Black Leadership Succession: Diane Watson Did It Right

Last week, California Representative Diane Watson announced she would not seek re-election to her 33rd Congressional District seat. It was a much-anticipated announcement, coming after months of “rumors” that she would step down. Diane Watson is one of the most respected elected officials in the history of California black politics. She was the first black woman elected to the Los Angeles Unified School District, and the first black woman to the California Senate. She should have been a County Supervisor, losing an upset election to former Congresswoman Yvonne Burke after beating her in the primary by 20 points.

Earning her doctorate degree from Claremont while in the State Senate, she went on to be appointed Ambassador of Micronesia before returning to run for Congress. She’s had a distinguished public service career indeed. And she’s doing it right by going out on top. And YES, Assemblymember Karen Bass should succeed her. Leadership of the past prepares leadership for the future. The commonality between Bass and Watson is that they are both “champions of the people.” The point here is leadership succession in the black community is an oft-avoided topic. Black leaders often have no vision for the future beyond their tenure of service.

This is a touchy subject in black community’s nationwide, and historically prevalent within the civil rights generation. Thurgood Marshall and Roy Wilkins could not see the change that the younger Martin Luther King saw. King could not see the change coming that Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Toure) saw. Joseph Lowery and Andrew Young didn’t embrace Jesse Jackson’s run for President. And Jesse Sr. (and most of the older Congressional Black Caucus) didn’t embrace Obama’s run for President.

Nowhere is this issue touchier than in Los Angeles where black elected officials serve so long they die in office, literally. That’s how Ms. Watson got her congressional seat. Her predecessor, Julian Dixon, died in office. At one point in the 1990s, L.A. had six black elected officials in their 70s or their 80s. I wrote a commentary about 15 years ago entitled “Black Leaders Eat Their Young,” after questions arose as to where the next generation of leaders were. It was a period of contemplation (and confliction) after 88-year-old City Councilman Gil Lindsey died in office with no apparent successor, and then Mayor Tom Bradley decided not to run for a sixth term and had no apparent successor. Bradley, after 20 years, endorsed no one to succeed him.

Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, Cognresswoman Diane Watson

In Los Angeles, succeeding generations have to attack the very ones who mentored them. One of the saddest cases was last year when one of the most venerable black elected officials in California — former Lt. Governor, former Congressman, former Assemblyman, and former State Senator Mervyn Dymally — was beat running for a State Senate seat he had held 30 years ago, after serving in the State Assembly nearly 40 years ago. Dymally, at 82, refused to retire and refused to sit down. Whether it’s politics, civil rights, or the church, black leaders don’t retire, and if they do — they’re looking over their shoulder.

I have a BIG soft spot in my heart for Diane Watson that goes back 25 years, for a number of reasons I don’t have the space to elaborate, but one reason for sure that was she put her arms around me during one of the lowest periods of my life 20 years ago, assuring me that I was still a leader. She was a community mother like that, relating to young people despite an obvious “generation gap.”

We actually fell out over her refusal to support Barack Obama (and me writing about it). Our relationship turned to a BIG CHILL, but I was not of those urging her to retire. The freeze has thawed out (somewhat) but my respect for her never wavered.

Still, nobody can tell a leader when it’s time to step down, even when the signs are on the wall and all indications that the tides of change are turning. Most black leaders ignore all the signs and end up tarnishing their legacy. Diane Watson didn’t tarnish hers, and know that Diane Watson is a “rock star” in the black community. Her popularity ratings were always the highest amongst her peers, even higher than Tom Bradley, at times. People got mad love for Diane Watson, and she’s not one that we were going to let go the way of Dymally. She was going to go out on her terms. Nobody was going to force her out. But I, for one, am glad she did it right. It shows that black leaders can effectively ensure quality future leaders will continue their work. Thank you for the time served, Rep. Watson. And we love you.

Anthony Asadullah Samad

Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum and author of the upcoming book, REAL EYEZ: Race, Reality and Politics in 21 Century Politics. He can be reached at www.AnthonySamad.com

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