- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 2, 2002

Rep. J.C. Watts Jr.'s announcement yesterday of his impending retirement touched off a race for his leadership post as chairman of the House Republican Conference and a debate on whether a woman should get the job.
Within hours of Mr. Watts' announcement, Reps. Deborah Pryce of Ohio, J.D. Hayworth of Arizona and Jim Ryun of Kansas all said they will seek the job as the fourth-ranking Republican in the House.
Two other experienced Republicans still may enter the race: Reps. Jack Kingston of Georgia, head of the party's "theme team" in the House, and Jennifer Dunn of Washington, who served a previous stint in leadership.
The conference chairman works primarily as the House Republican's chief communicator with the media and the public. House Republicans will elect the new chairman by secret ballot after the November midterm congressional elections.
Several sources described Mrs. Pryce, the current vice chairman of the conference, and Mr. Kingston, an ally of House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, as the early favorites.
A top House Republican staffer noted that Mrs. Pryce, as a deputy in Mr. DeLay's vaunted whip operation and a member of the Rules Committee, is active in the weekly leadership meetings held on Tuesday afternoons.
"She's always there on Tuesdays," the aide said. "She's worked several different angles of leadership."
Mrs. Pryce made clear that, with the loss of the party's only black House member, she will campaign in part on the need for a woman in leadership.
"I feel it is important to bring Midwestern pragmatism and diversity to the leadership table," she said.
Some men in the party discouraged a campaign in which the candidate's sex is an issue.
"Probably the quickest way to lose a leadership race would be to try to run on that angle," a Republican said, adding that members "really want it to be a merit-based decision."
House Democrats elected their first female whip, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, last fall. She campaigned on the lack of any women among the party's elected leaders.
Mr. Kingston's spokeswoman, Robyn Ridgley, said he "hasn't ruled out" a bid for conference chairman, but is leaning toward the vice chairman's job.
"With four kids, he doesn't think that race [for chairman] is necessarily in the best interests of his family," she said.
Mr. Hayworth, a former broadcaster and a frequent guest on talk radio and television talk shows, said Mr. Watts "will be a tough act to follow."
"But I believe that my unique skills make me the right person at the right time to assume this crucial responsibility," Mr. Hayworth said. He serves on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee and on the Resources Committee.
Mr. Ryun, a former Olympic long-distance runner, serves on the Armed Services, Budget and Financial Services committees. He is completing his third term.
"I believe that I can best build on the successes of Chairman Watts and ensure that the Republicans in the House of Representatives will meet the challenges that lie ahead," Mr. Ryun said.
Two other House Republicans said through spokesmen yesterday they are not campaigning for the conference chairmanship. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, is "actively engaged in expanding the House majority at this time," said NRCC spokesman Carl Forti.
"After November, he'll look at other options," Mr. Forti said.
Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, who held the job before Mr. Watts and serves now as chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said through a spokesman that he does not want to give up his panel chairmanship.
Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.


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