I had been sitting outside Congresswoman Maxine Waters’s personal office on the second floor of the Capitol last month for nearly 30 minutes—waiting for her to emerge from a meeting so we could continue an interview—when a group of five young people came bounding into the waiting area. They were students at Columbus State Community College and visiting Washington as part of the Scholar Network program, which supports former foster-care youth in college. I asked what they were doing in Waters’s office, and a staff member accompanying them, Sarah Baker, was unable to contain her excitement, shrieking: “We are the crazies waiting for a photo with Auntie Maxine!”
Waters, who came out of her office nearly 30 minutes after the group arrived, greeted them with hugs and apologized for taking so long. She gave the students a choice: Did they want their picture taken inside her personal congressional office under a big photo of Rosa Parks, or to stay right where they were standing, in the waiting room? “Rosa Parks!” the group howled in unison. “All right! Let’s go then!” she said, and disappeared into her personal office for five minutes.
Since Donald Trump was elected president, Waters, who represents California’s 43rd Congressional District, encompassing much of South and West Los Angeles, has caught the attention of young progressives, and of young black women in particular. A quip on Twitter about the president’s past behavior with women got her tens of thousands of retweets, and her spirited response to Bill O’Reilly’s making fun of her hair inspired a viral hashtag dedicated to the experiences of black women in the workplace. When we met in her office on a dreary afternoon in May, an hour before the Columbus State students arrived unexpectedly, Waters, through laughter, told me how amused she is by her new designation as “Auntie,” a term of endearment used in black communities referring to elders with whom there is often no relation—a godmother, neighbor, or friend of your grandmother’s. (Writer R. Eric Thomas at Elle coined “Auntie Maxine” in January.) “If that for them”—young people—“means that there’s that relative that comes to your house and puts everybody straight,” she said, “a relative that shows love in a way that Mama didn’t do—whatever it is for them, it’s all right with me.”
Her office is homey, like a relative’s would be. There are paint swatches on the walls—“golden retriever,” “dark beige,” and “natural sand”—and a photo with Bill Clinton, a president whom she knows very well, unlike the Obamas, whom the congresswoman says she never grew close to. On the table in front of us is a high-heeled pink shoe with polka dots made of chocolate, given to her by her colleague from Ohio Marcy Kaptur. When I tell her she’s captured the hearts of young people and I want to figure out why, she nods, her eyes stern but her lips cracking a smile. Waters is blunt and she’s transparent about her feelings, but she’s also a bit un-self-aware about the excitement around her.
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Seemingly new to the world of Internet memes and virality, Waters’s disbelief was impossible to mask as she ran down a list of her greatest hits—the criticisms of the administration have garnered her legions of young fans. There was the moment back in January, after a classified briefing, when she threw up her hands angrily and told the press that then–FBI Director James Comey “has no credibility,” and a couple of weeks after that when she refused to attend Trump’s inauguration. “Reclaiming My Time” is the latest viral video inspired by Waters. In July, during a hearing of the House Financial Services Committee, the congresswoman, displeased with Treasury Secretary Mnuchin’s evasiveness in response to her questions about Trump’s financial ties to Russia, repeated the phrase “Reclaiming my time” until the committee chair turned the floor over to her. “I don’t plan and strategize as much as people think,” she said about her outspokenness. “It’s spiritual, it just comes.” When it comes to Trump’s conduct, she said, it was something she could not be silent on. “I’m gonna take off the gloves and I’m gonna put my career on the line,” she said, pointing out that her district, which is only 24 percent black, might not agree with her tactics.
The congresswoman doesn’t mince words—her language is precise, she says what she means and means what she says. Waters has not met the president and doesn’t plan to. She doesn’t want anything from him; she doesn’t plan to ask anything of him. She wants more inquiries into his business dealings, and has been raising the issue of impeachment since before he even became president.
Waters traces her straightforwardness to before she was born. “I think I come from a family, a mother who was very outspoken and didn’t have a lot of filters,” she told me. Her single mother raised her, the fifth of 13 children, in St. Louis, Missouri. In high school, Waters said, she earned the senior-yearbook superlative of “most likely to be House Speaker” because she was in school plays and belonged to various clubs, including a human-relations club.
After she married her first husband in 1956, the couple moved from the Midwest to California, where he had family and where, she said, there was more work. Waters spent her first years in Los Angeles working for the Pacific Telephone Company. It was there that she became “awakened” to politics, talking with friends about what they had read and thought about Lyndon B. Johnson’s anti-poverty initiatives. Waters felt compelled to get involved with Head Start, a program that provided early childhood education, food, and parenting support to low-income children and their families. She was hired as an assistant teacher and became the volunteer coordinator, and it was in that role that she first interacted with local politicians and organizers, inspiring her to become one.
Waters served in the California State Assembly from 1977 to 1991, where she developed a firebrand politics—in 1986, legislation authored by Waters requiring California to divest from companies that did business in South Africa was signed by the state’s Republican governor. It was the first of its kind in the country; President Reagan had recently vetoed legislation that would have imposed sanctions on the apartheid state. One of the most moving moments of her life, Waters told me, was getting to sit at the front row during Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in 1994, watching as all the other heads of state from around the world walked by, like Fidel Castro, a leader she considered a friend, and warplanes, once flown by occupying forces, flew overhead this time in celebration.
“Yes, I’m an activist,” Waters tells me unequivocally when I ask. But what about when she began meeting with, and taking suggestions from, bankers in her district after they complained about new regulations created by Dodd-Frank, a law she helped write? She also came under fire in 2010, when the House Ethics Committee announced charges against her after she met with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson on behalf of OneUnited Bank, in which her husband owned stock. The bank received over $12 million in a federal bailout. Waters maintained that she was acting in the best interest of minority-owned banks in general, and was cleared of all charges after a three-year investigation. The congresswoman took a long breath and paused, exasperated, before telling me that “what people miss” is that she’s also a politician. “I didn’t get to be the Democratic Chair in Sacramento, or [chief deputy] whip because I don’t understand politics,” she said. “I just happen to be an activist and public-policy maker, which you don’t see in one person.” She goes on: “I am a pretty sensible, smart politician who understands systems, negotiations, and how it all works,” she adds.
Her political savvy extends into knowing when to be quiet. Two Christmases ago, when Congress was in recess, Waters sat in front of her television in South Los Angeles and watched a group of Black Lives Matter activists take over the 405 freeway, spray-painting the names of black Angelenos who were killed that year by police. When she saw protesters getting arrested, Waters tracked them down. It took a couple of days and lots of phone calls, but Waters was able to help get the activists out of jail. “I never said anything,” she told me on an afternoon in late May, smiling brightly as she inched closer to me, “and then I got a [thank you] note from them.”
Waters admires Black Lives Matter. “They felt the civil-rights movement let them down and wasn’t relevant anymore,” she says. “I liked the idea that they were unorthodox.” But she knows it isn’t her place to lead that charge. In nearly 27 years as a congresswoman, Waters hasn’t always been a torch-bearer of irreverent activism, even though it’s a role she feels quite comfortable in. When she took over as ranking member of the Financial Services Committee in 2013, for example, she mostly kept her head down—there was a lot she needed to learn. But since Donald Trump was elected president, her penchant for telling it like it is “has been revitalized.” As hard as I tried to push her, Waters didn’t tell me about a single moment she regrets in her over-40-year career as a public servant. “I’m sure at 3 o’clock in the morning when I’m up, I’ll think about something. But regrets, no. “If I have any”—regrets—“they are not about a particular time.”
After Waters finishes taking photographs with the students from Ohio, she saunters past her staff and out of her office and grabs me by the arm. “We’re late,” she says, opening a door so heavy, so easily, I wonder for a moment how many laps she must do when she swims (she says she doesn’t keep count anymore). I start a light jog with her down the hallway and we talk about what books she’s reading—New York Times columnist Charles Blow’s recent memoir—and how many newspapers she reads daily: four. When we arrive downstairs, below ground in the Capitol, she greets a Republican congressman with a high-five as she hops into the trolley clearly marked “Members only,” to get to the vote on time. Ignoring the sign, she pats the seat next to her, like an auntie, motioning for me to join.