By Chris Lombardi
Thursday, March 29, 2001
After 20 years in California's legislature, Diane Watson was forced out by the term limits that are ending the political careers of many black female state legislators. Now Watson is running for a congressional seat, a favorite to win against 18 others.
(WOMENSENEWS)--The first call woke Ambassador Diane Watson at 4:38 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 8, 2000, at her home on the Pacific island nation of Micronesia. The news: Representative Julian Dixon, a dear friend and her congressman, was dead of a heart attack, at the age of 66.
The second call at 6 a.m. opened with: "We want you to replace him."
That urging was repeated in calls, e-mails, faxes and teleconferences over the succeeding weeks to the former, highly popular California state senator from Los Angeles. Watson is one of many black female legislators across the nation who lost their seats because of term limits and were replaced by men. Currently, the California state legislature has no black female members in part because term limits permit no legislator to serve more than two two-year terms.
When she returned to her Los Angeles home from Micronesia in January, Watson declared herself a candidate for California's diverse and demanding 32nd District. Its core is Los Angeles from Koreatown to Westwood, including some of the city's poorest and wealthiest neighborhoods, as well as working class suburbs like Mar Vista and prosperous cities like Santa Monica and Baldwin Hills. No fewer than 129 languages are spoken across the area.
Now, with a special election scheduled for April 10, Watson is poised to succeed Dixon, and thus reclaim her position in the women's political pipeline. She is the front-runner but she will have to defeat the 18 candidates ranged against her, including Kevin Murray, who succeeded her in the state Senate in 1994.
Five other women are competing: Reform Party candidate Ezola Foster, Patrick Buchanan's running mate from 2000; Green Party candidate Donna Warren; Democrats Kirsten Wonder Albrecht, an attorney, and senior care executive Wanda James; and Noel Hentschel, a wealthy Republican who ran for lieutenant governor in 1998.
Watson argues that her race as well as gender are significant factors why voters should support her.
"African American women have held our community together," Watson said in a telephone interview. "We're the majority of voters and of heads of households. To not have that voice in policymaking is tragic."
Watson has extensive experience. She was the first African American woman on the Los Angeles School Board, where she led the fight to desegregate the city's schools. She was chair of the California Senate Health and Welfare committee. Long before welfare became a national buzzword, Watson was instrumental in changing California's welfare program, Greater Avenues for Independence, known as GAIN, to include education, child care and employment for welfare recipients. In addition to education, she cites the need to improve welfare reform and focus on energy and health care.
California's term limits make such long-term strategies difficult.
"It means there's no institutional memory," says Watson. "Look at the current energy crisis. No one remembers how this deregulation came about, the compromises that were made. They're all rookies, and now they have this crisis."
Watson has racked up an impressive list of endorsements, including EMILY's List, Reps. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) and Southern California powerhouse Loretta Sanchez, a Democrat. However, Murray, the man who took over her Senate seat, has been endorsed by Dixon's widow and by the other Southern California powerhouse, Maxine Waters, who has often clashed with Watson on endorsements and nitty-gritty political strategies. The Waters endorsement, the Los Angeles Times reports, "may catapult Murray to the front of the pack."
Currently, Watson is still at the front. A poll conducted by Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin and Associates in February showed 44 percent of voters leaning toward Watson.
Whoever wins will enter Washington as few Democrats have before last fall, with the White House and both houses controlled by the Republican Party--hardly the environment to warm the heart of an advocate of national health insurance.
Reminded of this, Watson points to her record of slowly building consensus. "With this administration," she says, "you need people who are willing to take the issues and fight for them. We need to give some guidance to a President who's not one to initiate policies."
She will start, she said, with President Bush's new education proposals, beginning with the core: testing students at various grade levels and decreasing federal funds as test scores go down.
"Standardized tests don't match multi-ethnic populations," Watson says. "LA Unified (school district) has 129 spoken languages. We have the largest number of Southeast Asian and Spanish-speaking people from all over the world. Place a culturally biased test in front of them, and have this determine federal funding, when we need 100 new schools alone in LA Unified?"
Watson says she would work with the new administration to "take on that provision and refine it. There are alternative means of evaluating school performance. ... Certainly, we need to have schools of excellence."
Watson has a history of inserting herself into power structures that may not exactly welcome her. On her arrival at the California state Senate, she startled the president pro-tem by requesting to be placed on numerous committees: judiciary, education and health and human services. "He said, 'We've never had a non-lawyer.' I said, 'That's why you need me!'" She eventually got what she wanted under new Senate leadership.
As 2002 comes more clearly into sight, House Democrats, including Sanchez and Waters, are focusing on the struggle to take back the House. Watson, however, is keeping focused on her district.
"My role is bringing the interests and concerns of my constituents to the floor of the House. When we talk about empowerment, you have to have a voice that empowers people. The 32nd District is the most diverse district in California: You find the common issues that would bring this district together and fight for those issues in Congress."
Watson is clear on one goal for the new election cycle: increasing the number of women. "Fifty-nine women in both houses! I think that number needs to be corrected."
"There's still so much room for women and woman power."
Chris Lombardi is a New York-based free-lance writer, covering domestic and international human rights, electoral politics and equity issues.
Related Women's Enews article, "Fewer Women Are in Pipeline for Higher Office":
A daily feature of Women's Enews during Women's History Month
(WOMENSENEWS)--1996. Madeleine Korbel Albright was nominated by President Clinton as secretary of state, becoming the highest ranking woman in the U.S. government.
Albright was the first woman to hold the post, succeeding 63 men. She served two terms with Clinton.
She has said that she believes a woman will be president "sooner rather than later."
Albright has a reputation for toughness and understanding of the military that stems from her appointment as ambassador to the United Nations in 1993. Asked how her gender has affected her ability to do her job, she has said, "I represent the U.S. and as such I am treated as the U.S. representative. Gender doesn't matter."
Albright's understanding of international relations began at an early age, as her family dodged tyranny twice over. Born in Prague, in the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia), Albright and her family fled to England in 1939 to escape the Nazi occupiers of the central European nation. They retuned home after the war, but fled again in 1948, this time to the United States after the Soviet takeover in Czechoslovakia.
It wasn't until much later in her life, in 1997, that Albright discovered that her family had originally fled Prague in 1939 not for political reasons, but because her family was Jewish. She had been reared as a Roman Catholic.
Prior to her post as secretary of state, Albright was both a scholar and a politician, having worked at non-profit organizations and as a university professor. She was director of the Women in Foreign Service Program at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.
During the 1980s, her Washington, D.C., home was a virtual salon for Democratic politicians and thinkers. Some of her policies were subject to intense criticism; however, her in-depth mastery of the details of international political strife impressed nearly all who dealt with her. --Elizabeth Randolph