SACRAMENTO — Assemblywoman Maxine Waters, a black woman who once bused tables at a segregated restaurant, who grew up in a welfare family with 12 brothers and sisters, who collects Aunt Jemima memorabilia because she wants to remember, is giving white male politicians fits.
At 49, Waters, who has represented her predominately black South-Central Los Angeles district in the Assembly for 11 years, just finished one successful fight over affirmative action and is digging in her heels for another in the closing days of the legislative session.
A close ally of Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), Waters is one of the most powerful members of the Assembly. She delights in her political abilities and thinks it is amusing that male peers consider her a bully.
"Why should a 125-pound woman from Watts be threatening to anyone?" she asks, laughing at the notion but knowing the answer.
She is head of the Assembly Democratic Caucus, the first woman to hold that post. She also is the first woman to sit on the important budget conference committee, the six-member panel composed of Assembly and Senate members who negotiate the Legislature's version of the state budget each year.
She is best known for fights involving "her constituency," as she calls it--blacks and other minorities and women, the poor, the powerless and those traditionally outside the white male power structure.
Last year, after a prolonged, bitter fight with Gov. George Deukmejian and many lawmakers, Waters forced approval of legislative amendments forbidding state pension fund investments in companies doing business with South Africa. She believes that these amendments to the state's new law on taxation of multinational corporations will help blacks in the struggle against the African nation's white-minority government.
Most recently, she successfully fought to place strong affirmative-action amendments into a bill authorizing expenditure of $560 million in bond funds to attract a $4.4-billion federal atom smasher to California. The legislation, passed and signed into law by Deukmejian last week, requires that the state steer 15% of its contracts to minority-owned business firms and 5% to companies owned by women.
In both cases, Republicans as well as some Democrats vowed that under no circumstances would they vote for the legislation with her affirmative-action provisions in it.
In the closing days of this year's legislative session, she is determined that the state's bid for a semiconductor research project called Sematech--proposed for the high-tech Silicon Valley near San Jose--include $3 million for an electronics job training program in Watts.
One of those who often crosses swords with Waters is Sen. Alfred E. Alquist (D-San Jose), a white-haired 79-year-old liberal Democrat who is one of the most powerful lawmakers in the Senate.
"Miss Waters is a very aggressive, domineering person who apparently rules the Assembly with an iron hand," Alquist said, expressing a view he shares with many other male legislators. "She is very difficult to deal with, but you have to admire her determination in fighting for her own beliefs."
Responding to such comments, Waters said, "It's not comfortable for an older white male" like Alquist to have to negotiate with a black woman.
"Those who consider themselves very important and very powerful don't like to be in a position where people who should not be powerful and important are forcing them to respond to them," she said.
Waters grew up in black housing projects in St. Louis, a member of a family that depended on the welfare system to put a roof over its head and food on the table. During high school, in the early 1950s, she bused tables at a chain of St. Louis restaurants that refused to serve blacks. She had to eat her meals in the basement with other black workers, she said.
"I just accepted it. That's the way it was," Waters said, adding she is not bitter and enjoys going to the restaurant to eat.
As for being on welfare, she said, "I was never ashamed of it, but I knew that it was not enough. Being almost a ward of the state in the sense of looking to someone for money to live on was not a quality way to live. I wanted more than that."
Not too long after she left high school, she married a GI named Edward Waters and had two children, Edward, now 31, and Karen, 29. The family moved from St. Louis to Los Angeles. Then came a struggle to get a degree at California State University in Los Angeles, a divorce, then marriage in 1977 to Sidney Williams, a former linebacker for the Cleveland Browns and a Mercedes-Benz salesman in Hollywood.
Helping her son, Ed, try to win a seat in the Assembly last year led to perhaps her biggest, and most painful, defeat. She put well over $200,000 into her son's campaign but watched as a Republican, Assemblyman Paul E. Zeltner of Lakewood, defeated him. "It hurt. It did not feel good," she said.