Rep. Diane Watson (D-Culver City) was sworn into the House of Representatives on Thursday and vowed to follow in the footsteps of the late Rep. Julian Dixon, her onetime ally and the man she was elected to replace.
With more than 100 supporters and her 91-year-old mother, Dorothy Watson, watching from the House gallery, Watson took the oath from Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and then paid tribute to Dixon, a classmate at Dorsey High School and political ally.
"I never dreamed that my walk would take me in the footsteps of my dear friend, the esteemed Julian Dixon," said Watson, 67.
On Tuesday, Watson's trip to Washington was sealed when she picked up 75% of the vote in her race against Republican Noel Irwin Hentschel, Green Party candidate Donna J. Warren and Reform Party candidate Ezola Foster. In April, the longtime Democrat had won her party's nomination after defeating several candidates, including state Sen. Kevin Murray and Los Angeles City Councilman Nate Holden.
At the Capitol, Watson spoke of her accomplishments. In 1975, she was the first African American woman to win a seat on Los Angeles Board of Education. Three years later she won a seat in the state Senate, where she served for 20 years and introduced more than 800 bills, most addressing the needs of women, children and families. In 1998, she left the Senate and later became the Clinton administration's U.S. ambassador to Micronesia.
In her first day in office, Watson was put through a dizzying schedule, and she also cast her first congressional vote on an appropriation for the Coast Guard.
She attended a Women's Caucus luncheon hosted by Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Carson). Later, there was a cocktail reception sponsored by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.). She also was given a private, ceremonial swearing-in by House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt.
"There are not many of us who can be called ambassador and representative in one lifetime," Gephardt said in welcoming Watson. "We are proud to have you in our caucus."
Rangel, in his introductory remarks, said Watson was known in his district as a fighter. "She walks with dignity," he said. "When she speaks, she has something to say, and she makes us all feel like we are 10 feet tall. Welcome."
Watson may be following in Dixon's footsteps, but she will not immediately match the influence he gained over 22 years in the House. He held a coveted seat on the Appropriations Committee and was the ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Intelligence.
A spokesman for Watson said her committee assignments are likely to include seats on several panels, possibly including those dealing with agriculture, government reform, resources, small business and veterans' affairs.
Before Dixon's death created the congressional opening, Watson said she was looking at the end of her political career. With Republicans moving into the White House, her term as ambassador was ending.
"I was weighing my political options and I wasn't sure where I was going," she said. "I didn't plan on running for Julian Dixon's seat. I looked at that seat and thought Julian was going to be in that seat until he dies and dismissed it."
After Dixon's death, Watson said, she immediately started receiving calls urging her to run. But she was out of the country, hardly in a position to mount a campaign in the ethnically and economically diverse 32nd District, which stretches from Mar Vista to USC and from the Inglewood border to Koreatown.
She quickly returned, declared her candidacy and picked up several key endorsements, including that of EMILY's List, a national organization that helps raise funds for Democratic women candidates who support abortion rights. That endorsement gave Watson access to a national donor base and enabled her to outpace her rivals in fund-raising.
After she won her party primary, Watson faced wealthy businesswoman Hentschel, who could not overcome the district's strongly Democratic tilt.
During the campaign, Watson faced criticism that she was too old to run for Congress, where power is attained through a rigid seniority system.
But Watson turned the criticism of her age into a campaign strength, arguing that her experience in office made her the only candidate prepared to "hit the ground running" in Washington.
"How dare they?" she said of those who raised age as a campaign issue. "I'm in excellent health. My mom is 91 and her oldest sister is 98."
Watson, sometimes abrasive, always energetic, is considered radical by some colleagues. She has been a strong defender of women's rights, including abortion rights. She has backed affirmative action, and has fought for better education and improved public health.
In Congress, she said, she looks forward to working to bolster the Social Security trust fund and education reform, as well as encouraging affordable prescription drugs.
These are issues that would make Dixon proud, she said in a swearing-in speech that was equal part elegy for her predecessor.
"I am sure Julian smiles upon all of us today, because his legacy lives on," she said. "Julian, thank you for the distinguished years of service. Thank you, too, for your dedication as a champion for our community. Thank you for your friendship."