Between the Lines
Leadership succession in the Black community: Congresswoman 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 after months of “rumors” that she would. 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, Assembly member, Speaker Karen Bass should succeed her. Leadership of the past prepares leadership for the future. Their commonality is both are “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 communities 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 Jr. could see. King could not see the change that was approaching that Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Toure) could see. Joseph Lowery and Andrew Young did not embrace Jesse Jackson’s run for President. And Jesse Jackson (and most of the older Congressional Black Caucus) did not 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 is 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 fifteen 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. 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 thirty years, after serving in an Assembly he held nearly forty years ago. Dymally, at 82 years of age, refused to retire and refuse 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 shoulders.
I have a BIG soft spot in my heart for Diane Watson that goes back 25 years, for a number of reasons, of which, I don’t have the space to elaborate. But, one reason for sure 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, ignore 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 is 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, Ph.D., is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum (www.urbanissuesforum.com) and author of the upcoming book, REAL EYEZ: Race, Reality and Politics in 21 Century Popular Culture. He can be reached at www.AnthonySamad.com
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