Diane Edith Watson has lived a full life and shows no signs of slowing down. On the morning of our interview, the 87-years-young legendary political icon had already been on the phone with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was coordinating her pink and green wardrobe for the inauguration of her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sister, Kamala Harris, and had already spoken with a cadre of Washington D.C. leaders, all in the hopes that the retired congresswoman was feeling up to making the journey to the January Presidential Inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
The iconic political leader still spends her days (although quarantined) on the phone talking, mentoring and issuing advice to some of the most influential leaders from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. Over her five decades in public service, Diane Watson has been a school board member, a California senator, a member of the U.S. Congress, and has served as a U.S. Ambassador. She has traveled the world and believes that understanding the culture, mentality and customs around the world, has played a large part in allowing her to understand and succeed in all of her positions, over her long and heralded political career.
In an interview with The Sentinel, Watson spoke about her life and says that the basis of her acts-of-service comes from her upbringing and the support and lessons learned from her family. She was born in Los Angeles in County General Hospital. Her father, William Allen Louis Watson, was one of the first Black officers hired in LAPD and she says her mother, Dorothy Elizabeth O’Neal Watson, was an educator and one of the organizers of Holman United Methodist Church on Adams Blvd., although Watson is and has remained, to the day, a devout Catholic and member of Transfiguration Catholic Church.
Watson grew up near 27th Street and Arlington Avenue, in what she describes as a very diverse neighborhood in South L.A., and after graduating from Dorsey High School, attended UCLA. She says she took the bus from her neighborhood to Westwood every day. Because as she explains, “In our house, education was a requirement, not an option.” And while she is certainly a loyal Bruin, she is and has always been a seeker of education and has gone on to receive a Master’s Degree from Cal State Los Angeles, a doctorate from Claremont Graduate School, and completed courses in public policy from Harvard and Columbia University.
In 1956, after graduating from UCLA, Watson became a public-school teacher in Los Angeles and later rose to the position of assistant principal in 1969. During that time, she also held visiting-teacher positions in France and in Japan. By 1971, Watson worked as a Los Angeles Unified School District health education specialist, where she focused on mental health issues helping students with learning disabilities to transition into the working world.
In 1974, Watson was approached by then Los Angeles City Councilmember David Cunningham and one of her mother’s oldest and dearest friends, in an attempt to recruit her to run for a seat on the Los Angeles School Board. A position and a career path that she had no interest in seeking and originally refused. “When Dave first came to my office and asked me to run for the school board, I told him no. I wasn’t interested in serving on the school board or running for any elected office.” But, as history reveals, and as the former school board member jokes, “I obviously lost that argument.” In 1975, Watson won the election and was sworn in as the first African American woman elected to a seat on the Los Angeles Unified School District Board. Elected during the height of the city’s school busing controversy, Watson became the leading proponent of court-ordered busing to end racial segregation throughout the sprawling district.
In 1978, Watson gave up her school board seat to run for the California State Senate, a seat that she overwhelmingly won with over 70 percent of the vote. Watson served in the California legislature from 1978 to 1998. The longtime chair of the Health and Human Services Committee gained a reputation as an advocate for healthcare, for the poor and for children. “Watson served as chair of the Senate Health and Human Services committee for over 20 years. It was in that capacity that I witnessed, firsthand, the power of her service to us all as California residents. As the first Black woman elected to the CA State Senate, she fought tirelessly to expand access to healthcare services for those who otherwise couldn’t afford it.
“She elevated issues such as Black infant mortality and was an early supporter of policies to prevent the tobacco industry from targeting the Black community with advertising. She was a fighter for good her entire career in public service and I will always be grateful for her selfless mentorship,” said Mitchell Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. She was the first African American woman in the California State Senate. Although extremely popular and a political favorite throughout her Senate district, Watson left the State Senate in 1998 due to term limits.
However, Watson did not remain unemployed or out of public service for long. Upon leaving the Senate, she was immediately called upon by then, President Bill Clinton, who asked her to serve as the United States Ambassador to the Federated States of Micronesia, a small cluster of four Island states spread across the western Pacific Ocean.
After two years of serving as Ambassador to Micronesia, Watson returned home to Los Angeles where upon immediately exiting the aircraft, she was greeted by a throng of reporters who met her at the luggage area in LAX, where she announced returning home to run in the April 2001 special Democratic primary election for the vacated 32nd Congressional District seat of Julian Dixon, who had suddenly died in office five months earlier. She won with 33 percent of the vote in a multi-candidate field, then carried the district with 75 percent of the vote in the June 2001 special election.
Watson represented the 32nd, which later became the 33rd Congressional District, which stretched from South Central Los Angeles to the wealthy Los Feliz neighborhood. But Watson was such a popular representative of the district, that she ran unopposed in the 2006 election and remained in office until 2011 when she retired. While serving as a member of Congress, Watson was a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus, and in 2006 was ranked by the National Journal as the most liberal member of Congress in the nation.
Diane Watson was never a political leader nor was she a teacher who was only about herself; she believed that part of her role as an elected official was not just to take care of herself, but she also felt an obligation to serve as a mentor/teacher who could and would uplift those around her. The list of the former staff members and political leaders she has mentored reads like a who’s who of political leaders; today’s political mentees include Congresswoman Karen Bass who ran to fill her vacated congressional seat following Watson’s retirement in 2011. Prior to becoming a member of Congress, Bass served in the California Assembly and was the first and only African American women to be elected as California Speaker.
“Ambassador Watson has long been a mentor to me, back to my days as a community organizer. And like a true organizer herself, she always lifts as she climbs. She saw that the California Assembly had no Black women in office in the mid-2000s and she informed me that I was going to run for that job. She spoke at the ceremony when I was sworn in as Speaker. You know, she’s a former school teacher and she has a way of just expecting you to do what she says, kind but absolutely firm. She did the same thing again when she retired from Congress, telling me I would run for her seat. She has always advised and supported me — but it isn’t just me. She has played a pivotal role in recruiting, encouraging and supporting Black women in elected office for decades. She is justifiably revered in our community; not just for what she has done in the past but what she continues to do in advancing the interests of our community and making sure our needs get met. She’s an absolute hero and I’m honored and privileged to be able to seek her counsel,” stated Congresswoman Karen Bass. Current Los Angeles County Supervisor and former California State Senator Holly Mitchell, as well as current Compton City Councilwoman Michelle Chambers, both started their political careers serving on the staff of Diane Watson.
“You may call her Senator, Ambassador, Congresswoman or simply Diane. No matter how you addressed her, you always knew you were addressing a woman who cared and she always seized the opportunity to educate you during any conversation. Her compassion to educating others on public policy was her priority. She always wanted to equip the next generation of leadership with the defense mechanisms necessary to combat injustices and overcome any disadvantages or obstacles in your way. She made sure we understood that our job was to hold ourselves and others accountable for our actions and to fight for justice, equality and the humanity of all we served. Diane’s purpose, leadership and legacy has defined why we, as a people, have a right to fight and we must continue to fight and demand our right for EQUAL RIGHTS! I am honored to say I know her; I will honor her teachings in the work that I do for those I serve and I LOVE her for that she has given me throughout our years together,” shared
Compton Council Member Michelle Chambers.
Watson says that she was driven to help her staff understand and believe that anything was possible. “Because I was often the first elected to a position, I had a responsibility to ensure that my team knew they could and would do whatever they wanted to do.” Borrowing a quote from her friend and sorority sister, Vice President Kamala Harris, Watson restated the quote “I may have been the first, but I will not be the last,” noted the former Senator.
She encourages young and aspiring political leaders to “get out and socialize with your neighbors, get to know your community-members and work to understand their lives, their challenges and their expectations. This will help formulate your legislative positions and help you to lead your community on the issues that most matter and will fuel your political career,” stated Watson. Following this motto has led the former school board member (ret.), state senator (ret.), U.S. Ambassador (ret.) and U.S. Congresswoman (ret.), to have a full and very successful political career. Although now retired (she says for good), the 87-years-young community icon says that while the pandemic has shut down her many social events and gatherings that she used to attend on a weekly basis, she wants to let her friends and supporters know she is staying safe, doing well and looks forward to the day we can all get back together, soon.