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Republicans Cast Watts as Leader, Healer

TIMES STAFF WRITER

J. C. “Buddy” Watts Sr., a jolly, 75-year-old joke-telling Baptist preacher, is rocking on his back porch, button-popping pleased over the splash his namesake son is making up there in the nation’s capital.

But he makes no secret that he would prefer that his son--the only black Republican in Congress--had stayed closer to the family’s political heritage. Uncle Wade, who died recently at 84, was a fiery civil rights crusader who headed the Oklahoma state NAACP. Buddy served a stint on the town council in his hometown. All were bred-to-the-bone Democrats.

“A black man voting for the Republicans makes about as much sense as a chicken voting for Col. Sanders,” Buddy Watts said during a long afternoon of folksy conversation. “I couldn’t be no Republican because the Republican Party is against the poor man.”

Needless to say, father and son avoid political debates. “I try to stay away from this kind of talk around him. He and I don’t see eye-to-eye on this. I don’t see any reason for there to be a problem in the family over politics.”

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Even if he has turned away from his father’s political beliefs, J. C. Watts Jr. is quick to point out that he embraces many of his father’s values, albeit with a conservative cast.

“My father was pretty strict,” J.C. Watts said. “My parents understood that if you buy your bed, you sleep in it. You have respect for adults. You work hard. You don’t steal. Things that are all considered conservative principles. It had nothing to do with Republicans or Democrats to me. That was just the way I was raised.”

Those who know Watts best say he is a prideful man, refusing to be pigeon-holed because of his race as a knee-jerk vote for liberal causes or showcased by white Republicans as a poster boy for equal opportunity. By nearly all accounts, he is committed to conservative politics. So much so that his colleagues have tapped him to spread their gospel.

With the verdicts finally rendered in President Clinton’s impeachment trial, GOP congressional leaders are anxious to move on. As lawmakers return to the Capitol today, following a brief recess, the Republicans are intent on building a legislative legacy they can run on in 2000. And Watts, installed late last year as chairman of the Republican conference--the third-highest post among House GOP members--is crucial to this effort.

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As conference chairman, Watts, 42, will be called upon to promote the Republican agenda, a task skeptics fear may require more than his charming smile, sharp oratory and easy demeanor. But converting naysayers is part of Watts’ political mystique. Coming of age at a time when black quarterbacks, even at big-time University of Oklahoma, were a rarity, he has often been called on to prove himself in a game’s crucial moments.

Watts, who voted to impeach Clinton, is expected to play a pivotal role in salving public anger toward the House Republicans for their drive to oust the president.

The story of how Julius Caesar Watts Jr. came to this moment originates in this tiny town, a farming outpost of fewer than 2,700 people on the edge of an artificial lake in southeastern Oklahoma. The town, about half black, is little more than a Main Street lined with storefront lawyers, fast-food joints and dry goods merchants. Eufaula’s best graduates tend to leave for jobs in nearby Tulsa or Oklahoma City, never to look back.

Those left in Eufaula are mostly working poor and typically Democrats. This was the life everyone expected for Watts.

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Betty Bailey, who runs J. M.'s Restaurant, remembers giving Watts his first regular paycheck for working the grill and busing tables at a time when few blacks dared to dine in the restaurant. “He was a good worker, a real good worker,” she said. But like many here, she underestimated his promise. “I never would have thought of him in that way, didn’t see him as big in politics,” she said.

J. C. was the fifth of six children born to Buddy and Helen, who died in 1992. “I tried to teach him honesty,” the father said. “You know, if you straighten up a child when they’re little, they’ll grow up straight as a grown-up.”

Road to Joining the GOP’s Side

An indifferent student, J. C. thrived under the tough-love discipline of his parents. His father farmed during the week while serving as manager and maintenance man for several rental properties. In addition, Buddy Watts served as a police officer and dabbled in community politics. On Sundays, he preached at a nearby Baptist church.

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For J. C., an early aptitude for football and baseball kept him away from some of the more back-breaking farm work that fell on his older siblings.

On the gridiron, Watts won the starting quarterback position for the Eufaula High School Ironheads. No black boy had ever done that, and, at first, it didn’t sit well with many in the town. Several of the white boys on the team quit in protest, but the coach’s decision stuck. Watts responded by leading the Ironheads to the state playoffs.

Larry Derryberry, a former state attorney general, recalled meeting Watts when he was still in high school. His Uncle Wade was working for Derryberry’s reelection, and J. C. often tagged along at events targeted to the black community.

“I remember he was extremely articulate, very friendly and outgoing,” said Derryberry, a lifelong Democrat who considers Watts one of his best friends.

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But when Watts came of age, neither Derryberry nor the Democrats invited him into their tent. And Daddy Watts cannot escape the feeling that things might have turned out differently if they had.

“J. C. would have stayed a Democrat if he could have gotten some help from the Democrats,” Buddy Watts said. “They didn’t lift a finger for him when it would have made a difference.”

Oklahoma GOP leaders, however, saw political promise in the smiling football star. After leading the Sooners to consecutive Orange Bowl victories in 1980 and 1981, winning MVP honors both years, Watts had become a Baptist youth minister and a highly recruited speaker. His message never varied: Work hard. Play fair. Do the right thing. Success will follow.

Watts’ political epiphany occurred during an Oklahoma campaign in 1980. As part of a college journalism class assignment, Watts covered a debate between incumbent Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) and his Democratic challenger, former Oklahoma City Dist. Atty. Andy Coats. Nickles, riding President Reagan’s coattails, espoused rock-ribbed conservatism, not big-government liberalism.

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Watts was impressed. What Nickles said sounded so much like what his daddy said at home, what Uncle Wade often told him. Self-reliance. Faith. Don’t trust the government. But because these values were being promulgated by white Republicans, it took Watts almost a decade to summon the courage to break from his family’s politics.

In 1989, a year after he had voted for Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis, Watts switched parties and declared himself a candidate for the open seat on the three-member Oklahoma Corporation Commission, the board that regulates the state’s energy concerns. Against all odds, Watts won, becoming the first black to win a statewide race.

After a six-year term on the commission, Watts won Oklahoma’s 4th Congressional District seat, becoming a member of the 1994 “contract with America” class in the House of Representatives.

During his 1996 reelection campaign, Democrats tried to win back the seat by mounting a negative campaign that drew attention to Watts’ oldest daughter, who was born when Watts was unmarried and 17 years old. He now is married and has five other children.

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Watts’ political opponents also dredged through court records, discovering bad debts from a failed business and unpaid state and federal taxes.

But the efforts backfired. And Watts now turns his past into a story of personal salvation. “We are so good at taking a snapshot of somebody’s life at a particular time,” he said, speaking of his own moral lapses. “But that person changes. If we don’t acknowledge that, then redemption is a farce.”

Not a ‘Black Leader or a White Leader’

In Washington, Watts has demonstrated his conservatism at every opportunity. “I didn’t come to Congress to be a black leader or a white leader, but a leader,” he has said.

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That kind of talk has earned him support back home and drawn the admiring attention of party leaders. “I am irritated by people who say we’re only promoting him because he’s black,” Nickles said. “We’ve been promoting him because his message is strong.”

Some black Republicans are optimistic that Watts’ effect on the party will extend beyond Capitol Hill and soften the party’s image.

“The election of J. C. Watts to conference chairman has inexorably changed racial politics in America,” said Phyllis Berry Meyers, acting president of the Center for New Black Leadership, a conservative public policy group based in Washington. “It is ironic that he has become the great black hope of the GOP.”

Watts is expected to rise in prominence. His telegenic looks and easy mannerisms will, some Republicans hope, give them access to black votes.

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“There are a handful of [GOP leaders] who are great to listen to,” said Julie Finley, chairwoman of the District of Columbia Republican Party. “There’s none better than J. C. He can get people on their feet.”

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AFTER MONICA: Healing will be hard for House Democrats, Republicans. A10


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