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Archive for Friday, July 5, 2002

Watts’ exit was no surprise

July 5, 2002

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The surprise is that it took so long. On Monday, U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, the fourth-ranking member of the House Republican leadership and the only black Republican in Congress, said he would not seek re-election to a fifth term. He said that, with many of his goals accomplished, he wanted to spend more time with his family. His departure is a serious setback to the Republican Party's hope of broadening its appeal to minorities.

Chalk it up to the increasingly insupportable burden of public service.

At 44, Watts is a talented conservative politician and an ordained minister. The former football star at the University of Oklahoma has been an effective member of Congress, moving into a leadership position in 1998 when he became chairman of the House Republican Conference.

Watts came into office on the conservative wave of 1994 that gave Republicans control of the House for the first time in 40 years. He favored tax cuts, the overhaul of federal welfare programs, and a balanced budget. But he went further, challenging the liberal notion that government welfare programs helped poor blacks.

He never became a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has no Republican members. But he had the backbone to push his party to be more inclusive, and he championed a variety of issues, such as the promotion of African trade, community renewal in low-income urban and rural areas, and support for historically black colleges and universities. Those issues made him a unique voice in his party.

For many blacks, however, Watts was usually on the wrong side of most issues simply because he was a conservative Republican. To the black majority, the conservative line is anti-poor, anti-minority and anti-black.

I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the constraints of being the lone black Republican in Congress led to loneliness and frustration. I called the Rev. Bill Gray, a former Democratic congressman and now president of the United Negro College Fund, to get his take on Watts' decision.

"Several people are beginning to ask serious questions about the huge demands of government service," Gray said. "One of those questions is: 'Do I need this kind of devotion to public service at the price of not being with my family, not really knowing my children, and not being available as they grow up?' Those are serious considerations, and I understand them. I asked myself some of the same questions before I resigned Congress in 1991.

"At one point, my wife, Andrea, said to me, 'Bill, you only see the kids about three hours a week.' I couldn't believe it, but she was right. I had to make a decision, and it turned out to be the best decision of my life."

Further, there were clear signs Watts had worn out his welcome among the top ranks of the Republican caucus. His inability to persuade the Bush administration to consult him before it decided to cut from its budget the Oklahoma-built Crusader artillery program added to his frustration and deepened his alienation from other GOP leaders.

Loyal to the end, Watts pointed out that President Bush had created a diverse administration including blacks and Latinos such as Secretary of State Colin Powell, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Mel Martinez.

But Watts is smart enough to know that even as the only black Republican in Congress, he just wasn't a critical part of leadership's thinking. After eight years, it was time for him to return home.

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