Maxine Waters, Patron Saint of Resistance Politics

Natasha Geiling

Natasha Geiling Reporter, Think Progress

On July 29, 1994 — nearly two and half decades before Sen. Elizabeth Warren would make headlines for being silenced on the floor of the Senate — Rep. Maxine Waters, then in her second term as a congresswoman from California, stepped onto the floor of the House to address her colleagues.

Washington was in the midst of the Whitewater controversy, which had entangled the Clinton White House and Congress in years of investigations into allegations of corruption. In a hearing before the House Banking Committee the night before, Waters argued with Rep. Peter King (R-NY), accusing him of badgering a female White House aide who had been brought before the committee to answer questions. King had gone over his allotted time, and was ordered to stop speaking by the committee chair. Then, from just outside the camera’s frame, Waters’ voice could be heard ringing out.

“You are out of order,” Waters told King. “Shut up.”

In his speech the following day, King took to the floor of the House to chastise Waters’ actions. Waters responded with her signature firebrand style, rising to the floor to declare “the day is over when men can badger and intimidate women, marginalize them, and keep them from speaking.”

Almost immediately, Reps. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-WI) and Gerald Solomon (R-NY) demanded Waters’ words be struck from the official record and called for disciplinary action. Rep. Carrie Meek (D-FL), presiding over the House at the time, ordered Waters to stop speaking. But Waters would not stop. Over the shouts of several members and the rapping of the gavel, she continued, arguing that women should not allow “men to intimidate us and to keep us from participating.”

“It is only when a woman attempts to exercise her rights in this House that we have this kind of intimidation,” Waters exclaimed.

One representative requested that the sergeant at arms lead Waters off the floor. Another called for her to be presented with the Mace of the House of Representatives, which is used when members are found to be out of order. Instead, she finished her speech, and left the floor of her own accord. Later, Speaker of the House Thomas Foley (D-WA) announced that Waters would not be allowed back on the floor for the remainder of the day.

“While in the opinion of the chair the words in themselves were not unparliamentary, the chair believes the demeanor of the gentlewoman from California was not in good order,” Foley said. “Accordingly, the chair rules that without leave of the House the gentlewoman from California may not proceed for the rest of today.”

The exchange happened just three years after Anita Hill had testified in contentious hearings before the Senate about her experience being sexually harassed by Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Despite Hill’s allegations, Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court. The next year — responding to what was largely viewed as blatant sexism on display during Hill’s hearings — a record number of women ran for and were elected to public office during what became known as the “Year of the Woman.”

Waters had been elected to Congress two years prior, but in many ways, she exemplified the energy of that time — a fierce champion for women with a record of decisive policy victories. Waters also came to Congress with a strong connection to the feminist movement of the 1960s and ’70s, having served on the board of the Ms. Foundation and organizing the Women’s National Conference under Jimmy Carter with Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem.

“Women are new to this place,” Waters told the Los Angeles Times after the tussle with King. “Women are supposed to know their place. I exercise my rights and it’s new for men. It’s not easy for them to accept women as equal partners.”

Thirteen years later, the first female nominee for president from a major political party would be defeated by a candidate who openly bragged about sexually assaulting women. In the weeks and months that followed, a grassroots resistance movement would form, jumping from the pages of social media to the streets of Washington, D.C. and other cities around the world. The day after the inauguration, millions would join in what would become the largest single-day protest in U.S. history.

And Maxine Waters would be there, ready to lead.

It’s a sweltering hot day in mid-May, and Maxine Waters — who has just walked half a mile in high heels — barely has a chance to lower herself onto a bench in the hallway of the National Democratic Club in Washington, D.C., before someone approaches her.

“I saw you on T.V. this morning, telling it like it is!” the woman, a hostess with the lunch club, tells the California representative. “You say it like it is,” she repeats, emphatically. “That’s good.”

Waters smiles, and thanks the woman, who, seemingly satisfied with the interaction, returns to the small hostess stand at the end of the hallway. While the room behind Waters is still buzzing, it’s time for the congresswoman to head back to work.

These days, Waters is unusually busy. The 78-year-old, 14-term representative from California’s 43rd Congressional District, which encompasses much of South Los Angeles County, is frequently up before sunrise to do media hits before coming into the office. In Congress, she serves as the ranking member on the Financial Services Committee, and is an active member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Congressional Black Caucus. After work, there are fundraising dinners or more media hits. Most days, her staff works until 9 or 10 at night — and Waters works with them.

Waters has worked this hard since she first entered politics in 1976, winning a seat in the California State Assembly. Fifteen years later, she became only the eleventh woman of color elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. In the years that followed, she led campaigns against apartheid in South Africa, helped pass legislation aimed at broadening breast cancer survivors’ access to mastectomies, and fought for better consumer protection against predatory loans and Wall Street banks.

But the election of Donald Trump to the White House shifted Waters’ priorities and filled her with a new sense of purpose. These days, she’s squarely focused on leading the resistance against the Trump presidency.

“When Trump emerged as the leader of this nation, I decided to take the handcuffs off,” Waters said. “It was bigger than my district. It was bigger than just about financial services or regulation or deregulation. It was bigger than even apartheid. This is about our democracy. This is about the direction of this country.”

Unrestrained criticism of the president is not unique in the current political environment. But Waters has an ability to sense where the larger resistance movement is headed long before the rest of the Democratic party. She called for Trump’s impeachment months before U.S. Rep. Al Green (D-TX) took to the floor of the House to do the same, for instance, and refused to attend Trump’s inauguration long before more than 50 lawmakers eventually joined the boycott.

“I have to attribute to this president that he so offended me that he inspired me,” Waters said. “He inspired me to do something about him.”

Waters’ fiery authenticity has earned her a devoted following of young, progressive voters disillusioned with the institutions that seem to offer little check on the Trump administration’s rampant abuses of power. But her rising profile also raises an essential question in contemporary American politics: in the age of Trump, when politicians are as much a cult of personality as an avatar for policy, and when institutions seem ill-equipped to contain the malfeasance oozing from the White House, how should Democratic politicians respond?

It’s an especially important question as the Democratic party attempts to regroup after a series of electoral losses, culminating in the 2016 presidential election. Already, a number of tight special elections in stalwart Republican districts show signs of a political environment that favors Democratic candidates. But party leadership seems stuck between swerving left into the kind of all-out resistance that their base is clamoring for and maintaining the middle in an attempt to appeal to a wider swath of American voters.

For Waters, the path forward was simple.

“I didn’t sit down and develop a strategy,” Waters said from her Washington office. “I was driven by what I think a lot of people are driven by now — being absolutely disappointed with and fed up with the way things were.”

“Politicians learn how to be protective,” she continued. “But I think this is what has turned off a lot of young people. We have been so protective that they have not been able to get from us the kind of truth that they are looking for.”

Maxine Waters holds several truths to be self-evident. First, she believes that Trump has proven himself to be the kind of person who will never enact meaningful public policy in this country. She watched his campaign — full of dog whistles thinly veiled as domestic policy — and almost immediately felt that he would be dangerous and detrimental to the country.

“Long before he was elected, which I didn’t expect, I knew that he was not someone that I could ever work with, that I could ever support, and I would in no way honor him by attending the inauguration or any of the State of the Union messages or anything that he would do,” Waters said.

Second, she believes the administration’s corruption is rooted in the connection between people in Trump’s orbit and the Russian government. In interviews, she unfailingly rattles off the numerous Trump associates with reported ties to Russia — Carter Page, Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, Rex Tillerson, Jared Kushner. She’s taken to calling them the “Kremlin Klan,” a catchy double-entendre that mocks the administration for its ties to both Russia and the white nationalist movement that helped propel Trump to victory.

“When I began to see who these people around him were, and where they came from, and I began to see the connection that brought them together, I kind of thought everybody else was going to see it too,” Waters said. “I never thought about being the only one.”

The Trump administration is currently embroiled in several investigations into whether members of the campaign knowingly colluded with the Russian intelligence agents to influence last year’s election. And since Waters first started speaking out in January about the administration’s questionable connections, a deluge of controversies have further entangled the administration — from Flynn resigning as national security adviser after it was revealed that he had back-channel communications with Russia about lifting sanctions, to Trump reportedly leaking classified information to Russian officials during a meeting in the Oval Office.

Waters was surprisingly prescient about Trump’s uncanny ability to constantly implicate himself in further scandal, telling CNN back in February that he was “leading himself to impeachment.” Indeed, as more politicians have spoken publicly about the possibility of impeachment — including a smattering of Republicans — it is always Trump’s own actions, like potential obstruction of justice in his surprise move to fire FBI Director James Comey, that form the basis of their arguments.

“I said in my speeches was that Trump was going to lead us right to impeachment, and it turns out he is doing so,” Waters said.

Waters also foresaw that impeachment would eventually hold a lot of appeal for the American public. Since Trump was inaugurated, she has called for his impeachment more than 20 times. When she first touted the idea, just 35 percent of Americans felt similarly; in a recent poll, 48 percent of Americans voiced their support for impeachment.

“I think with the American public waking up every morning to a new potential scandal, new information that seems unbelievable… this is helping to bring people to the point where they know that something is wrong with this picture,” Waters said.

Impeachment is still a relative long shot, requiring several factors — from bipartisanship in the House and Senate to Trump’s general unpopularity with American voters — to perfectly align. Still, given Waters’ almost preternatural ability to sense where the country’s political winds are headed at any given time, her newest prediction is especially interesting.

“I believe that the unveiling of the information may lead to some Republicans saying it’s time for us to ask him to resign,” Waters said. “And we may not even have to get to impeachment.”

An extraordinary ability to anticipate grassroots political movements has been theme throughout Waters’ career. Always a vanguard progressive, Waters opposed the Iraq War in 2002. She referred to the citywide unrest that engulfed south-central Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict in 1992 not as riots but as a “rebellion,” and she supported opening diplomatic and economic channels with Cuba as early as 1998. She was one of the few Democratic legislators to vote against the 1994 crime bill, now criticized for helping fuel mass incarceration.

She also has a long history of operating just outside of the Democratic establishment. In 1984 and 1988, she served twice as national co-chair for Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns, largely viewed as a grassroots challenge to established, centrist Democratic politics. In 1990, when she ran for Congress, the national Democratic party endorsed her opponent.

She herself has not been immune to political controversy — from 2008 to 2012, she was the subject of an ethics investigation for potentially violating House rules and federal ethics codes in setting up a meeting between Treasury officials and representatives from minority-owned banks, which critics argued favored a bank in which her husband held stock. She was eventually cleared of all charges.

Her public statements have often been as radical as her political positions. In 1997, she told the Los Angeles Times that the CIA was “guilty” for the Los Angeles crack epidemic of the 1980s. In 1998, she called the Republican-led effort to impeach President Bill Clinton a “coup d’etat.” In 2011, she said that the Tea Party “can go straight to hell.”

It’s a level of authenticity and fearlessness that some longstanding politicians might deem dangerous. But for Waters, it’s reflective of the larger shift in the way Americans think about, and interact with, the people who represent them. People, she said, are no longer interested in politicians who exist only to raise funds, campaign, and participate in the system. In a sense, the American public is moving towards the kind of politician Maxine Waters has always been — unfettered, uncensored, and unafraid of consequences.

“Traditional politics is ‘be safe, don’t take any risks, let the institutions work in the way that they work, and we will keep talking about what we need to talk about,’” Waters said. “This is unusual politics, and it requires a different kind of response.”

At the beginning of May, in the windowless basement of a hotel ballroom, Democratic leaders gathered to share their vision for the future of the party. Progressive stars like Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) spoke about policies to foster criminal justice reform, ballot access, and job growth. But when Waters took the stage towards the end of the day, she didn’t talk about future elections or policies for 2020 and beyond. Instead, she talked about getting Trump out of office as soon as possible.

“We can’t wait that long. We don’t need to wait that long. He will have destroyed this country by then,” Waters said. “We cannot wake up every morning to another crisis, to another scandal. We cannot have the uncertainty.”

For many Democratic politicians and political pundits, hers is an uncomfortable position. There’s a school of thought, popular among Democratic leaders, that the party can’t build its identity around what it’s against (in this case, Trump and his entire administration). Instead, to resonate with voters across the country, the party will have to prove what its members stand for, and it will have to an affirmative message and clear policies to support that vision.

To Waters, that’s a false paradigm — one that completely misses the swelling of grassroots resistance that has packed protests from the National Mall to airports across the country. Waters has seen most of those protests firsthand, addressing the Women’s March after Trump’s inauguration, joining protesters at Los Angeles International Airport following the roll-out of Trump’s Muslim ban, and leading a chant of “Impeach 45!” at the Tax March in April.

“They are missing the point that something is happening out there,” Waters said of Democratic party leaders. “It is a resistance movement that is saying to us, ‘No, this is not politics as usual.’ When did you ever see 750,000 women gather in one place and march, and then they are joined by women all over the country and all over the world? That’s extraordinary politics.”

To hear Waters explain it, opposing Trump is fundamental to the type of public policy the Democratic party needs to stand for. She uses financial reform as an example, arguing that with Trump as president, crucial reforms to regulations like Dodd-Frank are at risk of being repealed. Financial reform has long been a signature issue for Waters, who has sat on the House Financial Services Committee since 1991. In 2012, she officially became the top-ranking Democrat on the Committee.

But she also argues that vocally opposing Trump is about more than public policy; it’s about tapping into a new kind of politics, which requires politicians to do everything they can to make sure voters feel their voices are being heard.

“This new politics is not about a resolution or a banner or showing up at the latest tea and congratulating everybody and kissing their babies. That is over,” Waters said. “If we are to engage young people in particular in the kind of politics that includes them in development of the public policy, we have to give them some hope that everybody has an equal opportunity here. Unless we can do that, we are not going to be successful.”

Throughout American history, black leaders have often been vanguards of progressive resistance movements, from Civil Rights to feminism to anti-war protests. Black leaders helped found the environmental justice movement, working to bring attention to the connection between societal levers of oppression and the negative environmental impacts that plague oppressed communities. As Michael C. Dawson wrote in the Boston Review in 2012, luminaries like Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. DuBois, William Monroe Trotter, and Hubert Harrison argued both for racial justice as well as broad economic and social justice for women and the working class.

Waters is, in many ways, a continuation of this tradition, a member of the African-American community who draws on her personal experience to try to bring about a more just and equitable system for those who are unheard and vulnerable. In her office, above a bookshelf replete with at least two dozen awards from her lengthy political career, hangs a painting of Rosa Parks, staring — almost contemplatively — out of the window of a bus.

“I’m a real believer that you gain wisdom through experience,” Waters said. “I’ve had the kind of experiences that caused me to challenge, to not be afraid to speak up — sometimes just out of plain necessity, in the kind of environment that I was raised in.”

But speaking truth to power — especially as a high-profile black woman — has earned Waters the vitriolic derision of many. In March, then–Fox News host Bill O’Reilly ridiculed Waters for her criticism of Trump by attacking her appearance, referring to her hair as a “James Brown wig.” It was an affront rife with both sexism and racism, and after a swift torrent of outrage, O’Reilly issued a tepid apology. But Waters got the last word, tweeting that she is “a strong black woman” that “cannot be intimidated.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” the tweet concluded.

Less than a month later, dogged by revelations of at least five sexual harassment accusations from former Fox employees, the network dumped O’Reilly. Waters has not gone anywhere.

“When you reach that stage of knowing who you are, you cannot be brought down by people who criticize or hate you,” Waters said. “I sleep very well at night.”

It’s almost one in the afternoon, and Waters is back in the Rayburn House Office Building, heading back to her office for a meeting with financial committee staffers. As the elevator begin to close, a security guard — the one who had waved Waters through the line just minutes earlier — slips through the doors.

“Ms. Waters!” he says, and she smiles, the easy smile of a woman who has become increasingly used to being recognized by a growing group of fans.

“I have a question… Can I get a picture with you? I want to send it to my wife,” he explains. “She loves you!”

Waters laughs, and obliges. They step out of the elevator, and she suggests they walk to her office so the picture can be taken there. He seems thrilled.

“My wife asked me, ‘Do you ever see Representative Maxine Waters?’” he tells her. “And I said, I’ve seen her for 14 years! She will be so excited with a picture.”

Minutes later, the two are in Waters’ office, standing beneath the painting of Rosa Parks. The security guard beams as the picture is taken. Then he shakes Waters hand, thanks her for her time, and returns to his post.

Waters, too, has business to attend to. She’s set to meet with staffers, and later, with the singer Melissa Etheridge, who is in town for a show and meeting with politicians to discuss medical cannabis. Tomorrow, she will get up before sunrise and work through the afternoon, then board a plane for California. She returns to her district every weekend, but this weekend is especially important — it’s the California Democratic party’s state convention, and Waters, who remains deeply involved in state politics and the state party, is an especially hot commodity this year. And then she’ll return to Washington early on Monday, steeling herself for another week of resistance.

Yet through it all — the increased attention and never-ending news cycle, the cheers of supporters and din of detractors — Waters finds comfort in one simple belief: the power of people to bring about change.

“Don’t give up hope,” she said. “Always know that if you fight you can win, but if you don’t fight, you’ll never know whether or not you could win.”