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Diane Watson looks back on a career as a legislator and inspiration

It was just 6 a.m. on most mornings when the teenager would board a city bus and startle sleepy passengers by loudly announcing that his cousin, Diane Watson, was getting on. Then the teacher and school psychologist, an imposing African American woman standing 6 feet tall in heels, would sweep down the aisle, repeating her name three times and telling anyone half-listening that she was running for the Los Angeles school board and was “out to meet the people.”

Watson lost that 1973 campaign, her first. But two years later, employing the same kind of grass-roots barnstorming that took her to churches, homes and civic gatherings in every part of a sprawling district riven by fierce, court-spawned debate over school integration, she prevailed. Her 1975 victory catapulted her into a political career that spanned 35 years, including 20 in the state Senate and nearly 10 in Congress.

That career comes to an end Wednesday, when, at the age of 77, Watson attends the inauguration of her favored successor to the multiethnic 33rd Congressional District, former Assembly Speaker Karen Bass — and gives Bass the keys to her Virginia apartment as well.

Watson won her first election as black political power in Los Angeles was on the ascent, and successive generations have called her a mentor, including Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, Bass and newly seated Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), whose first job was in Watson’s state Senate office.

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“She was a tremendous inspiration and role model for those of us who were thinking of going into government,” said Kerman Maddox, a veteran public affairs consultant and aide to Tom Bradley, who won election as Los Angeles’ mayor the year Watson made her first run for office.

But she maintained success by building support among other ethnic groups, winning congressional elections by huge margins even as the number of Los Angeles County political posts held by African Americans dropped.

“She’s highly regarded by the black community, the Latino community, the white community, the Asian community,” said the Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray, the former pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Those who have watched Watson over the years describe her as an accessible and passionate — if sometimes abrasive — advocate for the disadvantaged. They call her an energetic campaigner who crams a dozen or more community events into a typical day in her district, which stretches from Silver Lake and Hollywood into Culver City and South Los Angeles and is among the most ethnically and economically diverse in the nation. Never married, she immersed herself in work.

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Sitting in her district office on Wilshire Boulevard one recent day, as her staff packed up files and answered a dwindling number of phone calls, Watson looked forward to upcoming family gatherings at her spacious home in the Windsor Hills/View Park neighborhood. And she said she hadn’t planned to spend her life in politics.

“I was an educator,” Watson said. “I never set out to become an elected official.”

She was born in Los Angeles to a middle-class family headed by an LAPD officer. Her parents divorced when she was 7 and her mother worked nights at the post office. Watson attended Los Angeles public schools and earned a bachelor’s degree in education from UCLA, a master’s degree in school psychology from Cal State L.A. and, later, a doctorate in educational administration from the Claremont Graduate School.

But in 1973, with the Los Angeles school district embroiled in emotional battles over busing to achieve integration, friends and family urged her to run for the school board. A strong advocate of racial desegregation, she said she began to realize that elective office gave her a way to put her unabashedly liberal views into practice.

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Watson spent three years on the school board, then in 1978 became the first African American woman to win election to the state Senate. Yet those were crucial years, said Raphael Sonenshein, a Cal State Fullerton political scientist who has written extensively about race and politics in Los Angeles.

“Diane Watson was a pivotal figure in one of the most divisive and important moments in Los Angeles history because of the school integration efforts,” Sonenshein said. “She was a strong advocate for equality and played an important role in those controversies.”

The only black on the seven-member board, Watson pushed for full integration through mandatory busing instead of the limited plan her colleagues agreed on. “We have to see that we have quality education and there is only one way to get it — integrate the schools,” Watson said in 1977, shortly after deciding to fight the board’s limited plan in court. (The judge later turned down her bid to intervene.)

In the state Senate, Watson befriended colleague David A. Roberti and when she helped elect him majority leader, he made her chairwoman of the Health and Human Resources Committee and appointed her to the Judiciary Committee, where she was the first non-lawyer to hold the post. She used the platforms to push for laws addressing the needs of consumers and families, and led the state’s then-controversial antismoking campaign. In 1997, a year before term limits forced her from Sacramento, she helped launch efforts to overhaul the state’s welfare system.

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Some members “told me they didn’t want me there,” Watson said of her early days in the Legislature’s upper house, which she said epitomized “a men’s club,” complete with poker games in the back room of a Sacramento restaurant and bar. (There was only one other woman senator when Watson took office.)

“I always had to finesse everything I did, and I picked out the people I could talk to and worked with them,” Watson said.

Watson’s allies admired her tenacity, but her critics sometimes found her caustic and inflexible. When riled, she would scold loudly, wagging a well-manicured finger for emphasis.

“She and Alan Robbins used to have ferocious debates on the Senate floor,” Roberti recalled, referring to the conservative Democrat from the San Fernando Valley. “It made my life miserable, but I understood that she was fighting for her principles.… She never veered from that.”

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There were some bumps along the way. In 1988, she was fined $2,000 for failing to disclose a loan from a healthcare lobbyist and also was accused — and later cleared of — using state funds and staff to work on her doctoral dissertation. In 1992, Watson lost a bruising race for Los Angeles County supervisor to Yvonne Burke, another groundbreaking African American politician.

President Clinton, who had previously asked Watson for help with a federal welfare overhaul, appointed her as ambassador to Micronesia in 1999. But in December 2000, her longtime mentor Rep. Julian Dixon died unexpectedly and friends urged her to seek his seat. She handily won the 2001 special election against a crowded field and never again drew a strong challenger.

In Congress, Watson concentrated on district issues. She chaired the Congressional Entertainment Industries Caucus, which supports filmmaking, including copyright protections and tax credits. She got five post offices named for local luminaries, including one in the Crenshaw district for Bradley, and brought about $48 million in federal funds to the district for gang intervention, transit projects, storm drain improvements and the like, about half of that in her final term.

Yet, when asked what action made her most proud, Watson reached back to her days on the school board.

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“My proudest moment came in standing up for our community and giving our kids an opportunity for a quality education,” Watson said after just a moment’s reflection. “In seeing our kids on buses going to classrooms where they can learn.”

jean.merl@latimes.com


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