As part of Slate’s project on the 80 most influential Americans over 80, we spoke to some members of the list to reflect on aging, work, and life in their ninth decade and beyond. Rep. Maxine Waters, 82, is the longest-serving Black woman in Congress and chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee. Slate spoke with Waters by phone on Friday. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Julia Craven: I want to start off by talking about your tweets. You’ve called Sen. Mitch McConnell “Ebenezer Scrooge.” You’ve asked what is it going to take for President Trump to understand that he’s “a loser?” You’re also pointing to things like the police shooting of Andres Guardado. Why is it important to raise awareness for the range of issues going on in our country today?
Rep. Maxine Waters: To tell you the truth, I literally act on what I feel and what I feel deeply. I don’t give a lot of thought to what is popular or what is the talk of the day. If I feel it, I say it, I do it and that’s kind of how I operate. I feel things very deeply. I’m driven by a basic philosophy about life and fairness and justice. I have particular empathy for hardship, pain and people in trouble.
Maybe that’s why you’re called Auntie Maxine. If I’d asked my Nana or my auntie that question, I feel like they would have told me the same thing.
I’ve been adopted basically by millennials who refer to me as aunt. I take it as a compliment. I have taken on life in a way that does not cause me to think about time and age too much. As a matter of fact, I was surprised when I learned [this interview would] focus on age. I go, “My God! Where did the years go? I’m 82 years old, I guess that’s old.” [Laughs.]
But I never thought about it in ways that said: “OK, now I’m moving into my 60s, I’ve got to do this.” Or “I want to have this done by my 70s.” Or “By the time I’m 80, this is what I want.” I just approached my career, my projects, and my involvement based on where we are in this world and in this country. And I’ve tried to provide leadership.
You know, I walk the Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade every year in Los Angeles in my heels because I wear heels everyday. I’ve been wearing them since I was 15- or 16-years-old.
Oh, my goodness.
I walk the entire parade in my heels and people think it’s just sooooo phenomenal! There are groups of women and they go,”Maxine, Maxine! Walk it girl! Strut!” Even men say, “How do you do that?” And it’s not a big deal for me. I walk in heels and that’s it. I’ve always been pretty physically fit. I was an athlete when I was very young—a swimmer, played volleyball, basketball, a runner. And I think the muscles don’t forget.
You’re the chair of the House Financial Services Committee. How do you think that work impacts your constituents?
It’s an important committee looking at some of the most powerful ways that the country is organized. When you’re dealing with Wall Street and you’re dealing with the powerful banking institutions, oftentimes their work is not defined in ways that people who don’t have a lot can understand. People who are challenged in terms of the resources, they’re looking for what can happen for them today: “How can I put food on the table?” What you find yourself doing is not only doing the work of public policy—where you’re dealing with these financial institutions—but also dealing in a very basic way with people who can’t pay their utility bill, people who are homeless, people who get don’t get their social security check on time, et cetera.
You come to Washington D.C. and you deal with big public policy, and you’re reining in the big banks, and you’re making sure that you’re supporting the SEC, and dealing with the FDIC, and the OCC—you do that. But you don’t forget that what you’re doing may not be understood, and the way that you reflect it is with some hands-on involvement in the community.
It’s been a pretty dark time lately. What are you most looking forward to right now?
Well, having experienced Donald Trump, I’m looking for change. I’m looking for a president and a cabinet that has integrity and can be counted on to tell the truth, who puts democracy first, and will not align themselves with the dictators and oligarchs of the world. Someone who will show that they’re focused on dealing with our economy and working for everybody. I’m looking for a president who cares about all of the people, whose honesty shines through. And that will guide them in public policy and dealing with the big issues of poverty, climate change, and making sure that the resources are adequately applied in ways that will help everybody have a better quality of life. Now, those are the big ideals.