For young chief of staff, a close tie to the boss

Mikael Moore rose from a bottom-rung staff assistant to Congresswoman Maxine Waters's chief of staff.
By Michael Leahy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 3, 2010

Mikael Moore, the 31-year-old chief of staff for Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), went to work for her six years ago as a bottom-rung staff assistant. He rose to become her scheduler, communications director and, finally, 2 1/2 years ago, found himself to be a logical candidate to take over as the office's chief of staff.

He had to press his case personally to Waters, a powerful figure within the Congressional Black Caucus, a subcommittee chairman, a no-nonsense firebrand and a rigorous taskmaster. Though many of Waters's fellow lawmakers and some of their chief aides affectionately call her Maxine, Moore always addressed her as "Congresswoman."

He felt some tension about the interview. "I think there was a lot of skepticism about me, some in and some out of the office," he said. "I was young. There were questions about my experience. Most chief of staffs were considerably older. . . . I had to make a hard pitch. I said to her, 'I understand your goals. I understand your philosophy. I can be a bridge for you.' "

What few people outside Waters's office knew was that Moore is her grandson. He hadn't called her "Grandma," not once, since he had started working for her. She simply called him Mikael and gave him no special attention. Theirs became a working relationship in and out of the office. But their familial relationship complicated the decision now: If Moore failed in the new job, his boss would need to fire her grandson. "I knew the potential problems," he said.

Over the years, many congressional members and key officials in the executive branch have hired family members or helped them land jobs in government.

Waters avoids talking about her personal relationship with Moore, instead focusing on his strengths as her chief aide.

"He has a good policy sense and natural leadership skills," she said. "When he came, the office needed to be updated, and he updated it, everything, our computers, our Web site. He has great supervisory skills, and he hires good people. I don't like dealing with personnel issues, not at all, and Mikael is a good boss to people. So I knew I was fortunate to have him."

A lesson in discretion

Not long into his new job, Moore ran into a crisis of his own making that raised the possibility of his dismissal. While talking to another Capitol Hill aide, he casually speculated about Waters's course of action on a political matter. He regarded his remark as a private aside. But in a place where a chief of staff's off-the-cuff observation is often a harbinger of his boss's next move, it was not long before Moore's words were being feverishly repeated in other congressional offices. Soon, another Democratic member of Congress came to Waters, pointedly asking about what her top aide had said.

As Moore recounts, an angry Waters demanded an explanation from him and delivered what amounted to his first and last warning. "It was a very stern lecture: My job was on the line," he recalled. "I had to apologize to several [congressional] members for the misunderstanding. There were going to be no more chances."

Waters added: "It was a very painful lesson for him."

Moore recently recalled the incident while relaxing in Waters's private office, where she conducts most of her closed-door meetings with a stream of visitors, including her South Central Los Angeles constituents. Almost always during her meetings, Moore sits away from the group, in a far corner where he serves as a silent watchdog, alert to visitors' body language and tone, on the lookout for signs of potential trouble for Waters.

An inveterate note-taker, he jots observations about the meetings and reminders in a large black book that goes wherever he goes. "Hopefully, I see things she doesn't. That's part of my job," he said. "I see the unseen, hear the unheard. . . . I'll watch and, after the meeting, I'll tell her what I saw. And we'll talk about it. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I hear it right. In this office, it better be 99 percent."

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