Q&A with Congresswoman Maxine Waters
The former chair of the House Financial Services Committee discusses equality and diversity in the US, and what a Republican takeover of the House means for the country’s future
A member of the Democratic Party, Maxine Waters is currently serving her 17th term in the US House of Representatives. She is one of two of the longest-serving African American women in House history, and led the Congressional Black Caucus between 1997 and 1999. In 1979, she co-founded Black Women’s Forum – a non-profit organisation supporting African American women in the Los Angeles area.
An outspoken advocate for women, children, people of colour and the poor, Waters joined the African National Committee fight apartheid in South Africa, working alongside the likes of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. At home she made history by becoming the first woman and African American to chair the House Financial Services Committee, serving from 2019 to 2023.
As part of her many roles in Congress, Waters contributed to overhauling the financial services industry following the Great Recession, working on the Dodd-Frank Act alongside its co-creators. Through her efforts, Waters successfully fought for provisions to the landmark law that enhanced consumer protections and more effectively policed industry practices that led to the 2008 recession.
Upon becoming chair of the House Financial Services Committee in 2019, she immediately launched its first-ever Subcommittee on Diversity and Inclusion, and led efforts to investigate the digital assets marketplace, pushing for legislative action to ensure that crypto firms could not operate outside of robust federal oversight.
In our interview, Waters reflects on her career, the many fights she has led, and the challenges facing the deeply divided United States at present.
IFLR: Tell us a bit about your journey, and how you got to where you are today.
Maxine Waters: I'm informed to do the work that I do based on early experiences – as a child, as a young girl, as someone who came from a big family. I have 12 brothers and sisters, and we lived in a low-income neighbourhood. Coming from the situation I came from, I witnessed not only poverty, but discrimination and inequality for many years growing up, and I was always committed to wanting to do something about it. Of course, there's a lot of history here, but when I eventually had the opportunity to run for office – at the height of the women's movement, working with Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, Coretta King and Dorothy Height, who were fighting for minorities and for women’s rights – I really did start my journey into how I could use what I was learning to legislate. First, as a member of the California State Assembly, I took a look at all of the unsolicited proposals that came through to the Ms. Foundation for Women, where I served on the board, and used those to design legislation to deal with all kinds of issues, particularly related to women.
I continued that work into the US Congress, where I came in and was thrown on what was then the Banking Committee. The bank industry had gone through a real scandal and nobody wanted to serve there, so I was kind of thrown there as an upstart coming from California, where we had been making a lot of noise on a range of issues. Back in California, I created a programme to open up opportunities for minorities and for African Americans working on Wall Street, trying to be asset managers, trying to create opportunities to invest state funds, and was very successful. I've always had some interest in finance and economic development, so when I ended up on the Banking Committee, and eventually on the Financial Services Committee, I was okay with it.
What were some of the defining moments of your career?
Well, they weren’t all in financial services. Much of it just had to do with fairness and equality. I got very involved in the apartheid movement when I was in the California Assembly and created legislation that would deny those firms that were doing business with South Africa from having access to the public employee funds or the state teachers’ employment funds. I wanted to be a part of getting rid of apartheid, I joined with and supported the African National Congress. I got to know Nelson Mandela very well, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. That is some of the important work that I did, which was always informed by my experiences with racism and sexism.
What did it mean to you to be the first woman and first African American to serve as chair of the House Financial Services Committee?
To tell you the truth, I was a bit shocked to realise when I was being considered for the role that it had never ever been an African American woman that served on that committee – a woman period, and not an African American woman for sure. I approached the role with the understanding that I had a lot of work to do, that I was going to be dealing with the giants of Wall Street, the captains of all of the financial institutions – the banks, the insurances, who probably had never encountered a Black woman that they had to deal with.
Recognizing that, I developed my strategies of how I was going to do it. Every year, I brought in all of the CEOs of the big banks in America to update on how they were improving, getting rid of predatory lending, improving mortgages for people of colour, and how they were improving what we discovered was absolute racism in lending from these institutions. I continue to follow and to look at their achievements, or lack thereof, with diversity and inclusion. Of course, we still work today on predatory lending, and we have imposed some huge fines on some of the biggest banks in America for predatory lending, which has negatively impacted the ability of people of colour, and Black people in particular, to have home ownership. I continue to work on that.
Can you tell us a bit more about the Congressional Black Caucus, which you chaired between 1997 and 1999?
As chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, I was proud to have an opportunity to work on some of the issues that I cared about. I held the first meeting on HIV and AIDS, which was affecting the Black community. It was a plague for all and everybody at the time, but particularly disastrous in the Black community. I got a state of emergency declared, got President Bill Clinton involved, got the Health and Human Services director involved, and created minority AIDS funding, about $50 million for the first round, and up to $440 million to date. I continue to write letters to all my colleagues every year in the appropriations process to keep getting more money for HIV and AIDS, because all of the new cases are cases of Black people for the most part. So that was a very important issue.
I also held the first meeting on discrimination against Black farmers in agriculture. There were years of denial and not paying attention to them when we were spending billions of dollars in aiding farmers with their crops, seeds and irrigation for their farms. Black farmers were never supported, and I opened up opportunities for them to file a lawsuit and get compensated for the losses they had incurred because their applications had been ignored. That was very important too.
How far do you feel the US has got to on issues of diversity, equality and inclusion?
We certainly have had some progress, but we have a long way to go. After becoming chair of the Financial Services Committee, I created the first Subcommittee on Diversity and Inclusion that had ever been formed in the Congress of the United States. Even though there were individuals who fought hard in their careers and advanced themselves, and there are some corporations that fare a bit better than others, there are still many places where it has never been and still isn't understood that exclusion and racism are unacceptable. There are still applicants who are applying for positions that have their resumes thrown in the wastebasket, in spite of the highest level of supervision reporting how they're advancing, and how they're making progress, and how they're opening up opportunities for women, LGBTQ, and other minorities.
Are there any specific female figures and women who inspired you along your journey?
It's very important to initiate things, but you also need to have some thoughts about what has happened before you, who was here, what they did, whether they raised their voices. There were some strong women, both Black and white, who inspired me. Those were Barbara Jordan, a congresswoman who was extremely articulate. I had a great presence here in Congress, Shirley Chisholm, who was absolutely inspirational. She used to say that if you're not given a seat at the table, you pull up a chair, and you go to the table yourself. There was also Gloria Steinem, who created the Ms. Foundation, and Bella Abzug, who brought women's issues before Congress and to the president of the United States in a very forceful way.
Of course, I don't forget the Civil Rights Movement and its leaders, including Reverend Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King, Reverend Ralph Abernathy and Andy Young, who were all part of that light. I have marched in protest parades, I have rallied, I have been a speaker at many conferences. My life has been about advancing the cause of those who have been disenfranchised, about trying to help create a decent quality of life for all human beings, domestically and abroad. I've been focused on Haiti, for example, which is in a terrible position right now. They don't have a government that's organised, the country is being run by gangs, children are not going to school, families are starving. I've had international interests that have helped me to understand that in addition to the work that we do here in the US, we must help inspire and motivate others to confront these issues.
What advice would you give to young women aspiring to a career path similar to yours, and to your younger self?
Part of the women's movement that I got involved in early on was not only about equal pay for equal work. We encouraged women to go for traditional non-traditional jobs in construction, in automobile repair, in those areas where men made a lot of money, while women, oftentimes heads of households, were still working in low-paying jobs. Every time I meet a woman who is in construction, I reflect on the work that we did in helping to inspire young women to go for what they dream about. I encourage young women to have thoughts about what they want to do, even if it has not been done before, even if it's non-traditional. If you have dreams, if you have looked at things that you want to do and are afraid to step forward because you haven't seen others do it, I encourage you to have the courage to speak up and to seek these opportunities, and to go forward.
What are some of your proudest achievements throughout your career in Congress?
Back in 2007-08, this country was confronted with an absolute disaster in the banking community, at a time when we discovered that we were on the verge of a collapse and of being non-existent because of the failure of some banks in particular. I worked on the Dodd-Frank Act, serving on the committee under Barney Frank, who was a brilliant chairperson. We had to do everything we could to come up with the kind of reforms that would never allow this country to be in the position we found ourselves in in 2008. Out of those reforms, we were able to deal with predatory lending and come up with rules that prevented some harmful practice that had been commonplace for so many years.
Through Dodd-Frank, we were also able to open up diversity and inclusion by creating Offices of Minority and Women Inclusion (OMWI), which aimed to give a chance to women and minorities for upward mobility in government jobs and regulatory agencies. We also created and funded non-profit programmes to help first-time homebuyers. We created initiatives that provided the kind of teaching and learning that aspiring homeowners needed in order to be successful in choosing the right kind of mortgages and keeping them paid and being responsible for the upkeep of the house. All these reforms were created early on in my career and are extraordinarily important.
With Covid-19, I was so proud that working with another woman of colour, a Latina – the former chair of the Small Business Committee, Nydia Velázquez – we put together $60 billion that we directed to the Community Development Financial Institutions, the Minority Development Institutions and credit unions, so that they could get that money out to small and minority businesses. That funding was instrumental in helping those businesses keep their doors open. As part of my responsibilities, I also pay close attention to the work of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. I'm also focused on housing and getting the homeless off the streets, out of makeshift camps and into affordable housing. That is still high on my agenda.
Are you concerned about the Republican takeover of the House, and do you think it will affect the administration’s ability to push through its agenda of reforms for the remainder of President Biden's mandate?
I'm very concerned about it, but we have an ace in the hole. We still have the president of the United States of America, who has to sign the bills, and if they can't get to him, they can't sign them. We still have the Senate, where Democrats hold a simple majority. Even though we don't have a majority in the House of Representatives, where certain things have to start, Republicans have got to look at the fact that if they want to get a bill to the president's desk, they've got to at least be open to some bipartisan efforts where we also get to advance our legislation that they will support.
I'm worried about some of the right-wing conservatives that are in the House of Representatives, and whether they're more interested in doing business to help the people of this country or in carrying out their right-wing hatred and dislike even for government helping people. Of course, I am concerned, but we still have the White House, and we have a majority in the Senate.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the United States today, and how does it keep moving forward?
On January 6, 2020, we had an insurrection during which the Capitol was invaded by right-wing conspiracy-theorists, supported and led by former president Donald Trump. That worries me, and it worries many people in this country. I believe that we have domestic terrorism, and I believe that undermines our democracy. Even though we're a strong country with strong democratic roots, we should aim to understand all of the problems that we're confronted with that can challenge our democracy, sometimes through the efforts of people who have been misled.
We're going to continue working with our allies all over the world and support them in the same way we're supporting Ukraine. We're going to keep working with countries that find themselves in great distress. We not only work with allies, we respect them – and because of that, they respect us too. That's the kind of cooperation that will keep us from being overrun by anything or anybody in this world.