomery, I'm thinking Mississippi, state trooper, runs his committee with an iron hand, no blacks on this committee, I'm going to be the only black on this committee. I'm thinking, better not mess with me.

First day, I go to Cannon [Office Building). I'm late for the committee meeting. Not purposely, because I simply don't know where the room is. Mr. Montgomery had a rule where he did not want anybody to propose anything that cost money. I thought that was a little bit too much. You don't get elected to office to be told not to be a legislator. What difference should it make to him if I propose something that costs money? If it can pass the committee, fine; if it can't pass the committee, fine. But don't stop me or anybody else from simply proposing.

So I said what I had to say - well, the idea that I should say that! The chairman had spoken. He didn't like it, so he said, "By the way, Maxine, this committee starts on time."

That was a bit soon for me to be put down coming into the committee. To my credit, I thought about it.

Q: How long?

Waters: Until the end of the meeting that day. Because I didn't want to think that somehow I was responding to my perceptions rather than what was actually said. But then after I thought about it, I thought, no, he really did that. So after the meeting, I said, "I need to see you. Don't you ever, first of all, call me by my first name. You don't know me. Usually around here, people are referred to as the gentleman or the gentlelady, Mr. This, That, or the Other. I didn't want him calling me by my first name because, honest to goodness, when it came out, it came out like "my maid."

Then the next time I had a conversation with him, I said this committee has fifty-five or sixty staff positions and not one minority. This is outrageous. This is the Veterans' Affairs Committee. You have all of these veterans, disproportionate numbers from Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, and you just can't do this.

He made some excuse. He told me that he had one minority on the staff one time and he drowned; he died. Then he told me that he had tried to get one to come up from Mississippi and he didn't want to come up there. I said there are plenty of African Americans here in Washington, D.C.

Anyhow, he found black people. And the staff looks a little different today. We've got some women. We've got some blacks. I think we've got a Latino on staff. And Sonny and I have become pretty good friends. I treat him very nicely. And he treats me very nicely.

Q: The Congressional Black Caucus seems more active now, protesting Lani Guinier's treatment when she was dropped as a nominee for Assistant Attorney General and meeting with the President on the budget. Is that just because there's a Democrat in the White House, or is it more than that?

Waters: It's a combination. The caucus has increased its numbers, and there are more new members who are determined and come with a fresh energy. They have a willingness to fight battles that perhaps others had learned not to confront but to try to work within the system.

Q: What are some of the things that the Congressional Black Caucus has been doing?

Waters: There are lots of initiatives going on in various ways that are not often seen. For example, Cynthia McKinney [Democrat of Georgia] headed up the effort to confirm Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders for us, and we lobbied for that. I, for example, am meeting with Secretary [of the Treasury Lloyd] Bentsen and top investment bankers and minority firms dealing with bonds and personal-asset management. The purpose is to have the Secretary give leadership to the idea that majority and minority firms can work together.

Q: Representative Charles Stenholm [Democrat of Texas] told me that you and he had been talking about holding meetings of the Conservative Democratic Forum and the Congressional Black Caucus.

Waters: Yes. This President cannot be successful with the conservative caucus going one way, the progressive caucus going one way, and the black caucus going another. We've got to form some coalitions. Those coalitions may change from time to time. We'll never be together on some issues, but it's in the best interests of the country that we try.

Q: I was wondering what you've learned about working in Washington that Clinton still needs to learn?

Waters: I think that Clinton needs to learn to work with Congress. He's smart. He understands the issues. He can articulate them so well. But there is this gap between his understanding of the issues and what he wants to do and the implementation. Some of that probably has to do with just getting a staff lined up. And you have so much to manage as the President, getting it all in sync and making it work is a problem that he's still working on.

His relationship with Congress must come to a point of mutual respect in some ways. He's got some Democrats there who desperately want him to succeed. He's got some Democrats there who think it's their time to win because he did send some messages to the centrist Democrats that said, "I'm going to be concerned about cutting this budget, I'm going to be concerned about reducing the deficit, I'm going to be concerned about the middle class, and I'm going to be concerned about reforming welfare and all these things." He empowered them. Now Clinton needs to tell them, "I meant what I said but this is how I'm going to do it. Work with me."

And Clinton does not have his Republicans - Bush always had his Democrats - and there's no reason Clinton shouldn't have his Republicans. They're there. They're there for him to have. He's got to be able to work with them, and I think he can. I think that he can do a better job with [Senate Minority Leader Robert] Dole. I think that Dole's main point has been, "I've got power. I'm going to be more than the Loyal Opposition. If you think you can run over me, you've got another thought coming." He constantly is trying to prove he's powerful, as far as I'm concerned, and that he's in control. I really do believe that Clinton can do a better job with Dole.

Q: Could you talk a bit about this stipend program that you've just pushed through Congress, especially about the conservatives with whom you worked, because this is a side of Maxine Waters people don't usually see?

Waters: You're referring to what I call the seventeen-to-thirty-year-old stipends. Representative Stenholm had reduced the President's budget when it came to the House. I'm watching all this, and meanwhile, I'm watching Stenholm and I'm thinking, "I like his style. This guy gets things done."

So I said to him, "Look, I want to talk to you about something. You want to cut the budget. I think we've got some serious problems out here. One that I'm very passionate about is all of these young minority males, black and Latino for the most part, out on the street. They're wreaking havoc.

"You know what: I think if we say to them, |You've gotta do something with your life, you've got to enroll in school,' we ought to be able to give them a little support. I think it's the best crime-prevention program in the world, the best birth-control program in the world, and I think that it just makes good sense. I'm not talking about a lot of money. I'm talking about 100 bucks a week for survival. We'll help you a little bit if you want to help yourself." I said, "This is self-help." And he bought it. He said, "You're right."

Because I am an organizer, because I work on the street, because I'm a voice that attempts to articulate the needs and concerns of people who I think need a lot of help in doing that, people don't get to see what I do legislatively. I almost become like a PR person, a symbol. But I pride myself on being a legislator, and I see my job in both ways.

Q: You've spoken about the young black men who've written off society and been written off by it, and about the need to reach out to them.

Waters: I just really feel like I have gained an awful lot of knowledge of who they are and what's out there. Since 1985, I started working deeply in the housing projects. With discretionary money that comes down from the Federal Government, I created this little program where you go into the housing projects, get some vacant space, create these offices, hire some people, get the Los Angeles Unified School District to manage the money, set up the offices, simply ask to use the gymnasiums, put some fliers out there that basically say, "Would you like to find out about job training? What are you going to do with your life? Would you like to try? Come here on a given day."

The very first day at Jordan Downs [housing project] we had 200 people in line. Even now as they continue to operate, it's always full.

I would fly from Sacramento and conduct the classes myself because I designed the classes and I really wanted to learn a lot about what was going on. In doing all of this, I discovered an awful lot about the hard-core unemployed and what it takes to change their lives and to get them connected, and who they were and where they came from and, really, how far removed they are from anything that city hall knows about or that government really understands.

Q: What are a couple of the main problems that keep these people from being successful?

Waters: First of all, an incredible lack of knowledge about the system, the environment. They can't negotiate their environment - kids who've dropped out of school at fourteen and fifteen years old, been on the streets for eight, nine, ten, eleven years. Some of them are twenty-one years old and have never worked and know nothing about personnel departments.

Q: Or they have arrest records?

Waters: Oh, yes. Arrest records. Misdemeanors. Felonies. We've got kids who are twenty-five years old who've spent eight or nine years in prison. Amazing stuff. For someone to wade into all of this and say, "Come, we've got something to help you. I don't care how bad off you think you are." First of all, they don't believe anybody is going to help them do anything.

Q: Not even Maxine Waters?

Waters: That's right. Nobody. That's getting their attention. Then, number two, saying, "I know that you don't know very much. You dropped out of school very early. And you've probably got a record. And you try to sell a little rock cocaine when you can get it. And your mother may be on cocaine and your daddy may be in prison, but I don't care. I'm talking to you." That blows their mind. Somebody really understands.

You've got to connect with them. And then say, "Why aren't you in school? Don't you want to do something with your life?"

"How'm I supposed to go to school? I don't even know where I'm sleeping tonight. School? What school? I got kicked out of school."

Q: Do you help them find some place to sleep?

Waters: When I started to work with them - and being an old social worker type and knowing what's in the system - we began to do an assessment of drug rehabilitation, shelters, everything that we could know about. It's so inadequate. Over the past twelve years, it's so bad until it's not there.

What I say to them is this: "I know your grandmother is tired of you and wishes you would stop coming and eating her food and trying to sleep over. But you don't have any choice. You say to your grandmother, 'I know you're tired of me, but I met Ms. Waters, I met Ms. So-and-So, and they put me in this program. And I'm going to go to school. Someday I'm going to pay you back.' So whatever you've been doing - except for selling drugs or doing something illegal - if you've been living with a girlfriend, welfare mother, and that's the only place you've got to shack, then that's what you're going to have to continue to do. If it's with a friend, if you live in three different places every night, that's what you've got to continue to do. But if you make it to school, now I can say I've got 100 bucks that'll help you and if you can take $10 and give it to your girlfriend or to your grandmother because that shows you're trying to help out, then that's what this $100 is for."

Q: Have you ever been in a situation with these young men where you've been frightened? There may be somebody who doesn't know who Maxine Waters is and who doesn't care.

Waters: Oh, no, no. I have no fear. The most satisfying work that I've ever done in my life is winning the trust and getting the true feedback of appreciation and love from these people. It's the most satisfying thing that's ever happened to me. So I have no fear of them. I'm oftentimes jolted when I find out that some lovely young ex-gang banger who is hugging me and who has cried did time for murder or something in prison.

Q: In the 1960s and 1970s, California was noted for progressive legislation, its fair housing, its environmental protection, its constructing schools and universities. The conservative reaction and the crippled economy have really put a damper on that. You came to California around the early 1960s. You stayed. Why?

Waters: Why? Coming to California, the land of the movie stars, palm trees and sunshine and all of that - it was moving to Paradise. It also is the place where I learned something about me, and I was able to grow and move from a young mother with two children who hadn't finished college to a legislator. It was a place where I had to connect with myself.

I went through the Head Start program [as an aide and then parent-involvement coordinator] and I learned who I was and what I cared about - for the first time. This is where I became really who I am. So Los Angeles for me is still a wonderful place.

I cringe, and I really hate the violence. The killings. The shootings. I really hate that stuff. I do believe that I have to keep thinking that we're going through this period and time, but we're not going to be here for always. We're going to make this place better. I've got to believe that, and every day that I wake up I do believe that.

If you come from an upper-middle-class background where you haven't seen poverty, where you have not seen obstacles to opportunity, where you have not had to fight against violence and all these things, then you take off and you run to where you think you can get away. I mean, they're running to Seattle, they'te running to Arizona, to wherever.

But when you come from the kind of background that I've come from, you just have to fight to make things better. If you can't walk to school one way because it's too violent, you find another way to walk to school. You don't say, I'm not going to that school, I'm going to take my bags and run, I'm going to private school. If you are beaten up by somebody every day and you've got to fight, you find a way either to avoid that person or fight them.

So I guess my life experiences say, no matter how difficult Los Angeles may be, I don't have the luxury or the right to talk about leaving it or that it's somebody else's problem. It's my problem, and I have a responsibility to make it better and to try to make it better for everybody.

Kay Mills, a California writer, is the author of "This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer."
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Author:Mills, Kay
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Interview
Date:Dec 1, 1993
Previous Article:Witness to Yeltsin's coup.
Next Article:Twilight: Los Angeles 1992.

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