Watson, Diane 1933–
Diane Watson 1933–
U.S. congressional representative
“I’m a liberal, big-spending, Democrat, female African American,” Diane Watson told the Los Angeles Times. “Take me or leave me. That’s who I am.” Watson’s election to the United States House of Representatives in 2001 capped a long career single-mind-edly devoted to fighting for the rights and well-being of the poor and middle-class Los Angeles residents among whom Watson had grown up. A tireless worker who never married, Watson often clashed with her fellow politicians but gradually emerged as a powerful and effective legislator.
Diane Edith Watson was born in Los Angeles on November 12, 1933; the home in which she lived when she was elected to Congress was less than a mile from where she grew up. Her father was a Los Angeles police officer and a fearsome disciplinarian who favored corporal punishment. Watson’s parents divorced when she was seven, and her mother went to work nights in a post office. Watson and her two younger siblings lost themselves in schoolwork. “I may not have been that smart,” she told the Los Angeles Times, “but oh my, did I work! I was driven to achieve.”
Her ambition paid off as she graduated from Dorsey High School and took classes at Los Angeles City College, finally enrolling at the University of California at Los Angeles and earning a bachelor’s degree in education there in 1956. She later went on to earn a master’s degree from California State University at Los Angeles in 1967 and a Ph.D. from Claremont College in 1986. After graduating from UCLA, Watson took a job teaching in the Los Angeles school system.
Restless for several years, Watson taught in U.S. Army schools in Okinawa, Japan, and France in the early 1960s. Returning to Los Angeles in 1963, Watson continued teaching and rose to the rank of assistant principal. Her master’s degree was in educational psychology, and between 1969 and 1975 she held a series of positions with the Los Angeles Unified School District that dealt with mental health: she served twice as a school psychologist, was deputy director of a UCLA-led school health project from 1969 to 1971, and worked as a district health education specialist from 1971 to 1973.
Watson would retain an interest in educational issues over her entire second career in politics. But her life came into focus when she ran for and won election to the Los Angeles Board of Education in 1975, for she
Born on November 12, 1933, in Los Angeles, CA, Education: Los Angeles City College, associate’s degree, 1950s; University of California at Los Angeles, BA, 1956; California State University at Los Angeles, MS, 1967; Claremont College, PhD, 1986, Politics: Democrat.
Career: Los Angeles Unified School District, teacher, 1956–60; US. Armed Forces schools in Okinawa, japan, and France, teacher, 1960–63; Los Angeles schools, teacher and assistant principal, 1963–68, school psychologist, 1969–70, 1973–75, health occupation specialist, 1971–73, Board of Education member, 1975–78: California State University at Los Angeles, associate professor, 1969–70; UCLA Secondary Schools Allied Health Project, deputy director, 1969–71; California state government, senator, 1978–98; U.S. Ambassador to Micronesia, 1999–2000; U.S. House of Representatives, representative from California’s 33rd District, 2001-.
Selected memberships: Democratic National Committee; founder and president, National Organization of Black Elected Legislative Women; National Black Women’s Political Caucus; NAACP; Alpha Kappa Alpha National Sorority.
Selected awards: California State University at Los Angeles Alumnus of the Year award, 1980; legislator of the Year, California State Council on Developmental Disabilities, 1987; Black Woman of Achievement Award, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, 1988.
Addresses: Office— 125 Cannon House Office Bldg., Washington, DC 20515.
began to engage herself with the larger social issues of the day. The 1970s saw massive struggles over forced school busing to achieve integration in cities all over the United States, and Watson, a staunch defender of the practice, drew strong criticism. Never one to back down from political difficulties, Watson responded by throwing her hat into the race for the California State Senate in 1978, bypassing the usual stepping-stone of the state House of Representatives. She was elected with 70 percent of the vote, and her easy way of connecting with ordinary voters only strengthened her position as time passed; by the 1994 elections she topped 80 percent, and serious election challengers were hard to find. Watson’s only election loss at this writing came in a hotly contested 1992 run for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
At first, Watson’s confrontational style alienated some of her fellow lawmakers, even in her own Democratic party. In 1985 she clashed on the Senate floor with the powerful legislator Bill Lockyer, who (according to the Los Angeles Times) said that she offered “mindless blather” that impeded the Senate’s work. The two eventually reconciled their differences, and even legislators annoyed by Watson’s in-your-face methods professed a liking for her personally. Watson was also hit with a $2,000 fine in 1988 for violating a loan-disclosure regulation.
Partly by dint of seniority and partly thanks to sheer energy, however, Watson amassed considerable power on her own. She introduced over 800 bills during her tenure in the legislature, and some major ones were enacted into law. Watson’s position from 1981 onward as chair of the state Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee helped her push through a series of anti-smoking measure (including a ban on smoking in bars) that were widely credited with giving California one of the lowest smoking rates in the country. Watson herself practiced a healthy lifestyle, avoiding coffee in favor of hot water. She sponsored numerous other pieces of legislation, many of them concerned with the rights of women and minorities. One of them placed the sexual histories of rape victims off limits during the trials of their alleged attackers; another paved the way for a pioneering needle-exchange program for drug addicts in San Francisco.
In the 1990s Watson wrangled with two of California’s most prominent conservatives, Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan and anti-affirmative action crusader Ward Connerly. At a stormy 1996 Senate hearing Watson accused Connerly of serving as a puppet for Republican governor Pete Wilson, and Connerly responded by calling Watson a bigot who had unfairly made an issue of Connerly’s marriage to a white woman. Watson fought the dismantling of California’s welfare system every step of the way, and she worked to oppose the ultimately unsuccessful effort of a group of San Fernando Valley communities to secede from the city of Los Angeles in the late 1990s.
Watson’s long run in the California Senate came to an end in 1998 as a result of the state’s new term limits law. She angled for an ambassadorship to South Africa or another African nation but ended up being nominated by President Bill Clinton to be U.S. Ambassador to Micronesia, a far-flung chain of islands in the western Pacific Ocean. Some wondered how Watson, a lifelong urban resident, would fare in Micronesia’s tiny communities, but Watson was unconcerned. “They are people of color. I can relate to them,” she told the Los Angeles Times. Although her nomination was held up by U.S. Senate Republicans along with that of openly homosexual ambassadorial nominee James Hormel, Watson was eventually approved and spent 18 months in Micronesia.
Watson returned to California in 2001 to run in a special election precipitated by the death of U.S. Representative Julian Dixon. Watson had grown up in Dixon’s district but faced a host of other competitors, some of whom implied that Watson, at 67, was too old to run for Congress. By way of response, Watson hit the campaign trail with her 91-year-old mother, and she won a convincing victory. “She walks with dignity,” U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel said (as quoted by the Los Angeles Times) in remarks delivered at her swearing-in ceremony. “When she speaks, she has something to say, and she makes us all feel like we are 10 feet tall.” She was easily re-elected in 2002. Named to the House Government Reform and International Relations committees, she opposed the war in Iraq and seemed likely to become a thorn in the side of President George W. Bush as he attempted to turn the country in a rightward direction.
Jet, April 30, 2001, p. 4; June 25, 2001, p. 30.
Los Angeles Times, January 6, 1996, p. 2; January 14, 1996, p. 5; March 16, 1997, p. 1; May 21, 1997, p. 2; March 25, 1998, p. 1; June 29, 1998, p. 1; October 23, 1998, p. 1; July 22, 1999, p. 2; April 8, 2001, p. B4; April 11, 2001, p. A23; June 6, 2001, p. A22; June 8, 2001, p. B5.
New York Times, December 26, 1992, Section 1, p. 9; June 7, 2001, p. A14.
San Francisco Chronicle, May 9, 1990, p. 12; February 21, 1996, p. A14; March 26, 1998, p. A23; April 8, 2001, p. A3.
“Biography,” Representative Diane Watson’s Official Website, www.house.gov/watson (July 16, 2003).
—James M. Manheim
"Watson, Diane 1933–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/watson-diane-1933
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