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February 14-21, 2007

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Rep. Maxine Waters

Ms. Waters goes to Washington: The ninth-term congresswoman keeps her party's 'Democratic wing' fired up.

Still, Waters Runs Deep

U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, who will speak at the Santa Cruz Civic during UCSC's Feb. 20 King Convocation, talks about post-Katrina politics, the race for president and how Democrats can step up to the plate on issues like Iraq

By Bill Forman

Few politicians who are as articulate as Maxine Waters use their rhetorical gifts to clarify rather than equivocate. The ninth-term U.S. representative from Southern California will give a free talk at the Santa Cruz Civic next Tuesday, at 7pm, as part of UCSC's Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation. Waters, whose district includes a sizable chunk of South-Central L.A., also spent 14 years in the California Assembly, has chaired the Congressional Black Caucus, fights vigorously on behalf of election reform and runs Congress's "Out of Iraq" caucus.

In the following conversation, the congresswoman tells Metro Santa Cruz about her current work on behalf of low-income Hurricane Katrina evacuees, the current candidates for president, the rise of the "blue dog" Democrats and the shifting perceptions of the American public.

Metro Santa Cruz: I wanted to talk to you about some of the things I'm guessing you'll be talking about here in town. One of them is the Katrina subcommittee that you're involved with. What's happening with that?

Maxine Waters: Well, there are several issues that I'm focused on as the chair of the subcommittee on housing and community opportunity. I am looking at why public housing tenants have not been able to get back into their units, and why HUD is talking about demolishing all those units, and what they think is supposed to happen to those people who lived in public housing. I've been meeting with the public housing tenants. I've been down there to New Orleans. I've been meeting with their advocates, their lawyers, who they have engaged to file a class action lawsuit against HUD. And I'm going to come up with a recommendation for my subcommittee that we're going to put in legislation to give some direction to what should happen with that. And I'm also looking at what is known as the Road Home program. It is community development block grant money that we appropriated here in Congress to help get homeowners back rebuilding and repairing their homes, and the program has not been implemented well; out of 100,000 applications, they've been able to complete 228 loans after 17 months.


And I'm really unhappy about that, and the speaker, and my committee, and Mr. Barney Frank, the chair of the big financial service committee, we're all committed to unraveling this mess and getting something done and giving help to the people there. So I really am focused on Katrina.

To what degree do you think that HUD and other entities are using this as a force for gentrification? Is that intentional? What do you think is going on there?

Well, I do think that what is happening with public housing tenants in New Orleans is that there are several layers of government that do not want those tenants back. They want to demolish those places. And I think some of it lies with the city council and some of it with what I call the shadow government of New Orleans.

And I think HUD certainly does not want them back. HUD wants to demolish all of those units and redevelop them, and they base this on the philosophy that they're too dense, that they need to spread them out, scatter the people, reduce the number of units inside these complexes and do mixed developments where you have some low income housing, other housing for what they consider working people, and other home ownership. But that would be a Hope 6 type project, where you lose units for low-income people. You'll lose almost two-thirds of your units. HANO [Housing Authority of New Orleans] had a waiting list; they had some boarded up units that they had not put back on the market. They let the units fall into disrepair, and Katrina became a convenient way by which to say, oh, we've got to get rid of them, they're terrible. And so, yeah, I think there are some who do not want them back and they see this as an opportunity to get rid of them.

What do you think their chances are of succeeding?

They're in the courts right now, but it doesn't matter to me because we pre-empt the courts, I mean, if we come up with legislation that directs what should be done, we override whatever, a court decision or anything else. I think that the principals that we should be adhering to are these: number one, that you should not demolish housing for poor people that's inhabitable, housing that they can live in basically; number two, that you should not only repair but you should upgrade that housing to make it even more habitable, if there are two or three bedrooms with one bathroom, I think they should add a bathroom. I think you should have social services to go along with the public housing, right inside the complexes to assist the families, And I think that poor people should not be treated the way that these people have been treated, who expected to return home only to be told, oh no, we're going to tear them down and you can get back in five to six years. They know better.

Can you believe that? I never expected that in this country, not even in these days.

No! I just think that it is terrible. And so, we--Barney Frank and I and many of the members that I've talk to are very sympathetic to the tenants.

Tell me how you felt about the November election. I'm sure, given the alternative, it was very thrilling, on the other hand, do you feel the Democratic Party is fulfilling its potential here?

Well, yes, of course I was thrilled, because I had gotten very worried, not simply that we were out of power for so long and perhaps we couldn't get back in. But I was worried about the people. And I didn't see the kind of aggressive resistance to government policies and people rallying and challenging, and I thought people had just given up and thought that they could not impact their government, But I think what I felt after November 7th is, people may not come out, and they may not travel and rally, but they are using the vote to express how they feel, and that may continue. If we're in another age of a different kind of participation with the Internet and all that, maybe what we have to understand is that the vote may get more powerful and maybe this will increase the vote. So I was pleased to see that the people voted to kick out the Republicans.

I don't know if the Democrats know yet what this all means. And I still think that there are people who are not in touch with themselves and they're trying to be--and call themselves--centrists, which really means with some people they're trying to have it both ways: you know, I'm not here, I'm not there, but I'll be wherever the polls tell me that I have to be. And so we're not there yet, in terms of utilizing this new power to really demonstrate that we can step outside the box and deal with issues no matter how controversial they are, like the war in Iraq.

It's amazing the degree to which the black caucus has been so far ahead of the mainstream Democratic Party ...


On issue after issue ...


Do you see that changing?

Well, you know, I hope. Today, we have these different factions in our democratic caucus: the blue dogs, the new democrats and the progressives. And it seems to me that when there's been a struggle, that somehow leadership is more afraid of the blue dogs than they are, say, of the progressives. And maybe it's because, you know, the progressives are not out to harm anybody. And that we kind of know each other. For example, Nancy is the Speaker, we've worked with Nancy over the years, we know her and she knows that we want the best for her and all of that. And I'm not so sure that the blue dogs see it the same way we do. If they don't get their own way, what will they do? And maybe that's how it impacts the leadership; because it seems to me that they get their way more. And we decided today that we cannot let that happen.

Tell me what a blue dog is actually. I remember a yellow dog Democrat in the South, that was like someone who'd vote for a yellow dog before they'd vote for a Republican. What's a blue dog?

Yeah, it's kind of that. These guys, some of them possibly could be switch-hitters. Switch-hitters came out of the blue dogs. They're basically a Southern--not all, because you have some people right in California who are blue dogs. They consider themselves conservative, they consider themselves, you know, on issues like balancing the budget, and they're the ones who worry about all of this talk about getting out of Iraq that we won't show support for the soldiers if we don't continue to fund the war and that we can't look as if we don't want America to win and we can't cut and run and all that kind of stuff, you know? And some of them are not pro-choice. You know, it's the more conservative element in our caucus.

Isn't it funny how Bill Clinton in his time seemed so centrist with all his triangulation, and now compared to where the center had led--at least up until the recent election--he's looking really good, really progressive.

He is. He was at our retreat. All of a sudden here's the guy who brought NAFTA to us, and you should have heard him talk about those trade agreements, how we got to have labor, and how we got to have the environmental protected and on and on and on. I said, "Right on, Bill!" (Laughter.)

Speaking of Clintons, what do you think is going to happen with the Democratic candidates for president?

I don't know. She obviously has a lot of money--more than anybody else--and can raise more. And money is extremely important, and particularly when you're in the big media market, they've got loyalties and friends--some friends of Bill, some friends of both of them--they've tied those down in in many ways, so she is going to be the one to beat. I think that she is going to do well, but I think she is going to have real competition. And I think that the black vote, which they always counted as part of their base, is going to split. And it's going to be a great campaign. And let me tell you what's going to be great about this campaign.

What's that?

I want Biden and Dodd to stay in, because they're real smart on foreign affairs and international issues. They won't get very far but they are smart. And in a debate, they're going to make. ... [Pauses.] Hillary's smart, Obama's smart, Biden and Dodd have more experience and they've met more world leaders and they know the history and the cultures and all that better than anybody. So they're going to make for great debate. Great debate.

And what about Edwards? I'm not sure that I trust Edwards, only because at the California Democratic Convention right before the war started, he was the only candidate at the time who was for it.

You know what I kind of like about him?

The class thing?

Well, I love that, but I love the way he said, I made a mistake, I am sorry.

Did he really?

Oh yeah, big time. Big time. And look at how Hillary is handling hers, I mean she is nuancing this thing to death. [Laughter.]

You know? But I like the way Edwards said, I made a mistake, I am sorry, I should not have, and if I had known then what I know today, I wouldn't--I mean, he's very clear. And I like the two Americas too, I do like that.

How do you keep your spirit up? I mean, there's got to be a lot of times where you're like, 'Aghh, I'm banging my head against the wall here.'

It is a lot of times. But a good night's sleep, and I wake up and start all over again!

What else are you going to talk about while you're out here?

I don't know. You know, some of those issues that we have talked about, of course Iraq and Katrina emerge as very, very big issues, and health care, and I'm doing a lot on AIDS and all that kind of stuff. But I guess I'm trying to take a look at and understand where people are and what they think about their government and what they think about their role or what role they can play and what influence they have, and what they think their responsibilities are to help make their government better.

I think I've lost some connection here in understanding exactly what people are thinking and what they're saying about all of this. Like I was with the rally a week from last Saturday here in Washington against the war, and these are all great people who are the progressive side, and that's OK and that's wonderful to be with them and we understand each other and we speak the same language. But there's a lot of other people out there who we need, and I don't know what they think about their role in all of this. I don't think they're going to come out and protest. I don't think they're going to rally. And I'm wondering how we really influence them, you know, all of their information coming from television and the Internet or what? I want to know more, because I want to talk with them about that and I'm trying to figure out a way to do it.

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