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Waters Focuses Her Rage at System : Politics: She says inner-city woes have been simmering and need action.

May 10, 1992|DOUGLAS P. SHUIT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There are times when the pain that she manages to hide so well bubbles to the surface, when the caustic, angry voice gets thick and the words come hard, when the eyes well up. But those times are few and far between for Rep. Maxine Waters, a Democrat whose congressional district is in the heart of the riot area, whose own legislative office was lost to a fire started by a mob.

Most of the time, especially after the rioting, Waters is too busy being angry to cry, too busy giving voice to the rage that many of her constituents felt when they took to the streets, too busy being herself.

In turn, Waters has become part of the story.

Waters, one of the nation's most powerful African-American elected women and an adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton, has been slow to condemn the rioters. And for that, she herself is being condemned.

At work in Washington when the rioting broke out, Waters, who has credibility with the political Establishment as well as with gang members and welfare mothers, was immediately thrust into the spotlight. On one local or national television appearance after another, first in Washington and then in Los Angeles, Waters was pushed to utter the words that many, particularly whites, wanted to hear--a condemnation of the looters, a prayer for peace on the streets, an exhortation that the rioters return home, cool off.

Even Rodney G. King, whose name was the rallying cry of the rioters, pleaded for calm.

But not Maxine Waters.

The 53-year-old lawmaker did say: "Most reasonable human beings abhor violence, and I do, too. It is wrong to burn, to kill, to loot." She also pointed out that she spent long, quiet hours in housing projects trying to calm raw feelings, but what people remember is that when given chance after chance at air time, she instead vented her anger.

Waters' anger, like that of her constituents, targeted what she said were years of indifference by the political power structure, the unshakable poverty of the inner city, and a federal government that seems more concerned with putting Eastern Europe back on its feet than with America's blighted cities.

When asked about white fear, she instead talked about black fear. Asked to condemn the looters, she instead raked President Bush over the coals. When the focus was put on problems in her district, she retorted that the problem is that there is something "desperately wrong" with America.

At times, she or her name seemed everywhere. No stranger to the spotlight, she has been covered by the national media before, mostly because of her efforts working on Jesse Jackson's two presidential campaigns. Whether it was joining in with Crips and Bloods gang members in a communal dance called the electric slide at a housing project party, or throwing off a line about Bush, television cameras seemed to be everywhere she went.

Along with the limelight came some heat. The Orange County Register was sharply critical of her in an editorial; conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh denounced her, and television commentators Sam Donaldson and Robert Novak questioned her reluctance at condemning the rioters.

But she also had her defenders, including New York Post columnist Amy Pagnozzi, who said Waters would make a good vice presidential running mate for Clinton, in part because she could provide some "spine" for the Democratic candidate.

Waters said she jumped at the chance for such exposure because she did not want others defining what she saw happening in her community.

"We had to go beyond people thinking that the video (of King being beaten by police) created all of this frustration. (The problem) has been simmering because of a lack of attention to these inner cities for so long. The hopelessness, the unemployment, the frustration has been festering. The jury verdict was just the straw that broke the camel's back," she said.

Waters has been talking angrily about inner-city conditions for more than two decades. One of 13 children born to a St. Louis woman who was on and off welfare, Waters has been around poverty all her life. In high school, she worked in a restaurant that refused to serve blacks and forced her to eat in the basement. She got involved in local issues in Los Angeles during the 1960s, worked as a teacher in the Head Start program, helped Mayor Tom Bradley get elected in 1973, then won a seat in the state Assembly in 1976.

During her rise in the political world, the congresswoman has stayed close to her political base in Los Angeles. She makes her permanent home here, commuting to Washington. Over the years, Waters has become financially comfortable. She is married to Sidney Williams, a former professional football player who sells Mercedes-Benzes in Hollywood.

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