WASHINGTON – Six-term Rep. Maxine Waters inspires in a way few politicians are able, and she evokes usually one of two emotions: fierce loyalty or distinct derision.
Regardless of her emotional impact on voters, the liberal congresswoman can bet on a continuing string of electoral victories in her South Central Los Angeles district — at least until Los Angeles' growing Latino population runs a Democrat against her.
"She's probably safe for another 10 years," said Rob Stultzman, the California Republican Party's communications director.
Waters hails from the 35th District, which covers much of South Central and the Watts corridors. The demographics of the 35th are changing fast. In 1990, blacks made up 42 percent of the district, while Hispanics made up 43 percent.
Today, the district is 35 percent black and 54 percent Hispanic. Blacks still make up the voting majority because most of the district's Hispanics are ineligible to vote. But that may change in years to come, said syndicated columnist Michael Barone.
"That's the long-term problem of her tenure — Los Angeles County is getting more and more Hispanic. That leads to the possibility that she might be challenged someday by someone from another ethnic group," he said.
Waters' district has been host to some of the bloodiest race riots in U.S. history, including the 1992 violence spawned after the not-guilty verdicts of four Los Angeles police officers videotaped beating motorist Rodney King. In that case, 26,000 National Guard troops were ordered onto the scene, but not before 54 people were killed, 9,000 businesses were destroyed and 6,000 jobs lost.
Waters, who would not agree to an interview for this article, made her own headlines by calling the riots a "rebellion" and sympathizing with the rioters, most of whom came from the poor black neighborhoods in her district. A few years later, based on a San Jose Mercury News series that was later retracted, she blamed the Central Intelligence Agency for pumping crack cocaine into South Central neighborhoods.
As the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus during the mid-90s, she used what critics call her "bomb thrower" tendencies to draw attention to her state and to her issues and constituent groups: blacks, Hispanics, the poor, and unions.
"Maxine Waters is one of the elected spokespeople for a brand of Marxism that is normally only found in academia among tenured left-wing fanatics," charged Todd Gaziano, head of the law center at the Heritage Foundation, who called her "one of the irresponsible bomb throwers."
But her supporters say her brand of activism has results.
"I'm sure there are times when one has to be a bomb thrower and very outspoken — in-your-face — and other times when you have to approach things differently," said Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., who as a fellow member of the CBC identifies himself as one of Waters' "biggest fans."
"I've seen her be outspoken and get results and I've seen her work behind the scenes and get results," he said. "I think she has the knowledge of who she is and that serves her well. I consider her a close personal friend and strong, strong political ally."
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., agrees, and says it is her constituents who benefit.
"Maxine Waters is one of the most dedicated, and committed advocate for the millions of Americans who have too few champions in Washington," he said.
Stultzman said Waters' colorful "antics" can be traced back to her days in the California General Assembly, between 1976-1990, where she first built her support base.
Taking her style of activism to Washington, in her first term in office, she was one of six House members to vote against entering into the Persian Gulf War, asking how she could be expected to stop gang fighting at home when the country was waging violence abroad.
Many of her most notable moments came during the Clinton administration. In 1994, she was arrested at the gates of the White House when the president cut off immigration for Haitian refugees during the coup. She denounced Clinton's signing of the welfare reform bill and the president's increase in spending and executive powers.
In 1999, she accused then-Sen. John Ashcroft and Sen. Chris Bond, R-Mo., of an "evil, racist" act for blocking the nomination of Missouri state Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White to the federal bench. She called the bill to ban late-term abortions a "ritualistic attack on women," and was one of the first to visit Elian Gonzalez's father in Cuba and pressed for his successful return to the communist country.
She refused to back 2000 vice presidential candidate Sen. Joe Lieberman, a fellow Democrat from Connecticut, until he recanted his initial concerns about racial quotas in affirmative action programs.
"I think it's fair to say she has been a strident advocate for the things she believes in and a strident critic of what she disagrees with," Barone said.
Waters will face one of two virtually unknown Republican candidates, Ross Moen, a retired police lieutenant, and businessman Mike Cyrus. Also throwing his hat into the ring is mechanical engineer Gordon Mego, an Independent.