WASHINGTON — Maxine Waters runs around the U.S. Capitol these days — moving fast in heels as she balances back-to-back television interviews, speeches, hearings and hugs from millennials who have called her “Auntie Maxine” to celebrate her feisty style.
It is an odd new celebrity for a 78-year-old Washington fixture who has logged more than 25 years in the House, representing Los Angeles, from gritty but gentrifying Inglewood to largely white, working-class Torrance. But in President Trump, her sharp tongue has found its perfect target, and Auntie Maxine has gone viral.
“Trump was just so outrageous, so disrespectful, such a bully and dangerous for this country, I decided, ‘You know what? I’m taking the gloves off and I’m going to step out,’” Ms. Waters said. “I was going to not only challenge him but encourage others to see him for what he is: basically a bully, an egotistical maniac, a liar and someone who did not need to be president.”
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Ms. Waters never seems to tire of pressing this case. She has labeled Mr. Trump a “disgusting, poor excuse of a man.” She has called Mr. Trump and his associates “the Kremlin Klan” and began calling for his impeachment soon after he took office.
In turn, the president’s defenders have labeled her ignorant, an embarrassment, “Dirty Waters” and “Crazy Maxie.” Ken Boehm, the chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center, a right-leaning, ethics-in-government group, called her a grandstander.
“It’s odd that you would come out for impeachment like right at the gate,” he said. “The guy takes his hand off the Bible and it’s like, ‘Impeach him.’”
Through all the tumult, Ms. Waters, once deemed “one of the most corrupt members of Congress” by a liberal watchdog group, has remade herself from Los Angeles ward politician to a darling of the left.
Ms. Waters is still grappling with her newfound status, which comes with laudatory tweets, online memes and even a cartoon depicting her as a superhero. She said young people have taught her terms like “woke” (meaning culturally aware of injustices) and “shade” (meaning expressing contempt).
Her often-incendiary rhetoric is not new. Over the years, she has earned the nickname “kerosene Maxine.” In 1994, Ms. Waters went to the House floor to repeatedly interrupt a speech by Representative Peter King, Republican of New York, who she felt had been unduly harsh during a hearing into President Bill Clinton’s Whitewater controversy. The presiding officer, Representative Carrie Meek, a fellow Democrat, threatened to call the sergeant-at-arms to formally warn Ms. Waters to desist. She was suspended from the House for the day, a remarkable rebuke from a Democratic House.
Representative Cedric Richmond, Democrat of Louisiana, who is the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, recalled her outspoken advocacy when Hurricane Katrina devastated his state. He praised her confrontational tone with the president.
“She is meeting him where he is, and I think that is what people appreciate,” he said.
Nadine Pearson, 77, of Riverside, Calif., came to Washington last week to meet with the congresswoman and attend a rally to protest proposed budget cuts to a federal program helping seniors get affordable housing. “I have known of her since 1958 when I came to California to go to college,” Ms. Pearson said. “She seems just as sincere now as she was way back then.”
Ms. Waters grew up in St. Louis and was the fifth of 13 children, raised largely by a single mother. She moved to Los Angeles with her children a decade after high school, worked in garment factories and at a telephone company, and enrolled in college at what is now California State University, Los Angeles. She later got into local politics and cemented her activist credentials during a bitter campaign to prevent California pension funds from investing in companies doing business with South Africa during apartheid.
Ms. Waters was elected to Congress in 1990 and has easily held her seat ever since, even as the district stretched farther away from inner-city south Los Angeles to the mostly white, politically balanced community of Torrance.
Throughout her career, she has focused on issues close to her district, including police killings, affordable housing shortages and financial institutions that bilk consumers.
But she has also had problems. She was investigated for three years after she contacted the Treasury Department in 2008 to set up a meeting on behalf of top executives from a bank that her husband owns stock in. Though she was cleared of wrongdoing, the inquiry won her the label “one of the most corrupt members of Congress” from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal group.
Ms. Waters, the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, has likened bank executives to “gangsters,” addressed them as “captains of the universe” and threatened to tax their companies “out of business.” But the securities and investment industry has also been generous — her sixth-largest campaign contributor, just after insurance, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
That record made some on the left leery of Ms. Waters — until Mr. Trump’s arrival. In January, she refused to attend Mr. Trump’s inauguration. “I don’t honor him. I don’t respect him, and I don’t want to be involved with him,” she told MSNBC. In March, she said the president “doesn’t care about the issues facing the African-American community” and said that she believed “there was collusion between President Trump and Russia to violate the integrity of our elections.”
Now progressives regularly walk up to Ms. Waters and tell her that they love her.
“She is prepared to put her body on the line in order to push back on this nonsense that we are seeing and hearing coming out of this administration,” said Tamika D. Mallory, 37, an activist who helped lead the Women’s March on Washington in January.
Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, said Ms. Waters comes from a powerful tradition of black women who were “unbought and unbossed.”
“Democrats need to be less poll-tested, less consultant-advised, and they need to speak from their gut and speak from their heart and be fearless, unapologetic and defiant like she is,” Mr. Booker said.
After the former Fox News Host Bill O’Reilly compared her hair to a “James Brown wig,” she snapped back, “I am a strong black woman and I cannot be intimidated.”
Maya Wiley, the senior vice president for social justice at The New School in New York, said Ms. Waters was willing to call out a racially charged attack.
“It was a personal attack on her as a black woman,” Ms. Wiley said. “She stood up to bullying.”
Ms. Waters has come to appreciate her new admirers from the millennial generation. Many of them may have been raised to believe that if they got a good education and did not make waves, life would be easy, she said. That is not how it always works out.
Ms. Waters has also faced fierce criticism from people who see her tone as showboating and disrespectful. Over July 4 weekend, after Ms. Waters warned that when Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson testified before her committee, she would take him apart, Kyle Morris, a conservative college journalist, accused her of inciting violence.
Ms. Waters said she planned to charge ahead. She is also hoping that the new generation discovering her brand of politics will get inspired to enter the fray.
“I went to a Drake concert. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. I was at the BET Awards with Chance the Rapper. And all these people get up and scream and holler,” Ms. Waters said. “I keep wondering, ‘Where did all these people come from? Why can’t they come into politics?’”