Et tu, J.C.?

The only African-American in the House Republican Caucus is among the scores of House GOP members contemplating retirement.


Nancy Mathis
January 15, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts Jr., the former star quarterback who always wore
a brash "No. 1" on his jersey, keeps getting sacked by his own team. Now,
the Republicans' only black member in Congress, whose performance as the
House majority's chief spokesman has been criticized by colleagues, is
pondering retirement.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Majority Leader Dick Armey, Majority Whip
Tom DeLay and scores of colleagues have implored Watts to run for
re-election in his southwestern Oklahoma district. The indecision by Watts,
the Republican Conference Committee chairman, at least has the effect of
silencing the internal criticism about his skills as the party's top
communicator.

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Watts' retirement would hurt the party's effort to retain its slim
majority in the House. Already, 21 Republicans have announced their
retirements, compared to six Democrats. A loss of five Republicans seats
would shift the majority back to Democrats, and Republicans may have difficulty retaining Watts' seat in the GOP column
without him. Potentially strong Democratic contenders, including the state
House speaker, wait in the wings and no prospective Republican candidate has
Watts' broad appeal.

His departure would also cost Republicans a potent symbol of their
party's appeal to African-Americans. Watts often defended the party against
charges of racism and bigotry and engaged in heated battles with the
Congressional Black Caucus, which he refused to join.
A Republican leadership aide, speaking on background, said "things are
looking better than they were" for Watts' return to the political arena and
expectations are he will seek another two-year term.
But Watts' spokesman Bill Shapard, who said the congressman would not be
available for an interview, contended no one yet knows Watts' decision. No
announcement is expected until the end of the month. Both deny that a recent
spate of bad press for Watts is a factor in his decision or even the cause of
his sudden reflection.
"We need him from a communications standpoint. We need to have him and
his entire team energized, instead of out there looking for jobs. We need all
those resources pulling in the same direction," the Republican aide said. But
he added, "I think there's a big part of him that would like to get out of
this rat race and make money, go out on a speaking tour and not put up with
all the bullshit."
Shapard said Watts, 42, is considering retirement because he embraced a
six-year term limit when he first ran for office in 1994, although Watts did
not sign a term-limit pledge as some Republican candidates did that year.
"That just weighs heavily on his heart," Shapard said. "He's often said it's
hard to get off the political treadmill once you get on and he thinks this
may be an opportunity to do that."

Conservative columnist Robert Novak wrote last month, "Many GOP
congressmen complain that Watts seldom appears on Sunday television talk
shows. They charge that he is disengaged from policy formation and rarely
speaks at weekly leadership meetings. While Watts earlier this year was a hot
prospect for vice president in 2000, colleagues now wonder whether he is even
up to his present job."

But most of Watts' problems stem from turf and strategy battles, not disagreements
over the Republican agenda itself. DeLay, for example, assumed some duties previously performed by the conference
chairman who is normally the publicity agent for the 222-member majority.

Shapard says the riff between the two is a thing of the past. "When one member begins to pull the group in one direction and won't play
well with others, you have a tendency to get angry. You haven't seen any more
reports about him and Tom DeLay," Shapard said, suggesting Watts put a stop
to DeLay's encroachments.

Watts' most intensely personal and public battles have been waged
with other African-Americans. Watts complained to Vice President Al Gore
after his presidential campaign manager Donna Brazile, who also is black,
suggested the congressman was Republican window dressing.

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"Al Gore and Bill
Clinton have worked hard for the last seven years to improve the lives of
African-Americans and Hispanics," she told Bloomberg.com. "On the other hand,
the Republicans bring out Colin Powell and J.C. Watts because they have no
program, no policy. They play that game because they have no other game."

The Congressional Black Caucus chided Watts last year for the appearance before a white supremacist organization
of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott
of Mississippi and Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia. "We urge you to insure the
Republican Party, its leaders and all of its members clearly and publicly
distance themselves from the (Council of Conservative Citizens) and any other
white supremacist, anti-semitic or hate groups," CBC members wrote to Watts.

When House Democrats sponsored a resolution condemning the CCC, Watts
drafted a competing but vague resolution condemning all hate groups. Although
both measures failed, his resolution was perceived as providing political
cover for conservative Republicans.

Watts once described the Rev. Jesse Jackson and former Washington Mayor Marion
Barry as "race-hustling poverty pimps" who try to keep poor blacks tethered
to the Democratic Party. And in 1995 he wrote an essay for the Republican
Party's
in-house magazine entitled "Lincoln's Legacy" in which he predicted
by 2002 there would be more black Republicans serving in Congress than white
Democrats. He urged the party to reach out to minorities.

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"I ask you, who is more of a sellout -- the blacks who fight for
independence or the snake oil salesmen who strike deals with the white
liberals to keep minorities dependent as long as they can benefit from that
dependence?" he wrote.

Watts believes that the conservatives' emphasis on family values and
strong work ethic appeals to African-Americans who vote Democratic mainly out
of tradition. If Republicans can break that tradition, he argues, they will become
the permanent majority party in the nation.

He experienced his own conversion after hearing Don Nickles, now
Oklahoma's senator, talk about the party's pro-family philosophy in 1980. He
also sees himself as proof that a hand up, not a handout, produces success.

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A scrappy kid, Julius Caesar Watts Jr. grew up in a poor black neighborhood literally on the
other side of the tracks in tiny Eufaula, Okla., and became the quarterback
for the University of Oklahoma Sooners. Too small for the National Football
League, Watts had a successful football career in Canada.
"He was a football star and in Oklahoma that's a huge deal. At that point
in time, OU was really one of the few things Oklahomans had to brag about. It
was a big part of our identity and he was a superstar. And, he's a wonderful
speaker. He had enormous appeal as a candidate," said Sharon Hargrove
Caldwell, a partner at Cole Hargrove Snodgrass & Associates, which has run all
of Watts' political campaigns. Caldwell said the consulting firm is also awaiting Watts'
decision.

In 1990, he ran as a Republican for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission,
the state regulatory agency over oil and gas, and became the first African-American elected to statewide office there. In 1993, he became an ordained
Baptist minister and developed a following as a motivational speaker.

In 1994, he ran for the vacant 4th District seat and became the first
black Republican since Reconstruction to represent a state south of the
Mason-Dixon line. His district is overwhelmingly white but conservative. In
1998, he received 62 percent of the vote.

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Since his first election, Watts has been groomed and cultivated by
national party officials. He spoke at the 1992 Republican nominating
convention in Houston and made a prime-time address at the 1996 convention.

Indeed, Watts reportedly harbors dreams of being vice president or a
Cabinet officer in a George W. Bush administration. "He would have to be on
the short list for vice president," said Shapard. The congressman could run
the risk of being compared to Dan Quayle, who was plucked from the Senate by
George Bush the elder. Like Quayle, Watts is also young, affable and good-looking but not
considered a heavy thinker.

And Watts omits many items from his by-the-bootstraps biography. As a
teenager, he fathered a daughter who was raised by relatives. He failed to
acknowledge her existence until the Tulsa World tracked her down. Even more
questionable is the free-enterprise advocate's business acumen. His property
management business has been troubled by debts and liens. The Daily Oklahoma
reported in 1996 that his company failed to pay property taxes for two years.

Still, Watts is a popular figure on the religious right talk circuit.
And, his earnings potential, now limited by congressional rules, could be
huge and could provide the financial security that has eluded him.

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"He came to Congress to be a public servant and he wants to go home
sometime," Shapard said. "He's not up here to build
a political empire."


Nancy Mathis

Nancy Mathis is a former staff writer for the Houston Chronicle.

MORE FROM Nancy Mathis

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