Obstacles Maxine Waters Had To Overcome To Get Where She Is

Having been in politics for almost 50 years, Maxine Waters shows no signs of stopping any time soon. The 84-year-old is known for standing up to what she believes in and rising above the male-dominated nature of American politics. Waters has never been one to back down, even when Waters was a target of bomb threats in 2018 (via ABC News). "We have to keep doing what we're doing in order to make this country right," she said in response to the threats. "That's what I intend to do, and as the young people say, 'I ain't scared'."

Waters currently serves as the U.S. representative for California's 43rd congressional district and chairs the House Financial Services Committee — the first woman and first African American to do so (via New York Amsterdam News). In addition, Waters was named one of Time magazine's "100 Most Influential People in 2018," in which she was described as being "adored and admired by people who care about social justice" and for showing "that she is not here for any nonsense."

The congresswoman has stood in the face of numerous obstacles throughout her political career, letting nothing stand in her way to be the voice for the people and communities that are rarely heard. 

Maxine Waters was working by the time she was 13

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Maxine Waters was the fifth of 13 children raised by a single mother (via her official website). Her mother, Velma Lee Carr Moore (via USNews), significantly influenced Waters. "She would always tell you what she thought, and that had an influence on me," the congresswoman told Ebony magazine. "I was reared with her in an environment where she sometimes struggled to get what she needed for her children against people who didn't believe they deserved to have those opportunities."

Waters began working when she was 13, with jobs in factories and segregated restaurants. She moved with her family to Los Angeles in 1961, where she started a career in education as an assistant teacher in 1966 (via AAREG). She studied at the California State University, Los Angeles, where she earned a degree in sociology in 1970.

Her political career started in 1973 when she was hired as the chief deputy of Los Angeles city councilman David Cunningham (via Encyclopedia.com). Waters ran his campaigns, in addition to those of Senator Alan Cranston and Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley.

Waters made strides as a member of the California State Assembly

In 1976, Maxine Waters successfully ran for the California State Assembly. For 14 years, she passed integral pieces of legislation in the state, including the first Child Abuse Prevention Training Program and the "prohibition of police strip searches for nonviolent misdemeanors," as detailed on her official site. As a Democratic Party Leader, she has served on the Democratic National Committee (DNC) since 1980 and was "instrumental" in creating the National Development and Voting Rights Institute.

During the 1980s, Waters co-founded the Black Women's Forum, a non-profit organization in Los Angeles (via Iowa State University).

In 1990, Waters branched nationally, winning a seat for the 29th District of California in 1990 (via AAREG). Then, in 1992, she won a seat in the 35th district, which she held until 2013. Since then, she's been the U.S. representative for California's 43rd congressional district. During her tenure in each district, Waters "spearheaded health care, child care, education, and welfare reform," as noted by Black Past.

She was critical of how people were perceived during the 1992 Rodney King riots

In 1992, riots erupted in South Central Los Angeles after four police officers were acquitted of beating Rodney King, despite video evidence to the contrary (via NPR). Maxine Waters issued a statement in a letter to her constituents, which was reprinted in the Los Angeles Times. This became one of Waters' first major obstacles, as many misconstrued what she had written as to say she "condoned" the violence (via Snopes) when she actually called for the local community to "fight our battles in the courtroom, and in the halls of power," to "organize and rally and protest" to "celebrate living — not dying."

In a news conference during the riots (via YouTube), Waters shared how she was "angry" about what happened to King and that she had "a right to that anger" as to the people of Los Angeles. "We don't want anybody killed. None of us believe in violence," she said. "But there are some angry people in America and young Black males in my district are feeling at this moment, if they could not get a conviction with the Rodney King video available to jurors, that there can be no justice in America."

Waters experienced further controversy in 1994

At the time, Maxine Waters didn't consider what happened to be a riot. Instead, she thought it was a "rebellion" (via Los Angeles Times). "If you call it a riot, it sounds like it was just a bunch of crazy people who went out and did bad things for no reason," she said. "I maintain it was somewhat understandable, if not acceptable."

Waters still agrees with this sentiment, telling The Cut in 2020 that what she "saw was an explosion of a hopelessness being played out" among her local district. "People acting out of frustration and hopelessness and understanding that they don't have an establishment — political or otherwise." She later clarified in an interview with Our Weekly in 2022 that "there was something to be said and I dared to say it."

Two years later, controversy brewed once again for Waters during a hearing before the House Banking Committee in 1994 when she told congressman Peter King to "shut up" (via C-Span) after the chair of the committee, Henry González, accused King of "badgering" Hillary Clinton's then chief of staff, Margaret Williams (via the Los Angeles Times). King went over his allotted time and was continually asked by González to stop talking, which led Waters to tell King he was "out of order" and to "shut up" (via United Steelworkers).

The congresswoman regularly called out the behavior of men in politics

Representatives James Sensenbrenner Jr. and Gerald Solomon said Maxine Waters' comments should be struck from the record and that she should receive disciplinary action (via United Steelworkers). Waters was then ordered to stop speaking by representative Carrie Meek, but Waters continued. She highlighted how women shouldn't let "men intimidate us and keep us from participating" and that "it is only when a woman attempts to exercise her rights in this House that we have this kind of intimidation."

Speaking to the Los Angeles Times after the confrontation, which led to her being banned from the House for the rest of the day, Waters explained that "women are supposed to know their place" in a room among men. "I exercise my rights and it's new to men," she said. "It's not easy for them to accept women as equal partners."

Over two decades later, Waters called out the behavior of powerful men once again when former Fox News political commentator Bill O'Reilly made an allegedly racist and sexist remark about Waters live on air (via YouTube). Speaking to MSNBC about the situation (via YouTube), Waters said she was "a strong Black woman" who "cannot be intimidated."

Waters faced accusations of financial corruption

Maxine Waters was accused of "improperly seeking government assistance" to help OneUnited bank in 2009 (via CNN Politics), which received $12 million in bailout funds after the 2008 financial crisis. Her husband, Sidney Williams, held a substantial amount of stocks and shares in the bank, which was seen as a conflict of interest.

This allegation of corruption led to a probe on Waters by the House Ethics Committee (via Politico). It was found that Waters called a meeting to help minority-owned banks like OneUnited, but reportedly didn't realize they were asking for bailout funds. Once she learned OneUnited was involved, she "ended her involvement" (via PolitiFact). As reported by Slate magazine, Waters distanced herself from the bank once she realized they were asking for funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).

Waters was cleared of any wrongdoing in 2012 (via SFGate). Billy Martin, the Washington attorney, hired by the committee, said the "evidence in the record does not support a knowing violation of ethics rules or any other standard of conduct with respect to" Waters. According to SFGate, Waters said "her efforts were consistent with her longtime work to promote opportunity for minority-owned businesses and lending in underserved communities" and that she'd "fully disclosed her husband's ties to the bank," referring to his stocks and shares.

Some enjoyed working with Waters, while others found her to be very divisive

During the Trump administration, Maxine Waters regularly took Republican representatives to charge during televised conferences, hearings, and committees (via YouTube). But, according to a former staffer, Waters can also be "slightly intimidating" behind closed doors. "She interrupts, doesn't let them finish, scolds them," they told HuffPost in 2017. "These are people who are just trying to get her up to speed on what's happening."

In defense of Waters, author R. Eric Thomas explained that Waters talks "like everyone you respect in your life talks, but whom you wouldn't expect to be in Washington. If my mom and my aunt were running Washington, everyone would straighten up and fly right. A lot of people feel that way." Congressman Stephen Lynch agreed. "She can sometimes be animated, and I think people might thank that is evidence of a lack of control," he said. "But it's not. It is quite calculated, and most of the time, it's very effective."

The congresswoman had a lot to say about former president Donald Trump

In October 2018, Maxine Waters was one of many prominent Democratic politicians who received suspected pipe bombs in the mail (via ABC News), which included former president Barack Obama and current president Joe Biden. Blaming violence incited by former president Donald Trump, Waters said the bombing attempts wouldn't stop her from being critical of him. "We have to keep doing what we're doing in order to make this country right. That's what I intend to do, and as the young people say, 'I ain't scared,'" she said. "We must not be intimidated to the point that we stop advocating and protesting for justice."

Waters has been outspoken about her criticism of Trump since his inauguration in 2016 (via The Guardian), so much so that she became the former president's "public enemy No 1" and was repeatedly referred to as "Kerosene Maxine" — a nickname given to Waters following a dispute in Congress in 1994, according to the newspaper.

"I think that he is disrespectful of most people. He has no respect for other human beings," Waters said of Trump (via HuffPost). "He lies, he cannot be trusted, I don't know what it means to sit down with someone like that who you cannot believe one word they say once you get up by talking to them. I have no trust or faith in him whatsoever."

Maxine Waters stands by her often controversial comments

During the 2021 trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin, Maxine Waters was condemned by Judge Peter Cahill for her comments regarding what would happen if Chauvin wasn't convicted for the murder of George Floyd (via Evening Standard). Speaking to protestors outside the police department of Minneapolis, she said: "We gotta stay on the street, we've got to get more active, we've got to get more confrontational, we've got to make sure that they knew we mean business."

In response, Chauvin's lawyer requested a mistrial over Waters' comments. Judge Cahill denied this motion but said it was "disrespectful to the rule of law and to the judicial branch" for elected officials like Waters to comment publicly on any case outcome. House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy planned to introduce a resolution to censor Waters "for these dangerous comments," however, this failed to be put through in the house (via PolitiFact).

Waters was quick to defend her comments, saying she will continue to share her beliefs "no matter the criticism I get," as she told Joy Reid on MSNBC. "I will continue to do what I think is in the best interests of our people. I will continue to speak truth to power and I will continue to be an activist legislator."