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Madale Watson, 95; state Democratic Party leader and influential operative

July 01, 2007|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Madale Long Watson, a former housewife who paid her dues as a volunteer in the 1940s and '50s to become a leader of the California Democratic Party known for her no-nonsense style and mastery of the nuts and bolts of effective political operations, died June 24 of natural causes at Olympia Medical Center in Los Angeles. She was 95.

Known as "Mother Madale" to generations of politicos, Watson rose from campaign envelope-stuffer to state party vice chairwoman and southern division treasurer during six decades that encompassed the modern history of the California Democratic Party. She sat on the Democratic State Central Committee almost continuously for more than 50 years.

Brutally efficient and agile with numbers, she was widely respected for her skill at organizing political fundraisers, particularly a dinner for President Kennedy in 1962.

She advised and coordinated events for the late Jesse Unruh -- the legendary speaker of the Assembly during the 1960s and California state treasurer in the '70s and '80s -- during most of his three decades as one of the state's most influential politicians.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 03, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Madale Watson obituary: Photographer Barry Levine's name was misspelled as Barry Lavine in a photo credit accompanying the obituary of Democratic Party activist Madale Watson in Sunday's California section.

When the Democrats, led by Unruh, drafted a legislative reapportionment plan in 1961 to ensure the party's dominance, Watson was in the middle of it, with reams of index cards detailing the socioeconomic profile of every neighborhood in Los Angeles County spread out on her living room floor.

"She was an absolute icon," said California Democratic Party Chairman and former legislator Art Torres, who considered Watson a mentor. "She was very tough. That's why she admired Jesse so much. She was very honest, very direct and very tough."

When she was elected state vice chairwoman in 1979, rank-and-file women were thrilled that one of their own had risen so high.

"She represented the kind of politics we no longer have," said Bill Boyarsky, an Unruh biographer and former Times political writer, "where a woman who was a housewife, mother and person of no wealth, no fame, could get into politics by volunteering in campaigns ... and rise high just on the strength of [her] hard work, devotion and personality to a position of really great influence in the party."

A moderate Democrat, Watson was driven less by issues than by an unflagging faith in the electoral process.

"She believed in getting people elected," said longtime political consultant Joseph Cerrell, who knew Watson for 50 years.

Born in 1911 in Covina, Watson absorbed a passion for politics from her father, Vernell R. Long, a Baldwin Park chicken rancher who managed Rep. Jerry Voorhis' unsuccessful 1946 reelection campaign. Voorhis' loss launched the political career of his opponent, Richard M. Nixon.

Watson's mother, Edna Goodrich Long, was a housewife who helped organize the first kindergarten in Baldwin Park. According to Watson's daughter, Margaret Peet, what Watson got from her mother was "a lot of remonstration." Of the family's three children, "I was the one who always got the spanking, because I always talked out of turn," Watson said in a 1988 oral history.

After graduating from Covina High School in 1929, she briefly attended what was then Chaffey Junior College in Ontario. She later studied dressmaking at Frank Wiggins Trade School (now Los Angeles Trade Tech College) but never worked as a dressmaker.

In 1932, she married Richard H. Watson, a photographer for RKO Studios. They were married for 60 years until his death in 1992.

In addition to Peet, Watson is survived by a son, Robert; four grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; a great-great-grandchild; and a sister.

During the 1940s she began volunteering in campaigns, performing the grunt work -- stapling fliers, stuffing envelopes, licking stamps -- that can cripple a campaign if done poorly or drive it forward if done well.

"She worked so hard in tasks I don't know who would do today, partly because they are perceived as menial," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a USC political scientist and expert on California politics, who met Watson in 1966.

Watson's toil began to pay off in 1950, when she was appointed to the Democratic State Central Committee. In 1952 she ran for the 58th Assembly District seat but lost.

"In those days," said Rosalind W. Wyman, a former Los Angeles City Council member who knew Watson, women "didn't win anything, but we kept plugging away."

Watson lost two Assembly races before she focused on helping fellow Democrats get elected.

She met Unruh the year she lost her first election and stuck close by his side for the next 35 years. She kept a sharp eye on his finances, oversaw his fundraisers and managed his campaign offices, including the Unruh for Governor headquarters in Los Angeles in 1970, when he lost to Ronald Reagan.

"She was probably his closest confidant within the party. He trusted her completely," said Unruh's daughter, Linda.

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