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

By Michael Leahy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 3, 2010; A13

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."

An eye for politics

"Part of what makes him so valuable is that he also gets the politics of things -- he's a quick study," said Paul Brathwaite, a former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Moore has advised his boss on Washington's thorniest issues, including when Waters, troubled in part by what she regarded as the Obama administration's lagging efforts on soaring urban unemployment and foreclosures, led nine other CBC members in a December boycott of a House Financial Services Committee vote on financial regulatory reform.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the chairman of the committee, praised the order Moore has brought to Waters's office, and noted that he has sometimes served as a go-between for the two legislators. "He has a calm demeanor," Frank observed of Moore. "He has legislative smarts. I can talk to him and he'll get back to her, and then [Waters] and I work things out. His temperament is very important in making things happen, and he's always working."

Those long days are evidenced by Moore's black book, inundated with Washington minutiae. On the outside of the book is an incongruous-looking sticker reading, "I Am Art." As a high school and college student, he was an avid poet and short-story writer who considered a writing career.

Nowadays, he says the sticker serves as a reminder to give his artistic and social sides a chance for expression, to maintain some balance in a life that must always duel with Washington's insularity and his 16- and 18-hour days. He rubs the sticker the way one would a totem.

"Just looking at it helps me keep grounded," he said. "I got lost in my job for a while. I lost my identity. I wasn't going out on dates, not going to museums. There was lots of pressure. I was one of the youngest chief of staffs and an African American male facing questions. But I realized I needed to do things to feed my spirit, and I'm doing those things again: art exhibits, concerts, a rainbow of friendships apart from politics."

As to whether he wants to run for office someday, he shrugged and said, "It's not out of the question. Politics is ugly right now, so I don't know. I really do enjoy facilitating things. When you get on the phone and help somebody with her Social Security check, or help them get in contact with a bank and stop a foreclosure, that's more important to me than the big-bang congressional moments. There are different kinds of public service."

At 31, he has time, he observed. In the meantime, he awaited a call from the woman he hasn't called Grandma for six years.

"Our relationship has evolved to a place where our conversations are always about something we read or saw," he said. "It's not a relationship devoid of love and care; it's just different. When I talk to her, there's no more affectionate term I could use than 'Congresswoman.' It conveys all my affection and respect."

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