When Jean Watt took her seat on the Newport Beach City Council earlier this week, it was something of a watershed.
For more than a decade, she has operated from the spectator seats, pushing environmental issues as the head mover and shaker of an organization called SPON (Stop Polluting Our Newport). Now she's on the podium, looking at these problems from a different perspective.
"We need to define the limits and conserve Newport Beach as a good place to live," she says. "But it's a major misinterpretation to call me a no-growth person. There is a lot of growth that can and will occur in Newport Beach that I've never opposed, growth that is incorporated in the present general plan. But I think our first order of business is to do what we can to work with neighboring cities to get the region in balance.
"It's a big mistake to build more jobs than housing. I think SPON has been consistent in opposing commercial development but not housing."
Watt is as uncertain as most others about the mixed message sent by the voters a few weeks ago. She was paired with two other council candidates strongly supported by environmental groups. Watt won, they lost. "I'm still puzzled about that," she says. "I know the fact that I was the only one not running against an incumbent helped. But my opponent ran essentially against me and used a lot of scare words like obstructionist , extremist and radical . It seemed to me a kind of classic environmental race, and if the voters saw it that way, the result had to tell us something.
"Yet, if the growth issue led me to win, then why the opposite result with almost the same margin on the other side in the other races?"
Watt has less problem with the mixed fate of environmental initiatives throughout the county. "I don't see any reversal of public sentiment on environmental issues taking place in Orange County," she says. "In general, slow-growth initiatives that include traffic management sections are vulnerable because of their complexity. Initiatives that deal with a single issue are not subject to misinterpretation. Voters simply need something specific, and those environmental initiatives that were easy to understand, passed."
As her two examples, she points to the environmentalists' victory over the Newport Center expansion and loss in the countywide Measure A last May. "When we defeated the Newport Center amendment," she says, "it showed the strength of slow growth. But with initiatives that include traffic management sections, it's easy for the other side to portray them as saying the opposite of what they really say. So by the time you add lots of developer money thrown in against them and the possibility of misinterpretation, they're difficult to pass."
It would have been equally difficult for Jean Watt to imagine herself talking this way 15 years ago when she first got involved in politics. Until 1974, she had been immersed in raising a family in the less frenetic years of Newport Beach. As residents of Pasadena--where Jean was born--Watt's parents began renting a summer place on Balboa Island in the early 1930s and bought a lot on the newly developed Harbor Island in 1937. (Watt remembers that the lots were $5,000 on one side of the island and $10,000 on the other, "but they could be had at half-price if the owner promised to build immediately.") When Jean married obstetrician Jay Watt, the couple moved to Beacon Bay after he finished his residency in 1953. Hoag Hospital was new then, and Dr. Watt has been practicing there ever since.
The Watts raised four children in their Beacon Bay home, and later on Harbor Island, where they bought their present home in 1961. Their oldest daughter, Tammy, is now director of advertising of Centinela Hospital in Los Angeles; Terry works as an urban planner for a San Francisco law firm that has been deeply involved in Orange County environmental issues; Lorna is a cardiac care registered nurse in Orange County; and son Mike--who has given the Watts their only grandchildren to date, Claire, 3, and Tommy, 9 months--is a resident in orthopedic surgery at Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto.
Jean Watt got her feet wet in local politics when she signed on to manage the campaign of a Newport Beach City Council candidate in 1974. She had been involved for some years in "managing things"--as a Girl Scout leader and contributor to various civic groups, but this was her first experience in politics. "We lost," she recalls, "but I got hooked. It was a consciousness-raising experience."
She came away from that first campaign "thinking that there needed to be some kind of citizen's group that was consistent, would function all the time and not just in election years." That's when she and a group of friends with similar feelings started SPON.