Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Political Mentors: Julian Dixon and Kenny Hahn

BOND: Now, I know that Julian Dixon, your predecessor in the congressional seat, was a model for you. What influence did he have?

WATSON: Julian and I went to high school together.

BOND: Oh really?

WATSON: He was a year behind me and I went on to college and university and went on the School Board. Julian was elected, and he ran against David Cunningham and Nate [Nathaniel] Holden — I think you might know the two of them —

BOND: Sure, I know both of them.

WATSON: — and Julian won and came here. That was about 1978 and came to — I'm sorry, not here, came to Sacramento, and when Julian left, going to Washington, D.C., I took his staff. His district was always on the inside of my Senate district, so we worked together on many, many issues. I chaired the Health and Human Services Committee for seventeen years, so we did a lot of the health legislation and we coordinated it with his staff. And we talked, off and on, about issues that impacted on our district. Julian having the same, pretty much the same educational background as I did, knew very quickly where to go if he needed something done in the Senate — the California Senate — after he left and came on here to Congress.

BOND: And so, it was natural do you think for you to succeed him?

WATSON: You know, I can't tell you. I didn't think about it, but I can say this. I didn't expect him not to be there. I had gone on to my appointment as an Ambassador in Micronesia when I got the call. I remember it was 4:30 a.m. our time, Micronesian time, to tell me of his death and I was very saddened and heartbroken over the fact. And I went back to sleep and the phone rung and never stopped ringing. And they said, "We're going to get you appointed." And I said, "Well, wouldn't the government call a special election?" which they did, and the rest is history.

I thought I would end my career in public life as an ambassador. That was always my dream, my goal. I never thought about running again after that position. I was hoping that Gore would've won. I thought I could get another appointment from him. I was appointed by Bill Clinton, and — but everyone knows what happened in 2000 and, of course, when my president went out of office, that was the end of that. And then Julian dies so everything kind of dovetailed in, and before I knew it, I was sitting here in Congress.

BOND: Now, somebody else who had served as a kind of a mentor is the late and warmly remembered Kenny [Kenneth] Hahn, the Supervisor.

WATSON: Oh, yes, yes, yes.

BOND: What was your relationship?

WATSON: Kenny was a massive influence, particularly in south central Los Angeles. In fact, in the whole county. And Kenny had the respect of everyone on [the] left, on the right side, and so on. He was the person who got things done and he took advantage in the aftermath of the Watts riots and said, "We have got to start examining the needs of the people who live in this disadvantaged area of Los Angles. Should we not, we're going to be prime for riots in the future." And he was never so truthful when he said that. If you remember how the Watts riots started, Johnnie Cochran made his name on defending — well, representing — the wife of the young man. It was Deadwyler [Leonard Deadwyler, who was pulled over and shot by Los Angeles police officers] who was killed taking his wife on the freeway, speeding on the freeway, because she was getting ready to deliver a baby. Made the wrong move, was killed, and that started the explosion. Kenny understood that something needed to be done to change the level and the quality of life, and he said, "First thing we need to do is put a hospital, county hospital, out here that's accessible." I was born at L.A. County, which is up in northeast Los Angeles. We had no county hospital in the Watts area, so he was the driving force behind that and we're still fighting over that hospital today.

BOND: Oh yes, I know you are. I know you are.

WATSON: The other thing that was very, very impressive, he brought to Los Angeles a man by the name of Carter, and we didn't know who he was. His first name happened to be Jimmy. And I remember it rained for two weeks straight and all of a sudden the rain stopped about an hour before we were to have this big community meeting and they got the chairs all dried and he said — he looked up. I'll never forget this. He said, "It never rains on Kenny Hahn's parade." He said, "I want to introduce you to someone and I want you to remember this name. His name is Jimmy Carter." And that did it. All Kenny had to do is say, "Here's Jimmy Carter." When the presidential election came up, everybody out there — "I'm voting for Jimmy Carter, because Kenny Hahn said so."