Congressional ethics charges have tarnished Maxine Waters’ reputation in Washington. But in the struggling, mostly Hispanic and black neighborhoods she represents, residents still hold the 10-term Democratic congresswoman in high esteem.
“If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t even be in school,” Carol Jones, 51, said after finishing classes for the day at the Maxine Waters Education & Career Center, one of the institutions the congresswoman has supported during her decades in state and federal government.
“Whenever somebody is doing something good for the community, they’ll find something to make them look bad,” said Jones, who is enrolled in high-school equivalency and nursing programs at the gleaming mirrored glass and adobe building on an otherwise run-down boulevard of shops and homes. “That’s just the way the world is.”
The House ethics committee this week handed Waters three counts of alleged ethics violations, including a charge that she helped OneUnited Bank, where her husband was a stockholder and former board member, obtain $12 million in federal bailout funds in late 2008.
Waters has said her advocacy had been broadly aimed at minority banks and that she and her staff had not done anything improper.
Democrats fear that the accusations, along with ethics allegations against fellow Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, could cost the party votes in the November elections.
Waters’ own political prospects, however, appear little damaged.
She’s unlikely to lose many votes in her heavily Democratic district to her Republican opponent in the upcoming election, businessman Bruce Brown, whose conservative platform includes the privatization or abolition of Social Security. She captured 83 percent of the vote in winning her last election.
Waters’ district extends from the area around Los Angeles International Airport near the Pacific coast to the neighborhoods just south of central Los Angeles that erupted into violence during the 1965 Watts riots and again following the Rodney King verdict in 1992. The district has shifted from mostly black to largely Hispanic in the past decade, with Latinos making up more than half of the population, according to 2008 Census figures.
“She’s an extremely effective representative for her district,” said Raphael Sonenshein, a California State University, Fullerton political science professor. “She’s got a long train of allies and friends, and she probably has stood out as somebody who has gone to bat for people who are really disenfranchised.”
Even for those who acknowledge the possibility of her guilt, the jobs, schools and other assistance she’s brought to her needy community far outweigh any possible transgressions.
“I’m looking at the good she did,” said construction worker Jimmy Allen, 50, who was cycling along a sidewalk. “If this is her first little thing, it don’t add up. That don’t add up to this,” he said motioning toward the school bearing the congresswoman’s name.
Residents and community leaders rattle off Waters’ contributions to their communities and lives during her 20 years in the House and 14 years in the state Assembly.
Arturo Ybarra, executive director of the Watts Century Latino Organization, said Waters has aided his group’s efforts to increase homeownership by helping persuade banks to boost lending. She also secured money for the organization’s counseling sessions for troubled borrowers.
Ybarra praised her advocacy of a comprehensive immigration overhaul and her work as chairwoman of a House subcommittee on housing and community opportunity, sponsoring legislation that’s helped fight blight. And he was equally grateful for Waters’ regular participation in community events.
“She never misses a Cinco de Mayo celebration in Watts, unless she’s serving in Congress,” he said.
Watts resident Richard Alford, 39, said he’s sought repeated help from Waters’ office and has never been turned down.
“She’s always been accessible, and that’s refreshing,” Alford said. “That’s why people love her so much.”
He said she personally sat in on his tests and interviews years ago when he was applying for a construction training program he learned about through her office.
Her staffers were also quick to check the veracity of rumors that administrators at the housing project where he lives were disproportionately evicting African-Americans, Alford said. And when housing project administrators sought to evict his grandmother because a cousin living with her got in trouble with police, Waters staffers interceded to save her home,
Alford said he suspected that Waters’ reflexive helpfulness is what’s led to her current troubles.
“It just sounds to me like it’s Maxine being Maxine. Just trying to help somebody,” he said.
Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press