NOVEMBER 5, 2007
Last January, three Californians rode into town to rule the new
Democratic majority. They had a name--the "Triad"--one shared with
the sinister Chinese secret societies, "triads," that became the
scourge of Hong Kong by dominating the industries of DVD piracy and
contract murder. They had a following--nearly 80 foot-soldiers
loyal to their cause. They even had a sign, flashed in moments of
solidarity by the girl gang's three members-- Representatives Lynn
Woolsey, Maxine Waters, and Barbara Lee. Recently, Woolsey
demonstrated it for me after I accidentally referred to the women as
the "trio. " "Triad," she corrected gravely, pressing her index
fingers and thumbs together to create a triangle.The Triad is not the first specially named guerrilla unit to form on
the Hill. Past congressional generations have produced "Rummy's
Raiders," the "Newtoids," and "The Gang of 14." (None of these
other groups is known to have had their own sign.) But, more than
any other, it has, over a short period of time, experienced a
reversal of fortune. After the Democrats swept into Congress last
year with a mandate to radically alter our Iraq policy, the members
of the staunchly antiwar Triad became captains of the effort. They
expanded their Out of Iraq Caucus, invited celebrities like Susan
Sarandon to appear with them at press conferences, and attracted
throngs of reporters when they stepped off the House floor. During
negotiations over the Iraq spending supplemental, they stared down
Speaker Nancy Pelosi herself, threatening to defect with a core
30-member Out of Iraq bloc if the leadership wasn't strong enough
on its antiwar position. "We are quite a force to be reckoned
with," Woolsey boasted at the time.
But, after the early spring, growth in the Out of Iraq Caucus's
membership has "been stuck," says Waters. Moderates became more
powerful, and Pelosi and the leadership began to design Iraq
initiatives with their needs in mind, not the Triad's. By the
summer, there still had been no glimmer of a serious change in our
Iraq policy. The Triad had lost its turf. Some radically new
techniques were in order. "We realized our voices had to be
bigger," says Woolsey. "We knew we needed to go beyond the
Congress." They decided to take their D.C. posse out to the
The Triad found the people at, among other places, the Drake Diner,
a 1950's- style black-and-chrome restaurant in Des Moines, Iowa. On
Saturday, June 23, the women breakfasted there with local
Democrats, the first of a series of appearances they are making in
the early primary states--Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire. Even at
first glance, the three stood out: Waters, with her '60s-
movie-star glasses; Lee, with her short, spiky hair; and the
white-haired Woolsey, who sports a distinctive radical-granny look.
At the breakfast, they pulled out all the stops, launching into a
blistering critique of the Democrats who kept voting to fund the
war. "They were pretty strident. They were forceful, " says Peggy
Huppert, chair of Iowans for Sensible Priorities, the group that
helped bring the Triad to the state. "They said, 'This is
unacceptable, and you need to hold [these Democrats'] feet to the
Some of the Democrats under attack were sitting right there. Joe
Biden's local manager, Danny O'Brien, got publicly schooled when he
tried to defend Biden's votes. "Maxine wasn't having any of it,"
recalls Huppert. "She said, 'Yeah, right. Well, you can say that to
justify it. You're not going to convince me.'"
This no-bullshit air is typical Waters. Arriving in Congress from
Los Angeles in 1991, she immediately made a name for herself by
storming her way into a White House meeting on the L.A. riots to
which she had not been invited. Lynn Woolsey, then a city council
member in Sonoma County, fell in love. "When I was running [for
Congress] in 1992, people would ask, 'Why are you running?' And I'd
say, 'Because Maxine Waters needs me,'" she remembers. Lee, who came
to Washington in 1999, won extra respect from Waters and Woolsey by
casting the sole House vote against Bush's invasion of
Though the women have assumed distinct roles within their band--
Waters, according to Woolsey, is the "message and the spirit. ...
Barbara is quieter, the statesman"; and Woolsey, says Waters, is
"less patient"--a shared worldview underpins their intense bond.
The Triad creed, according to Waters, is this: "We truly believe
that you cannot manage the differences of nations with war. .. . We
believe that the time certainly has come ... [to] disarm the world."
But the first step, disarming moderate opponents in Washington, has
proved increasingly tough. This month, Pelosi sent an Iraq
resolution the Triad considered GOP appeasement--Representative
Neil Abercrombie's non-binding request for withdrawal plans--to the
floor for a vote. The group of liberals the women had marshaled to
combat the spring's supplemental defiantly voted against
Abercrombie. But, unlike during the supplemental negotiations,
nobody really seemed to notice, or care. The measure passed handily
with Republican help.
The Triad women are unwilling to succumb to the prevailing
Democratic attitude of resignation. That's why they've headed out
into the primary states to fire people up and draw on the energy of
the presidential campaigns. They mounted four events in one day
during their June Iowa trip; an August trip to Nevada featured a
Service Employees International Union rally. And they have an
upcoming visit scheduled to New Hampshire. "[People] are not showing
up [to protests] yet in the way you think of the Vietnam era," says
Waters. "It's going to take street heat [to end the war]. I want
people to roll out!"
Around 125 Democrats rolled out for the Triad's rally at a black
church in Waterloo, Iowa, a few hours after the Drake Diner
breakfast. The Faith Temple Baptist Church gospel choir introduced
the California representatives with a rendition of "Celebrate!"
that rang to the ceiling. At home in the hopped-up crowd, the Triad
railed on Bush and received standing ovations and shouts of "Amen!"
and "You say it, girl!" "It was almost, to me, as if the whole rest
of the day had been warming up for the Waterloo event," says
Huppert. Chris Schwartz, also of Iowans for Sensible Priorities,
got goosebumps. Waters "was really on fire," he remembers, "and
ready to drag people into the streets kicking and screaming to take
But do the people want to be dragged into the streets kicking and
screaming? Because of their abundance of outrage over the war, the
Triad's efforts can have an alienating, kamikaze quality. The hot
language and Bush-bashing worked at the church in Waterloo, but not
so well in Des Moines, where a more disappointing rally earlier in
the day turned out only about 50 staid Iowans and no press.
Some Democrats believe that, with its level of outrage, the Triad
has sacrificed power in Congress. In September, Woolsey was quoted
telling activists that they should consider "go[ing] after the
Democrats" who are insufficiently pious on Iraq. The fallout from
what sounded like an incitement to Robespierre moderate Democrats
still hasn't entirely settled. "It was a blip [in the press], but
around here people were really, really irritated," an aide to an
Out of Iraq Caucus member says.
The suggestion was not only impolitic, it was strategically deaf.
Progressives in Congress desperate to end the Iraq war live inside
an unsolvable math problem, where nobody can muster the simple
numbers to override filibusters or vetoes. The obvious solution to
this unforgiving political calculus is to get more Democrats of any
kind in Congress in 2008, not to pick off incumbents.
But you have to give them credit: Unlike many other downhearted
antiwar Democrats, at least the three women are trying. In addition
to the states they've already visited and will visit, Waters is
trying to convince the other two to try their luck in South
Carolina. "I think we can have a great impact in South Carolina,"
she says, smiling mischievously. The gang rides on. But, outside
their familiar territory, they run the risk of becoming something
like Buffalo Bill Cody became when he took his Wild West Shows to
genteel Boston: more performance than persuasion.