GOP Rep. Watts Won’t Run Again
WASHINGTON -- Rep. J.C. Watts Jr., the only black Republican in Congress and a member of the House GOP leadership, announced Monday that he will not seek reelection--a setback to President Bush’s determined efforts to give minorities a more visible role in the party.
Watts’ departure is likely to leave Republicans without any blacks in Congress after the 2002 election. A handful of black GOP candidates are seeking House seats in November, but none is given much chance of winning.
“The Republican Party, if it wants to be a majority party, is going to have to do a much better job reaching out to minorities,” said William F. Connelly Jr., a political scientist at Washington and Lee University.
An Impending Shakeup
Watts is the second House GOP leader to decide not to run for reelection, widening the scope of a shakeup that will scramble the lineup of Bush’s lieutenants in Congress. Earlier this year, House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) announced his retirement.
Watts, 44, cited personal reasons for his announcement, saying he wants to spend more time with his wife and children. He added: “It is time for me to move on.”
Both Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney called Watts within the last week to try to dissuade him from retiring.
But his decision comes after recent blows to his ambition and home-state interests. Despite the opening created by Armey’s retirement, Watts had little prospect of moving up the GOP leadership ladder. And President Bush’s proposal to eliminate the Crusader artillery system is a blow to Watts’ district, where the system was to be assembled.
But Watts, who made his announcement at a news conference in his home district in Norman, Okla., said his decision was not driven by frustration over either of those factors.
“It has been a wonderful journey,” Watts said of his career in the House. “Of course, the work of America is never done, but I believe my work in the House of Representatives at this time of life is completed.”
Watts’ departure is expected to make it somewhat harder for Republicans to hold onto his House seat, but analysts say it will still be a difficult seat for Democrats to win.
A former star quarterback at the University of Oklahoma who also played in the Canadian Football League, Watts was first elected to Congress in 1994 as part of the influx of conservatives that gave the GOP control of the House for the first time in 40 years.
He stood out among his fellow Republican freshmen because of his football background and his race. In late 1998, he was elected chairman of the House Republican Conference, the No. 4 leadership post in the chamber.
His quick rise in GOP circles heightened his national profile and sparked speculation about his potential for higher office. He played a prominent role at the GOP’s 2000 presidential convention in Philadelphia, at which Bush showcased minority-group Republicans.
At the same time, Watts’ career was not without controversy, raising doubts about his future prospects. During his 1996 House campaign, it was revealed that he had fathered a child out of wedlock as a teenager. Watts said he was proud the child was adopted by an uncle; he and his wife have five children together.
Other controversies arose from past business activities. He admitted having small business debts in the 1980s, when oil prices had plummeted, but said he paid them off. It was also disclosed by local newspapers in 1996 that Watts’ real estate and management companies paid more than $67,000 in delinquent taxes.
In Congress, Watts has taken the lead on several policy initiatives of interest to African Americans, such as Bush’s initiative to expand the role of churches in federally financed social work.
Bush hailed him as “a leader in highlighting the success of faith-based and community-based organizations.”
‘Bush Gets It,’ He Says
Watts said his decision to retire had been made easier by Bush’s efforts to broaden the party’s appeal to minorities. He cited Bush’s record in appointing African Americans to top administration positions, most prominently Colin L. Powell as secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice as national security advisor and Rod Paige as secretary of Education.
“The important part about a message and a party is its leader,” Watts said. “President Bush gets it.”
But there are no black Republicans running for the Senate in the fall elections. In the House campaigns, Carl Forti of the National Republican Congressional Committee said there are six black Republican candidates.
But Charles Cook, editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said none of the six is well positioned to win in November.
Among House Democrats, 38 are black; none hold leadership positions. There are no black Senate Democrats.
Watts’ leadership post gave him visibility, but the job lacked clear responsibilities. Although the party’s legislative strategy is mapped largely by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and legislation is written mostly by committee chairs, Watts tried to carve out a role in crafting the GOP’s message. But that role was eclipsed with Bush’s election.
“With a Republican president, most of the party message comes from the White House,” said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont-McKenna College.
After Armey announced his plans to retire, Watts considered running to succeed him in the No. 2 party post in the next Congress. But he backed down after it became clear that House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas)--with whom Watts has feuded over party strategy--was a shoo-in for the job. And a DeLay ally, Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), quickly emerged as the favorite for the whip’s job.
Bush’s decision to cancel the Crusader infuriated Watts not just because it hurt his district but because the administration had not consulted with him or given him advance warning of the decision. “I don’t think they handled the Crusader properly,” Watts said. “I thought it was unprofessional.”