Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Career Shift: From Educator to Politician

BOND: Now, how did you choose a career in public service? Now, we know you were in education before that, but there're lots of ways to improve education. You don't have to be on the School Board to improve education. What made you think that this was a logical step?

WATSON: I was drafted.

BOND: Oh, really?

WATSON: I set out — I was an educator. I got an advanced degree, a master's in school guidance and counseling. I worked for Child Welfare and Attendance — that's the old hooky cop. And when I — my last teaching assignment up in Hollywood, I noticed that my students had a lot of emotional, psychological, and behavior problems and I couldn't get much help. So I went into this field of counseling and guidance. And I got a degree, and I got one of the new degrees that was mandated and when my area office heard I had this degree, they came and they said, "We want you to come over here and I'd like to have you" — this was the area superintendent — "go out to these schools in the valley." And so I was doing that and I got a call to come out to UCLA and interview for a program, so I went out and it was a program in allied health occupations and professions, and they needed a director. I didn't know anything about health, but I had the resume, you know, so I became the director of that program and I found out that — you know, I had to travel the state as well — and so a group of community people came and said, "We need to get you on the School Board." And I said no.

They waited for two years and they came back and they said, "We have someone we want you to see," and one of those people was David Cunningham. Thanks, Dave. The other one was Portia Craig, who was a real mentor to me, an older woman who knew my mother, but she took me on because her daughter had married and not gone on to school like I did. And she really was the one that nudged me and she sent her friend there and she knew I had a lot of respect for him, and I went down to the Board and interviewed with a Board member and he said, "Listen, I'll give you $50,000 off the bat and da da da — you can be home for dinner every night," and he did not tell the truth on that one, but he said, "And you will find it very rewarding. One condition — you have to change your registration from Democrat to Republican." That fired me up. I said to him, "No way." So I went out of there, scared to death, and went right down and filed to run.

BOND: Right away.

WATSON: I said, "I'm going to do this on my own and do it my way." I did, and I had several tragedies on the way. I lost the first time I ran. My campaign manager was murdered coming out of a fundraiser and I was going to give it all up, but a friend of mine, [Charles] Chappy Chappelle, that night that I learned of his death, pulled me up by the collar and he said, "Look, you've got to do this for Tom." By the way, Tom was on Kenny Hahn's gang task force and I don't know what he knew, what he found out, but it caused, I think — it contributed to his death. And in his name, I went forward. I ran the incumbent into a runoff by just a few thousand votes. He won, I lost, but we kept going for two years, and I ran for an open seat and I went in with over 80 percent of the vote. At that time, we ran district-wide, and I told you it was 810 square miles going to the Valley and to Pasadena and out to the ocean, huge district, but I had an antebellum-type running against me who wore red, white and blue. And she made the mistake of saying she didn't believe in a participatory democracy and so that got her. And so I won, and I was the first elected black on the Board, a woman. Reverend [James E.] Jones had been on before, but there was a woman appointed and when they found out she was black, they ran someone with the same name against her. That was 1939. She ran in '43 and lost. I was the first one that ran and won.

BOND: And did that give you a sort of taste for political life? School boards aren't political in the same sense as assembly seats or congressional seats, but did it give you a taste for this?

WATSON: Every single experience one has when running for office I had in that first run. I mean, days and days and days without sleep. You go somewhere and they don't call your name. You wait around and they don't introduce you. As I said, the murder of my campaign manager almost stopped my career, period. That was hard to get up the next morning. They moved people into my house to protect me. They didn't know if they were after me. They put my staff under protective custody and so on, because he was killed at the fundraiser, I mean, after leaving the fundraiser. So I guess that was the way of the powers that be toughened me up. I had to deal with rejection. I had to deal with people who I thought were my friends abandoning me because they didn't want to get involved in raising the money. I had to deal with someone breaking into my headquarters and stealing everything I had, including the typewriters I had borrowed, including the cans of nuts that I had for the official opening. I went through every — my mail would come opened, "accidentally." I experienced the worst, so I could perform the best later on. So I was tried. You know, I was like a piece of iron you put into the fire. When it gets red hot, you pull it out.

BOND: You were tempered.

WATSON: I was tempered.