By the time Democratic Rep. Diane Watson announced Thursday that she would end her political career after more than three decades, word of her impending retirement had spread so widely that she joked about the anticlimactic nature of the news conference she held in her Wilshire Boulevard office.
But Watson had at least one surprise up her sleeve -- she declined to endorse a candidate to succeed her, raising eyebrows among the many political observers who expected her to back state Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles).
Instead, Watson said she expected a spirited race to succeed her in California's 33rd Congressional District -- encompassing one of the most economically and ethnically diverse areas in the nation -- and wanted to interview as many candidates as possible before making a choice.
"I will endorse a candidate I feel will represent all of us," said Watson, who also said she hoped Bass would run.
Turning to the two dozen or so community leaders who flanked her during her announcement, Watson said: "We have many bright, capable, experienced young people ready to serve, and I will make way for one of them to come take my place."
Watson, 76, said she would finish her term, which runs to the end of the year, but wants to spend more time with her 100-year-old mother, who recently broke her hip.
Bass, who must leave the Assembly at the end of the year because of term limits, is widely expected to seek Watson's seat. She did not attend the news conference. But she issued a statement praising Watson, saying "her tireless work has improved the lives [of] many" and calling her a mentor who first encouraged her to run for the Legislature.
Bass added that she would meet with Watson this weekend and would have no further comment until then.
Watson's announcement brought the former teacher and school psychologist accolades from across the political firmament, in which she has been a trailblazing fixture since winning an uphill race for the Los Angeles Board of Education in 1975. She was the first black woman elected to the board, as the district was grappling with school integration.
In 1978, Watson became the first black woman elected to the state Senate, where she stayed until being forced out by term limits 20 years later. She lost a contentious race for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to Yvonne Brathwaite Burke in 1992. In 1999, Watson was appointed by President Clinton as ambassador to Micronesia.
The Los Angeles native, who likes to point out that she was educated in the city's public schools before earning degrees at UCLA and the Claremont Graduate School, first won election to Congress in a 2001 special election necessitated by the death of Democratic Rep. Julian Dixon.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a statement Thursday praised Watson as "a tremendous asset to the caucus, bringing her keen intellect, integrity and eloquence to so many issues."
"It has been an honor to serve with her in the Congress, and, on behalf of my colleagues, I express my best wishes to her," Pelosi said.
Closer to home, county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said he had been "very fortunate over the years to work with" Watson, whom he considers "a mentor, colleague and friend. She has had a long and distinguished career in public service."
Dermot Givens, an attorney and political consultant who closely follows politics in Los Angeles' African American community, called Watson one of the stalwarts of black politics in a generation that included such breakthrough leaders as former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.
"The sun is setting on the [older] black political establishment in L.A.," Givens said. He said Watson's impending retirement "hopefully gives an opportunity to a new generation."
The 33rd Congressional District, which includes the Crenshaw district, Culver City, Hancock Park, Ladera Heights, Leimert Park, Los Feliz and South Los Angeles, is strongly Democratic, and blacks are 37% of registered voters.
Six people already have taken official steps to run for the seat. They include the congresswoman herself, who filed initial paperwork Jan. 11, according to the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder's website, lavote.net. The others were largely political unknowns.
In reflecting Thursday on her many years in office, Watson said of her supporters, "I appreciate the trust and . . . faith they have placed in me and in my hands. I have been really thrilled by the opportunity to help my constituents in whatever way I could."
Watson said her priorities as a lawmaker have included issues involving education, women and children, healthcare and consumer rights.
She said she was an early advocate of measures to keep youngsters from joining gangs, and in the state Senate she wrote legislation to promote research on the causes of birth defects and worked to improve the care in senior citizen and assisted-living homes.
Times staff writer Richard Simon in Washington contributed to this report.
For the latest on California politics and government, go to latimes.com/californiapolitics.