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WATSON, Diane Edith

WATSON, Diane Edith
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives


As a former educator, state legislator, and United States ambassador, Diane Watson entered the House of Representatives as an unusually experienced first-term Member. Throughout her 35 years in public office, Watson established a reputation as a diligent and passionate legislator concerned with improving the lives of women and children—especially those living in poverty. Her diverse legislative interests included welfare reform, civil rights, foreign aid for African nations facing the HIV/AIDS crisis, and improved health care and education in the United States. “People have trusted me, and I have not let them down,” Watson observed during her first congressional campaign. “People have read my name on the ballot for 25 years. They have been born, grown up and gotten married in that time. That means a great deal. When you work your base, you win.”1

Diane Edith Watson was born on November 12, 1933, in Los Angeles, California, daughter of William Allen Louis Watson, a Los Angeles police officer, and Dorothy Elizabeth O’Neal Watson, a postal worker.2 After graduating from Susan Miller Dorsey High School in Los Angeles, Watson received her associate’s degree from Los Angeles City College in 1954 and a bachelor’s in education from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1956. Watson later earned a master’s degree in school psychology from California State University in 1967 and a PhD in education administration from Claremont College in 1986. Watson worked as a teacher and school psychologist in the Los Angeles public schools, taught abroad in France and Japan, lectured at California State University (the Long Beach and Los Angeles campuses), and worked in the California department of education.3

In 1975 Watson won election to the Los Angeles unified school board and served until 1978.4 On the board, Watson worked to desegregate the city’s the public schools. She went on to win a spot in the California state senate in 1978, becoming the first African-American woman to serve in that chamber. “I think I bring another dimension being a black female,” she said. “But I don’t want to be judged here as a black or a woman but as a senator.”5 During her two-decade career in the state senate, she chaired the health and human services committee where she worked to provide relief for the poor and sought to rebuild central Los Angeles after the 1992 riots in the wake of the acquittal of white police officers in the beating of Rodney King, an African American.6 In 1992 Watson ran for the Los Angeles county board of supervisors but lost to former Congresswoman Yvonne Brathwaite Burke in a close race. State term limits ended Watson’s career in the California senate, but in 1998, President William J. (Bill) Clinton nominated her as U.S. Ambassador to the Federated States of Micronesia.7

In December 2000, California Representative Julian Carey Dixon died suddenly of a heart attack. A senior member on the powerful Appropriations Committee, Dixon had just won re-election to a twelfth term in Congress. Urged by colleagues to run, Watson declared her candidacy for the vacant seat in January 2001.8 Watson campaigned on her political experience, community activism, and local roots in the predominantly African American and Hispanic district which included West Los Angeles and Culver City. Watson earned a 33 percent plurality in the primary, decisively defeating 10 opponents, including a state senator and a city councilman. In the June 5, 2001, general election, Watson easily carried the Democratic district with 75 percent of the vote against Republican businesswoman Noel Irwin Hentschel.9 In her four subsequent re-elections, Watson won with more than 80 percent of the vote.10

Sworn into office on June 7, 2001, Watson recognized the achievements of her predecessor, a close political ally and former high school classmate. “I never dreamed that this walk would direct me in the footsteps of my dear friend, the late esteemed Julian Dixon.”11 Watson received assignments on the Government Reform and the International Relations Committees—she remained on both panels throughout her tenure in the House. As a former ambassador, she took a keen interest in American foreign policy, particularly relating to issues of racism and health in the developing world. In the summer of 2001, Watson attended the United Nations Conference on Racism, Xenophobia, and Other Intolerance in Durban, South Africa. She later urged the United States to host its own conference on racism and called for reforms to the educational, justice, and health care systems as possible means for reparations for the long and painful legacy of American slavery.12 Watson also supported the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, noting that incidents of violence against people of Middle Eastern and North African descent, which had risen since the 2001 terrorist attacks, were “the tip of a proverbial iceberg.”13

During her tenure in the House, Watson worked to increase U.S. aid to sub-Saharan African nations fighting an HIV/AIDS pandemic. Aside from humanitarian considerations, she argued that the crisis had repercussions for regional stability and America’s national security because of the strain it placed on so many developing economies. The disease, she observed, “in the very near term, if not more is done, may challenge the very notion of law-based nation states.” Such instability, she also noted, could be taken advantage of by terrorist groups. “Let us not forget that Al Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden has exploited the misery of another state where civil society has collapsed—Afghanistan—to serve as a base for his terror network,” Watson said in November 2001.14

Watson used her seat in Congress to call attention to the plight of impoverished and underserved minority communities—including those in her district. Building upon her work in the state legislature, she proposed “commonsense” welfare reform which included federal reauthorization of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to provide education, childcare, job training, and employment to welfare recipients by granting states the ability to manage their own need-based programs. A consistent supporter of increased funding for Head Start, Watson also lobbied for federal assistance in combating gang violence and protecting at-risk young people.15

During her time in the House, Watson highlighted the achievements of important civil rights activists. In the 108th Congress (2003–2005) she introduced a measure to award a Congressional Gold Medal to Washington, DC, civil rights advocate Dr. Dorothy Height, and she sponsored legislation to extend the authority for the construction of a national memorial honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—both of which were approved by the House and eventually became law.16

On February 11, 2010, Watson announced her decision to retire at the end of the 111th Congress (2009–2011) in order to spend more time with her 100-year-old mother. Reflecting upon her career, Watson said, “I have been really thrilled by the opportunity to help my constituents in whatever way I could.”17


1John Mercurio, “Watson Takes Nod: Democrat Will Face Three Rivals,” 12 April 2001, Roll Call: 1.

2Jennifer Warren, “With No Apologies, Watson Fights On,” 16 March 1997, Los Angeles Times: 1A.

3“Meet Congresswoman Diane E. Watson,” official website of Representative Diane Watson, 12 February 2003,; “Diane Edith Watson,” Who’s Who Among African Americans, 2002 (New York: Gale Research, 2002); Yussuf J. Simmonds, “Diane Watson,” 10 November 2011, Los Angeles Sentinel: A9.

4According to the Los Angeles Times, Diane Watson was the second African–American woman elected to the Los Angeles board of education. The article states that Fay E. Allen won election to the board in 1939. Cathleen Decker, “Looking Back on an Era of Change,” 14 February 2000, Los Angeles Times: A37.

5Victor Merina, “Al Eyes on Diane Watson, New Senator and Symbol,” 7 December 1978, Los Angeles Times: CS1.

6“Ex–Ambassador Wins U.S. House Seat,” 7 June 2001, Washington Post: A21; Adam Graham–Silverman, “Longtime Political Activist, Experienced State Legislator Is Elected to Succeed Rep. Dixon,” Congressional Quarterly Weekly (8 June 2001).

7“Diane Edith Watson,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774–Present,; Richard Simon, “Burke Claims Victory As Lead Widens,” 17 November 1992, Los Angeles Times: B1.

8F. Finley McRae, “Diane Watson Enters Race for Dixon’s Seat,” 1 February 2001, Los Angeles Sentinel: 1; John L. Mitchell, “Candidates Quickly Line Up to Run for Rep. Dixon’s Seat,” 23 January 2001, Los Angeles Times: B1.

9“Diane Watson: Member of Congress, California 32, Democrat,” July 2002, Campaigns and Elections: 18; Emily Pierce, “California Primary Winner Likely to Succeed Rep. Dixon,” 13 April 2001, Congressional Quarterly Weekly: n.p.; McRae, “Diane Watson Enters Race for Dixon’s Seat.”

10Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

11Congressional Record, House, 107th Cong., 1st sess. (7 June 2001): H2965.

12Congressional Record, House, 107th Cong., 1st sess. (6 September 2001): 5447.

13Congressional Record, House, 107th Cong., 2nd sess. (7 February 2002): 219.

14Congressional Record, House, 107th Cong., 1st sess. (29 November 2001): 572; Congressional Record, House, 107th Cong., 1st sess. (11 December 2001): 9089.

15“Meet Congresswoman Diane Watson,” official website of Representative Diane Watson; Congressional Record, House, 107th Cong., 2nd sess. (17 April 2002): 384; Congressional Record, House, 107th Cong., 2nd sess. (8 May 2002): 2170; Politics in America, 2008 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2007): 135.

16Politics in America, 2006 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2005): 135.

17Jean Merl, “In Retiring, Rep. Watson Declines to Endorse a Successor,” 12 February 2010, Los Angeles Times: AA3.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

University of California, Los Angeles
Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library

Los Angeles, CA
Papers: 1978-2011, 13.25 linear feet. The collection covers Diane Watson's time in the California State Senate, Ambassadorship to Micronesia, and the U.S. House of Representatives. Note that there are only a limited number of items from her time as ambassador. The collection includes press clippings collected and arranged by Watson's staff, a sizable collection of photographs from events throughout Watson's career, correspondence, and documents from various events, meetings, and conferences. The collection also contains materials related to specific areas of interest for Watson, including the controversy over Ebonics in the Oakland, Calif., School District in the mid-1990s, the Sherrice Iverson Justice Committee, and the debate over the downsizing of the King/Drew medical center. Additionally, the collection includes mementos from Watson's trip to South Korea in August, 2010-particularly significant as her Congressional district included Los Angeles's Koreatown, the largest population of Koreans outside of Korea. Mementos from the trip include Watson's honorary doctorate from Chung Ang University, Korean literature panels, and souvenir menus from banquets in Watson's honor. A finding aid is available in the repository and online.

California State Archives

Sacramento, CA
Papers: 1978-1980, 2 cubic feet. The papers of Diane Watson include correspondence and chronological files covering Sacramento and district chronological files, miscellaneous legislative counsel drafts; Jane Fonda and constituent problems.
Papers: 1979-1982, 4 cubic feet. Bill files of Diane Watson from her tenure as a member of the California State Senate.
Papers: 1981-1986, 1.5 cubic feet. Bill files of Diane Watson from her tenure as a member of the California State Senate.
Papers: 1987, amount unknown. Newsletter questionnaires of Diane Watson, 1987.
Oral History: In the Oral History interview with Gladys W. Sargent, 1989, 242 pages. The interview was conducted by Jacqueline S. Reinier, California State University, Sacramento for the State Government Oral History Program, California State Archives. Subjects covered include Diane E. Watson.

The HistoryMakers

Chicago, IL
Oral History: 2005, amount unknown. An oral history interview of Diane Watson conducted on October 5, 2005.

Loyola Marymount University
Department of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library

Los Angeles, CA
Videotapes and DVDs: In the Bill Rosendahl-Adelphia Communications Corporation Collection of Public Affairs Television Programs, 1987-2006, 380 linear feet. Persons represented include Diane Watson.

University of California, Berkeley
The Bancroft Library

Berkeley, CA
Papers: In the William Bronston Papers, 1961-2008, 88.4 linear feet. Persons represented include Diane Watson.

University of California, Los Angeles
Chicano Studies Research Center Library

Los Angeles, CA
Papers: In The Desegregation Collection 1976-1983, approximately 200 research files. Persons represented include Diane Watson.
Papers: In the Joe Ortiz Papers and Radio Interviews 1968-2000, 25 linear feet. Persons represented include Diane Watson.

University of California, San Francisco
Archives and Special Collections, UCSF Library & CKM

San Francisco, CA
Papers: 1987-1996, 2.25 linear feet. This collection documents the activities of the California State Legislature, the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services and Senator Diane E. Watson during the passage and implementation of Proposition 99, California's landmark anti-tobacco bill, and associated bills. The documents were assembled by John D. Miller, Principal Consultant for Diane E. Watson, in her role as chairperson of the California State Senate Committee on Health and Human Services. Materials include legislative files, summaries, correspondence, and clippings as well as legal documents concerning lawsuits against AB 816 and SB 493. The materials are divided into two series: Legislative Files and Subject Files. A finding aid is available in the repository and online.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Diane Edith Watson" in Black Americans in Congress, 1870-2007. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U. S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2008.

"Diane Edith Watson" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U. S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.

Katsimbras, Amofia, comp. Senator Diane E. Watson, Ph. D., 1978-1998: Legislative History. Sacramento: California State Senate, 1999.

Rambo, Beverly J. and Diane Edith Watson Your Career in Health Care. New York: Gregg Division, McGraw-Hill, 1976.

Watson, Diane Edith. "The Effects of the Desegregation Controversy on Trustee Governance in the Los Angeles Unified School District (1975-1980)." Ph. D. diss., The Claremont Graduate University, 1987.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Foreign Affairs
  • House Committee - Government Reform
  • House Committee - International Relations
  • House Committee - Oversight and Government Reform
    • Government Management, Organization, and Procurement - Chair
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