From the perspective of some House Democrats, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) has the right message. She’s just not always the best messenger.
The Los Angeles lawmaker’s early calls for President Trump’s impeachment and viral showdowns with administration officials have endeared Waters to the party’s young, liberal base. And those stances have also garnered the respect of many House Democrats, who admire how Waters, 79, sticks to her political convictions.
"She is up-to-date, she is smart, she is authentic and she is not scared to express herself,” Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) told The Hill, adding that her constituents in Milwaukee often ask her if she knows Waters. "She is transformative in terms of appealing to different generations of people.”
Yet her most recent remarks — encouraging public confrontation with Cabinet members — rankled some of those colleagues and raised concerns about how Waters would handle increased authority if Democrats regain control of the House in November.
House and Senate minority leaders Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) condemned her comments, while other Democrats distanced themselves from her.
Waters is aware that she sometimes pushes the envelope, according to a former aide who said the congresswoman thinks Democrats as a whole have engaged in "nice guy politics" for too long.
“She’s definitely pushing people into a place of discomfort,” said the former aide, adding that Waters is “slowly but surely getting the Democrats to play the game the way Trump plays it.”
The former staffer said that Trump’s 2016 mimicking of Serge Kovaleski, a New York Times reporter who has a physical disability, “ignited her fire.”
“That was the moment that really spurred her to speak out against him,” the former staffer said. “It was a moment that I think snapped her into accepting this is now our reality and accepting her role as an emerging soldier against this administration.”
That kind of approach has led to concern among some Democrats, including those on the House Financial Services Committee, where Waters is poised to wield the gavel next year if Democrats are in the majority.
One Democrat on the panel told The Hill that a few members of the committee are worried that Waters’s recent remarks about confronting administration officials are a sign that she’s itching to lead a crusade against Trump.
“We've got a division, because some people are very concerned that she's going to be pushing an ideological agenda,” said the lawmaker. "We can have disagreements on the substance, and that's fine. I just want to make sure it doesn't become like a show."
Waters, who declined an interview for this article, said in a statement that she’s eager to “work with Members [from] both sides of the aisle on sensible solutions to benefit hardworking Americans and strengthen our nation’s economy."
"She works really hard, she's opinionated on some things,” said Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), who serves with Waters on the Financial Services panel. "She also takes some very hard stands, and you know the Republicans don't like it and they try to push back. But she's every bit as tough or tougher than they are."
Though Democrats generally hold Waters in high regard, her willingness to explore the boundaries of opposition to Trump has caused unease among some colleagues.
Waters was one of the first members of Congress to call for Trump’s impeachment, and she has voted twice in favor of resolutions that would begin the process. Democratic leaders have tried to quash talk of impeaching Trump, a move they consider premature and a distraction from their campaign message aimed at regaining control of the House in the midterm elections this fall.
But her supporters have spoken out in her defense following the onslaught of criticism stemming from her most recent remarks, insisting that they were misconstrued by critics and came nowhere close to the violence that Trump advocated for on the campaign trail.
“What Maxine and her generation did was make this country a better country by protesting, by sitting at lunch counters, by marching,” said Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), chairman of Congressional Black Caucus, which Waters led from 1997 to 1999. “She reached back into that era of saying, 'When you see them, protest.'”
Waters, who has served in the House since 1991, said her comments were a call for political pressure, not violence, and that any conversation about civility should start with Trump’s conduct.
Despite her abrasive public manner, some Democrats say she takes a different approach when it comes to getting things done at the committee level.
“There are disagreements that come up from time to time, and we try to hammer them out the best we can,” Perlmutter said.
Waters has worked with her Republican colleagues on important compromise legislation, including a bipartisan flood insurance overhaul package. She has also allowed Democratic members on the panel, some who have deep Wall Street ties, to pursue bipartisan measures that she opposes.
Most of Waters’s Democratic colleagues speak about her with reverence and respect when asked about her work in Congress, calling her a studious, fearless leader.
Those close to her say that she’s used to public and private pushback from her colleagues and won’t be deterred by the controversy surrounding her anti-Trump remarks.
"She is very, very much a minority in the House of Representatives, and that hasn't dissuaded her from speaking her truth in a room surrounded by people who do not look like her,” her former aide said. "It's easy to be quieted because you're scared, and she's not scared.”
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