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I show up for my appointment with Congresswoman Diane E. Watson just days before the Democratic convention at her office on Wilshire near Crenshaw Boulevard. The 68-year-old Hillary superdelegate represents the 33rd Congressional District, which is 20 percent white, 30 percent black, 35 percent Latino and 12 percent Asian. Shaped kinda like a sperm heading south, the 33rd encompasses Culver City and Baldwin Hills, and stretches from USC to Hollywood. The 33rd is considered politically safe. How safe? Well, in 2006, Watson received 113,715 votes, or 100 percent of the vote. Not surprising since she ran unopposed. This year, she’s expected to easily beat her Republican challenger, David C. Crowley, who lists his occupation as “college student.”
Lois Hill Hale, Watson’s press secretary, is a woman so pretty she could be Little Richard’s sister. I think this as she rushes out of the office and announces to me that there’s an emergency at the congresswoman’s house. We run out the door as she frantically asks if I know anything about plumbing. I wonder what I have gotten myself into.
We jump into Hale’s side-swiped, late-model economy car and race down Crenshaw at speeds wa-a-a-a-a-y above her reflex skills. I try to make small talk about the Dodgers and how Manny Ramirez is supposed to cut his long dreadlocks at Fantastic Sams for charity. She tells me how we need human hair. How there is a shortage of human hair. How expensive human hair is.
She almost hits a bus.
I suggest maybe barbershops can have county hair-recycling bins.
She looks at me like I have discovered the cure for cancer!
We get to this miniature mansion in Baldwin Hills. Complete chaos. Insurance agents on the phone. Big burly plumbers abound. Ministers coming and going. I meet Brenda, a beautiful black woman with the Berlin Opera who asks if I’m “gonna clone the congresswoman’s brain?”
The congresswoman is dressed immaculately in a lemon-yellow pantsuit topped by a long yellow frock coat highlighted by matching shoes and earrings. She says she’s 68, but she looks 50, if a day.
“My father came out here from Chicago to be the next Joe Louis,” she tells me. “My grandmother’s mother was the slave masters’ child. They escaped Mississippi and went to Chicago, where my grandmother and mother were born. My grandmother was a surgical nurse who wanted to come West. My mother was an actress for a time. My dad was employed at City Hall as an elevator operator.”
He later joined the LAPD.
Watson’s childhood neighborhood, just east of Fairfax around Cimarron Street, was inhabited by African-American luminaries that included Rochester from The Jack Benny Show, Ray Charles, comedian Mantan Moreland, the Nicholas Brothers and actress Dorothy Dandridge. These star homes were part of an early bus-tour venture that Watson ran as a young adult; she called it “Hollywood in Black & White.”
Today, she is trying to get these same homes landmark status.
The congresswoman’s spry 98-year-old mother joins us in the living room. I ask her the secret to her longevity. “Just being here,” she says with the timing of a comedian.
In the early ’90s, Watson chaired the California Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee and worked directly with Hillary and Bill Clinton on national health care and welfare reform. For that, she received an appointment as ambassador to Micronesia. She didn’t know anything about Micronesia. “I read all the books,” Watson says. “I went through training for six weeks.”
It was an eye-opening experience for her.
“America has been isolated. We don’t believe anyone’s form of government or way of thinking is right, except ours.”
I ask her if she had CIA station chiefs at her embassy in Micronesia. “I’m not going to tell you,” she says laughingly, but then somberly adds, “Our hands are not clean around the globe.”
For no particular reason, Watson proceeds to tell me about the giant cross that would not stop glowing on a neighbor’s house in Leimert Park around 1982. I start laughing.
“I’m telling you as God is my witness,” she asserts, as if reading poetry, “the cross was lime, lemon-yellow and it pulsated. It was the most beautiful thing. The word got out and people started coming by the thousands. It lasted a couple of months. I took groups over there. Finally, the Catholic Church got involved and they sent their investigative team from Rome,” she states matter-of-factly.
“Because we believe in miracles in our church,” she says in a whisper. “I’m Catholic,” she adds for emphasis.
She tells me that the cross finally went away when the woman moved.
Why she brought this story up I have no idea, but I think to myself that in an odd way this woman reflects many of the diverse cultural characteristics that make up the folks that she represents.
Politically she has been progressive in both name and action. Just before her vote against the authorization for force against Iraq in 2002, she said, “Our invasion will engender a bottomless well of bitterness and resentment toward the United States that will haunt us for decades to come. We now have a choice to maintain the moral high ground or sink to the depths of our tormentors. History will record this moment!”
Congresswoman Watson is vivacious, well-educated and diplomatic. But in the end, loyalty may be her strong suit. Throughout the primaries, this Clinton supporter wrestled with race and gender issues. In February 2007, Obama held a rally at the predominantly African-American Dorsey High School. Watson’s alma mater. It was his first appearance in L.A. as a presidential candidate. At the time, Watson noted, “Obama is demonstrating that he is ready to lead our nation in a new and different direction. The only question remains: Is America ready for Barack?”
Then a funny thing happened on the way past the Forum — Obama’s campaign accelerated and Watson found herself trapped between the loyalty of gender and the history of race. As one black leader after another fell in line endorsing Obama, the pressure on Watson to do the same became enormous. But she wouldn’t buckle in her loyalty to Hillary Clinton. (She began receiving death threats and the FBI was notified.)
In the days before the convention, she tried to salvage some of the Clinton agenda. “What we wanted was a woman’s power recognized,” she explains. “We wanted catharsis."
She and a group of powerful California Democrats had amendments they wanted added to the platform to reflect Clinton’s positions. But negotiations faltered and Hillary’s name was put into nomination for a roll-call vote that ended with Clinton herself dramatically calling for Obama’s nomination.
Apparently, catharsis had occurred somewhere behind the scenes in a smoke-free room. Upon her return from Denver, I receive this e-mail from the congresswoman: “I join Senator Hillary Clinton in saying, ‘No way, no how, no McCain,’ and no Sarah Palin.”
“Just say no” is Watson’s new mantra.