Trailblazing Calif. Congresswoman Diane Watson To Retire

Rep. Diane Watson, a Democrat from California, is retiring after serving nearly a decade in Congress, and a 30-year political career. Host Michel Martin speaks with Congresswoman Watson about her decision to step away from public service, her many historic firsts, and the current political partisanship in Washington.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Im Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, well hear from the head of the National Black Farmers Association about an agreement to settle decades of discrimination complaints by black farmers against the Agriculture Department. Its the latest move by the Obama administration to address these longstanding civil rights grievances. Well hear more in just a few minutes.

But first, a newsmaker interview with a woman who is about ready to step out of the limelight. Congresswoman Diane Watson, a Democrat, is retiring after serving nearly a decade as the representative of Californias 33rd District, which includes Hollywood, Culver City and Los Angeles. Watsons 30-year political career was often marked by firsts: the first African-American woman elected to the Los Angeles School Board, the first African-American woman in the California Senate. Shes also a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and a co-chair of the Korean Caucus. A former teacher, she earned a doctorate degree in 1987, and shes a former ambassador.

But now, she says shes taking a break to spend more time with family, including her 100-year-old mother. But somehow, she found some time to spend with us, and shes with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Representative DIANE WATSON (Democrat, California): Its always a pleasure.

MARTIN: As I mentioned, youve had quite a distinguished career in public service. What made you decide to run for Congress?

Rep. WATSON: Its quite a story. I was appointed by President Bill Clinton, and I was serving at a post in Micronesia - the Federated States of Micronesia - when one morning, I got a call that the distinguished congressman Julian Dixon had passed away. Julian and I were in high school together, and we served in the legislature together in California. And I was filled with sorrow, of course. We were friends.

And I went on back to sleep. It was 4:30 a.m. there in the Pacific. And then I got a call around 6 o'clock, and I literally was drafted. The phone never stopped ringing, and I conceded that I would run. And I did, and I was elected to Congress - sworn in, in 2001.

MARTIN: You are one of 32 members of the House who have decided not to seek re-election. Theres 11 members of the Senate who've also made that decision. One of the ones thats gotten a lot of attention of late is Evan Bayh of Indiana, also a Democrat. He says - in part, hes leaving because of the hyper-partisanship. He just says that just not enough is getting done. And I know that you said that youre retiring for personal reasons, but do you share that view?

Rep. WATSON: Partially. The atmosphere is so toxic that one evaluates whether they can be effective, and let me kind of give that some foundation. I have never seen such resistance to the presidential priorities as I have this year. And I kind of connect it to the phenomena of Barack Obama being elected as president. And I see things happening around this country that indicate to me that there are people out there that rather not have an African-American. Im just going to put it where I think it is. Ive seen the rise of the Tea Party and their Klan activities. And I think we see the haters coming forth.

MARTIN: Hmm.

Rep. WATSON: You know, Im going to tell you something. When I came in, of course, I came in to fill an unexpired term of Julian Dixon. And I took his office. And the people across the hall - a Republican member - his staff was so kind and accommodating to me. And nine months later, the member died. And I went across to thank the member's staff, and to ask where the chief of staff would be going. And he pointed to my office and he says, I'm leaving the Hill because the last four people in your office have died in office as well.

And moving in to his office was Joe Wilson. Joe was the one that during the joint session, yelled out: You lie. Now, I never detected that in him. And it was not only disrespectful, but it was the first time its ever happened in a joint session. For him to do something like that, I knew it was programmed.

MARTIN: But you think it was race, you think it's generational? Or do you think it's partisan - or some combination of the three?

Rep. WATSON: All of the above. And I said, why this president? This president -and think about this, listeners - the blood that runs through my veins runs through his, and the blood that runs through his veins runs through theirs, for hes Kenya and Kansas. The Rush Limbaughs of the world: I hope he fails. When the president fails, the country fails. Its the presidency, and Im saying what is motivating this? Why the Tea Party?

What are they angry about when we talk about health care? And I just put it where I think it really is. President Carter said its emanating out of hate. But as I travel the globe, and Im on international relations, I am told by people of color - two-thirds of the worlds population is of color - that we are so proud to see someone who looks like us rather than and with all due respect rather than an old, white-haired, white man. So thats whats happening out there.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Im speaking with congresswoman Diane Watson of California. Shes a Democrat. Were talking about her distinguished career in public service, and also about her decision to retire at the conclusion of this term. I did want to mention one other thing thats been in the news, which was that there was a big story in the New York Times earlier this week about some of the fundraising of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

And the Times made the point that the Caucus Foundation has been tremendously successful in fundraising, but the piece questioned whether some of this fundraising isnt really an effort to influence members of Congress - and also whether the funds are really going to sort of charitable activities. Do you have any thoughts about this?

Rep. WATSON: As long as Ive been in Congress - its 10 years now - Ive never had anyone from the foundation call me and try to influence my vote. What I have been part of is raising money for scholarships, raising money to bring young people in and train them for public service. And we work hard at having events, having workshops, and communicating across this country with all of our constituents.

Im very privileged to be co-chair of our September Issues Forum, and I feel thats an honor. And we get anywhere up to 6 - to 10,000 people - even more -that come. And all members of our caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus, hold workshops on various topics of interest and concern at the time. And we work hard at it. I am working hard. We started at the beginning - even before the beginning of this year - and our moneys go to advance our young people.

MARTIN: The argument, though, that the piece made was that the amount of money spent on scholarships in the last reporting cycle, which was about $700,000, is not a small amount, but its less than the caucus spent on the catering bill for that weekend. And given that they have raised like, about $55 million over a five-year span, the question was: Is enough money going to the things, to the stated reason?

Rep. WATSON: When you contract with the convention center, and when you sponsor exhibits, when you pay one's room and board for the people who come in to be part of it, when you pay the bills, the price tag is large. That money comes from the money that we raise, and we raise it once a year, but we're trying to raise it - pay into our Congressional Black Caucus. It costs to maintain business in the nation's capital.

MARTIN: The bottom line: Do you feel that the money being raised is appropriate and the expenditures are appropriate, and you don't feel that there's any connection to influencing your vote? Is that am I hearing you right?

Rep. WATSON: I said I have never had the foundation call me and say, you should vote this way. We discuss issues. We bring the public. There's a lot of transparency. We have a foundation board. Members of Congress are on that board. It's all done in transparency, and I would invite anyone who is concerned to the foundation office. Dr. Scott has an open ear and an open mind, and has done a very effective job as the CEO of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

MARTIN: And finally, congresswoman, I'm not sure if I'll have a chance to chat with you again before you decide to go, so I just wanted to ask - now that I have this opportunity - do you have any wisdom to share to perhaps a younger you, to up-and-coming public servants who might be interested in following in your path?

Rep. WATSON: Number one: You must get an education. What you learn cannot be taken away from you. And in this era of time, all our young people must be competitive. Technology is moving so quickly, and all of our young people know how to use the blog. They use their iPads and so on. But you must continue learning. You know, we're in a global economy today. And I would say to everyone out there: Keep your mind open, seek the truth, fill your mind with substance, know both sides of the issue and when you make decisions, make them in the best interest of your progress, and your loved ones, your community.

MARTIN: Congresswoman Diane Watson represents the 33rd District of California. She's a Democrat. She recently announced that she will not seek another term and is looking forward to the next phase of her life, and she joined us from her office in Los Angeles. Congresswoman, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Rep. WATSON: Thank you so much and have a great, great time.

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