When the Congressional Black Caucus holds its fifth and final town hall meeting and job fair Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively, in Los Angeles’ Crenshaw neighborhood, there will be nearly a dozen black members of Congress present. Still, most of the attention will be on one 71-year-old L.A. congresswoman from the district.
Maxine Waters, a Democrat first elected to the California Assembly in 1976, and who has served in Congress since 1990, has become the lightning rod of the CBC “For the People” jobs tour, which she says she pitched to the members as a new idea during one of their regular meetings.
“I was at one of those moments where I was ‘up to here’ with business as usual,” Waters said in Miami, the fourth stop on the tour, which previously stopped in Cleveland, Detroit and Atlanta.
“So I said look guys, we need to get out of Washington and we need to do something concrete. We’ve done all the introduction of bills; we have over 40 bills we’ve introduced. Nobody’s paying attention to these speeches on the floor (of the House). Let’s get out into our districts and into our communities.”
The first tour stop, in Cleveland, attracted thousands of attendees, desperate for work in a tough economy that’s been bad in parts of Ohio for decades. But it wasn’t until Detroit, and Waters’ outburst at black Americans who “love the president” and are therefore quick to call out black members of Congress who take him on when it comes to the 16 percent and higher jobless rates in black America — that the jobs tour got media traction.
“We don’t put pressure on the president,” an impassioned Waters said in Detroit. “Let me tell you why. We don’t put pressure on the president because ya’ll love the president. You love the president. You’re very proud…to have a black man [in the White House] …First time in the history of the United States of America. If we go after the president too hard, you’re going after us.”
“When you tell us it’s alright and you unleash us and you tell us you’re ready for us to have this conversation, we’re ready to have the conversation. The Congressional Black Caucus loves the president too. We’re supportive of the president but we’re getting tired ya’ll…we’re getting tired.”
With that, Waters became the “conversationalist in chief” for the Caucus, and the focus of both angry attacks from supporters of the president, kudos from other members of the CBC who have been frustrated with their dealings with the White House, and lots of media attention.
“Out of that audience, you could feel the anger rising,” Waters said of the incident that suddenly made the CBC town halls a national news story. “That was Detroit, where …they’ve lost population over the last ten years…boarded up homes, businesses closed down, and what that’s done to the schools is just a shame…. So the people there are hurting. And I could feel it. And the mumbling started, and then, they kind of, started to turn on us a bit, and they said ‘well why don’t you guys do this, and why don’t you tell the president and why don’t you do that.’ and it was one of those moments, where I said, well I’m telling the truth. You know, and I’m gonna tell it.”
Waters had another such “moment” at the Miami town hall, when she repeatedly challenged Don Graves, chairman of the White House’s jobs and competitiveness council, to use the words “black” and “tea party” to describe who was hurting most in the economy, and who was to blame.
The tense interaction brought jeers for Graves from the capacity crowd at a Liberty City church. Eventually, a visibly uncomfortable Graves relented, and acknowledged that the tea party was obstructing President Barack Obama’s attempts to find solutions to the ongoing economic woes in the urban core.
“Here’s what happened,” Waters said of the Miami back and forth with Graves. “I think what was foremost on my mind was, this new language that people have, where they say something, but they don’t really say it. And is the avoidance of certain kinds of words that I’ve heard coming increasingly. It’s like, avoiding the word African-American, black, tea party, what have you. And so, I seized a moment to … extract it from him.”
Waters called the moment impromptu, but in some ways, her performances at the town halls have had the feel of a woman vying for a big voice in the present debate on jobs, the economy, race, and the nation’s first African-American president.
Waters brushes off critics who accuse her and the CBC of using their jobs tour to undermine the president (popular radio host Tom Joyner interviewed Obama on Tuesday, decrying those black leaders whom he said are trying to make “make you look bad, as if this is all your fault.” He didn’t reference the CBC or Waters specifically.)
Asked why the CBC didn’t give President Bill Clinton this kind of fight, Waters insists they did, on welfare reform, NAFTA and the crime bill. But she says their push-back came within the legislative process “in committee and in debates,” though she added, “I was opposing Clinton even when he was appointing my husband to be an ambassador. You know, I told him to take the ambassadorship and shove it. So we did oppose him. We absolutely did.”
She also disagrees with Obama supporters like fellow CBC member, Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who warn that pushing Obama to address African-Americans uniquely could damage him with the general electorate. She says Obama and his political advisers should use their “brilliance” to figure out a way to show balance.
And she defends her sharp criticism of Obama, saying she was really defending the black members’ of Congress ability to express dissatisfaction with this White House.
“I told them [in Detroit,] I know you love the president, we love him too,” Waters said. “It’s an African-American president, we know all of that. And, we have some concerns. But if those concerns are expressed then y’all come after us.”
“And when I used the word ‘unleash’ — I don’t know where it came from — then they said, ‘we unleash you, we unleash you!’ It was one of those moments were I really knew, at the moment that they responded back, that yes, people were feeling these things kind of underneath, unspoken, uncomfortable.”
Waters thinks the discomfort comes from an unwillingness among African-Americans to voice skepticism of their own, and a protectiveness of the first black president.
“First of all, in general, you’re taught that you don’t air dirty laundry; you kind of keep it in the family. And with this president, he’s an African-American president, and people fear for hm. They fear in all kind of ways. They fear for his safety. They fear he won’t be (re)-elected. They fear that if he doesn’t get the job done too well that he’s gonna be harmed more than anybody else. All of those fears are there. But the same time, that all those fears are there, the African-American community is expressing a kind of hurt, and that hurt is based on the real situation in our economy: the loss of jobs. But they also feel that they’re not being paid attention to.”
Some critics might argue that it’s members of Congress, not the White House, which has the responsibility to improve the economy in their districts — some of which have been in economic decline for decades, including parts of Waters’ 35 Congressional District, which includes parts of Inglewood and the area once known as south Central Los Angeles. And the president can only sign a jobs bill passed by Congress. Waters’ response: the CBC has put forward jobs bills and they have “101 ideas,” but “the leadership on big issues comes from the White House.”
It can also sometimes seem that it’s the CBC that feels it’s the one not being paid attention to.
The group has met with Obama, and the administration has sent some 40 administration officials to the town halls, including Graves and Housing and Urban Development secretary, Shaun Donovan, who attended the Cleveland event, accompanied by a presidential statement of support. (One person close to the White House, who spoke to TheGRIO on background, expressed frustration that despite that show of support, “the CBC still found fault with the president.”
A history of tension
Tensions between Obama and the CBC date back to the presidential primary campaign, when most members (including Waters) supported then New York Senator Hillary Clinton for president over the first term Senator from Illinois, despite his being a CBC member.
During Obama’s first year in office, CBC members publicly complained about a lack of White House access and even boycotted a December 2009 financial overhaul vote after Waters failed to reach a deal favorable to her caucus with then White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.
Beyond policy differences, Waters and others say few in the group have a personal relationship with the president.
Asked what her personal relationship is with the president, Waters said simply, “I don’t really have one.”
Obama has long bucked the “black establishment,” including when he ran for the Illinois State Senate in 1996, and later ran unsuccessfully against former Black Panther Bobby Rush for Congress. Obama, from his earliest moments in politics, has practiced a style of politics that’s very different from the up-front racial politics that many black politicians are used to. And his success at garnering African-American votes despite the lack of favor — more than 90 percent in 2008 — jarred the black political and social elite.
But Waters has her own analysis that’s part psychology, part politics.
Waters has her own analysis of why she and other CBC members, including the group’s chairman, Emanuel Cleaver, who voiced similar sentiments in Miami regarding his own relationship with the president are not especially close to Obama.
“I think that the way that he has handled his life has been quite different than the confrontation model or mode,” Waters said. “He’s brilliant, and he’s smart and I think that he has been able to exercise influence over people and groups, and I think that when he shows up in a group whether it’s in college or someplace else, that he is like wow, he’s handsome, and he’s smart, and he is so articulate that he kind of, intellectually overwhelms, and that’s how he’s won. He wins that way. And I think from the time he was a little boy probably, until now, that he has been able with his presence to do that.”
But Waters calls what’s happening in Washington today “a different animal.”
“He has huge responsibility, and it’s to all the ethic groups, and one of the things is working with all of these ethnic groups, and probably, being quite aware that there are people out there who are thinking because he’s black, he’s gonna pay more attention to black people, and trying to keep a lid on that, that the way that he has organized his politics … he did what he wanted to do, but he probably does not feel what black people are feeling out here. And I think that’s where the tension is coming from.”
That tension clearly bleeds over to Obama’s relationship with the CBC, whose members tend to be older, and part of the very establishment Obama sidestepped in Illinois.
“I think that it may be a continuation of not wanting to show favoritism maybe, or … he feels as if perhaps we understand that he has to pay attention in a lot of places and perhaps he can put us on hold, I’m not sure. But I don’t know of a lot of members, and you can continue to talk with them, that have that kind of relationship.”
As to what would improve the relationship, Waters has coined a word at multiple town halls that sums it up: targeting. Waters and other members of the CBC want programs targeted to black communities, similar to the programs Waters said the White House has directed at rural farm communities in Iowa, where the president unveiled a biofeuls initiative on the same day the CBC town hall was exploding with anger and anxiety in Detroit.
Waters said she doesn’t “begrudge” rural, or Latino or gay communities the special efforts made by the White House (she points to the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, efforts to move the DREAM Act forward, the White House’s Office of Excellence in Latino Education” and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell as other targeted efforts by the Obama administration.
“We like that,” Waters said. “We think targeting makes good sense. We just want some for our communities.”
Obama answered the “targeting” question when asked by Joyner Tuesday what the administration is doing to help African-Americans without showing preferential treatment, saying the best thing he can do for all communities, including the African-American community, is to bring the unemployment rate down, reform schools, and grow the economy. And a White House statement to TheGrio said that “reducing unemployment for all Americans, which disproportionately burdens the African-American community, remains a priority for the President and this Administration. And as some supporters of the president point out, the CBC isn’t the only group representing African-Americans, which the White House can and does meet with.
Waters’ ups and downs
Sometimes, Waters’ exuberance to aid her community has gotten her into trouble.
Waters was the subject of an ethics investigation over her alleged attempts to get federal assistance for OneUnited Bank, despite her husband, Sidney Williams, having sat on the board. A report of the House Ethics Committee charged that Waters’ chief of staff sought help for OneUnited even after the then House Financial Services Committee chairman, Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) warned Waters to steer clear. Waters sat on the conference committee that concluded the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill in 2010.
The scandal led the watchdog group CREW to Waters her one of the 25 most corrupt members of Congress.
“I worked with the banks,” Waters said. “I’m in trouble about the banks. And I’m accused of helping one bank, but I try to help all the banks.”
Waters trial in the House was ultimately postponed, but CREW’s Melanie Sloan said Waters still deserves to be investigated.
“Her ethics issues remain serious,” Slaon said. “There have been a lot of allegations of wrongdoing at the ethics committee which I think are serious, too, but none of that detracts from the issue ms waters has been under investigation for. She did contact the treasury secretary and she did arrange meetings for Union Bank at a time when her husband had an interest in the bank, and she didn’t disclose that. That remains a very
serious ethics matter.”
But CREW has also called for an investigation of the ethics committee itself, after Politico reported top lawyers on the committee communicated with Republican staffers about the probes of Waters and fellow CBC member Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY).
With the CBC town halls pushing the ethics story off the front pages, Waters has suddenly emerged as perhaps the most prominent congressional critic of the president, without having resorted to the more personal attacks leveled by radio commentator Tavis Smiley and Princeton professor Cornel West, whose “poverty tour” is seen by many as more about settling personal scores with Barack Obama than really addressing the issues facing black America.
And the CBC can make a boast that Smiley and West cannot: their tour, at least in theory, could result in at least some people getting jobs.
Waters said her passion for helping the jobless comes from her own personal experiences. She said she grew up poor in St. Louis, Missouri with 12 brothers and sisters and a mother struggling to raise “two different sets of children,” said she and fellow CBC members often represent poor people, and often can personally relate to them.
“We had people who worked as maids in white people’s home like the thing you see in The Help, that movie? We had people who worked in those kinds of jobs, even in St. Louis. And most of the men in our family were not professional. If you got a job like working in the railroad, or at our union station, I had a stepfather who did some of that, you were doing pretty good. But we know what poverty is. Everything from, you know, what it means to have family members go to jail, what it means to not know where the next meal is gonna come from. We worked hard, we were girls, we shoveled coal.”
Waters said her experiences have helped her relate to people on the tour.
“I know when people are hurting,” she said. “And when I see these people out here, what they’re feeling and what they’re going through…to tell you the truth, I’ve seen some of the saddest faces in this tour, with people sitting waiting to see an employer, that I’ve seen in a long time. And when we talk to them, they don’t believe us. They just think, those politicians, they don’t know what we’re going through, and we’re trying to communicate that we really do, and that this that we’re doing is another attempt to deal with the problem.
So our job as I see it is twofold. It is as public policymakers doing what elected officials do, but also recognizing that we have a greater responsibility. Number one, we have a greater responsibility to try and communicate to people what is happening, because a lot of people don’t understand and they’re frustrated. Secondly to let them know that we really do care. We really care about what’s happening to them. To try and inspire and motivate them to hold on, to keep going, to keep fighting, and we’re going to do everything that we can to try and make like a little bit easier for them and that’s what I think our job should be.”