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SIMMONS: J.C. Watts gives Insight to fading face of GOP

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION

The Republican Party "needs to take a step back and a deep breath," says J.C. Watts, a former House leader. "Doing this for 20 years, sometimes, honestly, I sometimes felt like a voice in the wilderness when trying to get more ethnic minorities and other people of color."

A black Christian who grew up in rural Oklahoma, a state whose American Indian population is second only to California's, Mr. Watts, chairman of J.C. Watts Cos., is smart to try to marshal more voices like his in the hopes of getting the party to listen to what they are saying and how they are saying it.

"We've been in denial for so long we think we don't have a problem," he told me Wednesday.

Mr. Watts, 55, also has an excellent talking point for fiscal conservatives of all stripes, including libertarians, on taxes versus spending.

"We don't need more taxes," he said. "We need more taxpayers."

A refreshing voice and insightful vision, Mr. Watts is moving forward as messages from members of the Republican Party continue to sound and look like drones -- or, as a favorite Democrat of mine said, "members of the Grand Old Party of Old White Men."

In other words, diversity became a dirty word during the culture wars, and the GOP can't see a way forward.

While no longer a leader of the U.S. House or a championship quarterback, Mr. Watts is giving it the old college try, knowing that no matter how great the arm of a quarterback is, a winning team still has to have a solid and effective ground game.

His option play: Insight, a 501(c)(4) organization intended to help Republicans recruit, develop and implement a better ground game that focuses on diversity, inclusion and leadership.

"That is where the rubber hits the road," said Mr. Watts, a native of Eufaula, Okla. "Insight will be an organization to help connect the different dots of policy to different communities."

At forums and in various venues, Insight will delve into policies such as health care disparities, small business, education reform, immigration reform and job creation -- issues as important to black Americans in particular as they are to Americans in general.

He used immigration reform, which Congress is expected to take a long, hard look at this session, as one example.

Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican whose spotlight is shining toward a 2016 presidential run, should not necessarily toe a taut party line on immigration reform but be encouraged "to do your own thing on immigration," he said.

Although it's obvious that black Republicans, unlike their Democratic counterparts, stray from GOP talking points from time to time, intraparty critics seem to be all over the place when it comes to answering the key question of where, outside of the tea party and it's no-more-taxes stance, is there consensus within the Republican Party.

Mr. Watts said one area is prison re-entry, which touches every race, class and gender constituency.

"One of the first issues we are going to look into is reintegration of inmates," said Mr. Watts, who, as a Baptist minister, has been involved with prison ministry for years. "This issue on reintegration, we all personally know -- whether it's someone in church, someone in the community, someone in our family -- who has seen the light after they made bad choices, and Deborah, it is almost impossible for that person to find employment.

"How long do we penalize somebody after they have paid their debt to society?"

Like the sexier issues at the top of the heap, prisoner reintegration has a hot button, particularly among conservative law-and-order types who would as soon throw away a jailhouse key than employ a former inmate.

The small-business community is another area of interest that Insight will give an airing to -- and it's not because Joe the Plumber overmilked his 15 minutes of fame in 2008.

It's because grass-roots Americans need to remind the Republican Party of Joe's small-business message to help rebuild the party.

"Hispanics, Asian-Americans, Native Americans need to get to know corporate America," Mr. Watts said. "We got our heads handed to us in 2012. We need to put one foot in front of the other. Ethnic minorities are underrepresented in a lot of policy decision-making."

That was abundantly clear at the national conventions and in the waning weeks of the presidential campaign.

Game on.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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