A year and a half ago, Monique Waters would have described working on criminal-justice reform as "taking a gamble." Now, the matter is quickly becoming Washington's bipartisan cause.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are eyeing sweeping changes to federal sentencing laws. Big groups on the Right (Koch Industries, Americans for Tax Reform) and big groups on the Left (the Center for American Progress, the American Civil Liberties Union) have formed an unusual coalition in support of reform. And in the Senate, Waters, press secretary to New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker, is trumpeting her boss's legislative efforts to help ex-prisoners rebuild their lives once they come out from behind bars.
It helps that Booker is one of the loudest political voices in the country—just take a look at his Twitter account.
"I look at [media] the same way as my current boss. "¦ How can we use the exposure we've been afforded to affect real change and in communities that can use it the most?" Waters said.
Booker began building his social-media-savvy reputation as mayor of Newark, New Jersey, famously giving out his cell-phone number to voters in need of aid. In the Senate, he's known for his constant exchange of tweets one on one with constituents. Waters, who joined his office last January, says she spent her first year learning to juggle the "avalanche of interview requests."
Waters' work has her focused on two subjects she's most passionate about: criminal-justice reform and youth employment. Since July, Booker has been pushing a bill called the REDEEM Act, which he introduced alongside Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, that would provide aid for nonviolent or juvenile offenders looking for jobs.
"[Being his spokeswoman] allows me to align my first love, which is advocacy, with my work on Capitol Hill and to really trace back to a lot of earlier experiences I had in the community," Waters said. "You have to know the things that really come alive to the person that you're working for, and how they want to define their legacy and their time up here."
Waters' first job, in 2008, was at the East River Family Strengthening Collaborative in Northeast Washington, where she provided social services for lower-income families and worked to rally media attention for the group. A year later, she was working for then-D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty. Waters, who was 23 at the time, compared her experience there to boot camp—learning to talk to reporters on the record had to happen quick. Six years later, Waters has crafted a direct communications style.
"She's very straightforward," says Yasmin Rigney, an administrative specialist in Booker's office. "Working on the Hill, you might not get that same straightforwardness you can receive from her. She tells you honestly how she feels and honestly what is going to happen."
Carrie Kohns, chief of staff for Democratic Rep. Karen Bass of California, met Waters when they both were working in the Fenty administration. Kohns describes Waters as being "bright-eyed and bushy-tailed" about her work in the mayor's office, in what was sometimes a "jaded" environment. During her first week on the job, Waters was responsible for organizing a press conference about a drug bust in Southeast Washington in less than an hour.
"You really had to almost operate at work—in terms of work ethic—like an athlete," Kohns said. "[Booker] has, from my understanding, a similar work ethic to Fenty, so she is very well-prepared."
Waters took a break from politics after that, and worked for a strategic-communications firm. In 2012, Kohns recommended her former colleague to Democratic Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, who eventually hired Waters as his communications director. There, Waters watched the Louisiana delegation coalesce around the RESTORE Act, a bipartisan effort to provide relief to Gulf Coast states that were affected by the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. She calls it one of the more rewarding experiences of her career.
Waters says she's developed a tight-knit support network of Hill staffers, which has helped her transition from the House to the Senate. Mentors like Kohns, she says, inspire her to return the favor to other young staffers, like Shadawn Reddick-Smith, a former intern in Richmond's office who now serves as the communications director for Democratic Rep. Alma Adams of North Carolina.
"Throughout my time on the Hill, I've always come to her and she just has been there through every step of the way," Reddick-Smith says. "I think she's also helped me to realize as you continue to progress and grow in your career to make sure you give back and help other interns or younger people new into their career."
Sean Conner, who is the only other African-American press secretary in the Senate, says that "shared experience" has led him to develop a friendship with Waters. The two met while arranging for their bosses to introduce legislation in a joint press conference.
"Monique is smart and creative, and talented, and that's why I enjoy working with her," says Conner, who works for GOP Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina.
Waters also isn't the type to let the well-known "boys' club" tendencies of Congress affect her work.
"As long as I'm delivering, we're not going to focus on how different I am from you. I think while [women] should be celebrated for moving the bar higher and the presence of women in certain areas that have been more male-dominated, confidence comes in recognizing you have just as much to give, if not more."
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