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.