“Let us shift our priorities. Let us train an army of doctors to fight the global HIV/AIDS crisis. Let us declare war on this dreaded disease.”
Think of Diane Watson as a one-woman army, fighting valiantly against the epidemic on the political front, first in California State Senate and now in the U.S. House of Representatives. A lifetime resident of the urban stretch of Los Angeles she represents, Watson’s advocacy on behalf of women, minority and AIDS-related health issues is no less than thorough and perhaps most importantly, effective.
Serving parts of LA that include Baldwin Hills, the Crenshaw District, the University of Southern California, the Wilshire Corridor, and Culver City, Watson was first elected to Congress in 2001, filling the seat that had been represented for more than 20 years by the late Julian Dixon.
A graduate of Dorsey High School, Watson attended Los Angeles City College, then UCLA, where she received her B.A. in Education. She also holds an M.A. in School Psychology from California State University, Los Angeles, and a Ph.D. in Educational Administration from the Claremont Graduate School.
Her lifetime commitment to education stems from her involvement in the Los Angeles public schools, where she once worked as an elementary school teacher and school psychologist. She has also lectured at both California State Universities at Los Angeles and Long Beach. In 1975, Watson became the first African American woman to be elected to the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education. Her legacy there includes efforts to expand school integration and toughen academic standards. The year 1978 marked her election to the California State Senate, where Watson became a statewide and national advocate for health care, consumer protection, women, children and AIDS treatment and prevention.
During her two decades in Sacramento, she chaired the State Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee, which vetted all HIV-related legislation and became a bellwether for the nation in terms of progressive and comprehensive benefits and protections for those affected by the epidemic. It was here that Watson first led the charge to provide access to health care while protecting those at risk from the discrimination and fear that surrounded AIDS and remains a challenge to this day.
“The best way to prevent a powder keg from exploding is to snuff the fuse,” she said in an L.A. Times editorial calling for the legalization of needle exchange programs. Her viewpoint was initially opposed by leaders in minority communities, but her efforts helped lead to California’s Clean Needle and Syringe Exchange Program.
Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, Watson was a champion of many AIDS-related issues, including ensuring the confidentiality of patients in reporting HIV infection, making unintentional transmission of the virus a non-criminal act, calling for annual increases in the state’s health budget for HIV-related services, creating outreach programs tailored for minorities, and continued state funding for HIV service organizations for minorities despite massive budget cutbacks.
Not content with mere advocacy, Watson also authored or co-authored the legislative acts that created and funded the California Office of AIDS, required family planning programs to disseminate culturally-relevant HIV information, and made mandatory AIDS education for state and county prisoners.
Forced out of the state senate in 1998 by term limits, Watson served as the United States Ambassador to the Federated States of Micronesia until 2001 when she ran for Congress in a special election after the death of Congressman Dixon. Currently, she serves on the International Relations Committee, the subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific, the Government Reform Committee, the subcommittee on the District of Columbia and the subcommittees on National Security and Veterans’ Affairs.
But even with her political expansion and evolution, Watson remains a powerful ally in the battle against HIV/AIDS. In 2002, she teamed up with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and took on pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, urging them to lower drug prices in poor countries and cut the red tape on their life-saving AIDS drugs.
“The scope and severity of this crisis are not just a global health challenge, but one of economics as well,” she said in a speech on Capitol Hill while fighting for more global funding. “The crisis has been felt harshly by less-developed countries, the very countries whose governments are least equipped to handle this scourge.”
And to her colleagues who doubt the impact of the epidemic, she once shared this insight, still as relevant and poignant today:
“The global HIV/AIDS crisis poses as direct a threat to the security of many nations and the safety of their citizens as a more conventional military challenge would. The global fight against HIV/AIDS requires at least the same commitment that this nation has made to training foreign militaries or fighting our war on drugs. If we do not take part in funding the research and the treatment, it could wipe out our forces, not only abroad but here in this country, too.”