- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 2, 2002

Rep. J.C. Watts Jr., Oklahoma Republican and the highest-ranking black member of Congress, announced yesterday he will end his brief but prominent tenure in Washington by retiring at the end of the year.
"The work of America is never done, but I believe that my work in the House of Representatives at this time in my life is completed," Mr. Watts, 44, said at a news conference in his hometown of Norman, Okla. "It is time to return home, to go on with other things in my life, and assuming one of the most honored titles in all of America citizen."
Mr. Watts said he never intended to be a career politician and he is leaving to spend more time with his family. When he first ran and won in 1994 he pledged to serve three terms, and though he served a fourth at the urging of top party officials, he said he's accomplished enough.
"After 12 years in public service and 12 years of support from my family, I think now is the time for me to move on and come back and support them a little more," he said.
Mr. Watts is chairman of the House Republican Conference, the fourth-ranking slot among House Republicans. A number of high-profile folks tried to talk Mr. Watts out of his decision, including civil rights figure Rosa Parks and President Bush, with whom Mr. Watts said he played phone tag for a few days.
"I've got the president recorded on my answering machine at home," he said. "It's been kind of fun, my wife has been bringing the neighbors over and letting them listen to the voice of President Bush."
Mr. Watts is the only black Republican in Congress. There are no black senators from either party, though there are about three dozen black Democrats in the House.
"We will miss having someone in the Republican Party to which we are able to identify," said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, Texas Democrat and chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus. "Mr. Watts has been an outstanding role model as a high-ranking official in the Republican Party."
Mr. Watts said having Mr. Bush at the helm of his party and the country made him feel comfortable in retiring and believes the party would continue its outreach to minorities.
"I think the speed of the pack is determined by the leader. The leader of the Republican Party right now is George W. Bush. I think President Bush gets it. I actually think [White House political strategist] Karl Rove gets it," Mr. Watts said.
Mr. Watts was pushed to be a star in the Republican Party from the beginning of his congressional tenure. During his first term he spoke at the 1996 Republican convention, and at the beginning of his second term he gave the Republican response to President Clinton's State of the Union address in 1997. He became conference chairman in January 1999, at the beginning of his third term.
But quick success had its drawbacks. He bumped heads with other leaders who he felt didn't give him enough role in policy-making, or who he felt were trying to run the Republicans' media strategy. Congressional Quarterly's Politics in America 2002 edition said Mr. Watts' experience in office showed what could happen when "a rapidly rising political star lacks a solid power base."
On the legislative front, Mr. Watts fought for federal support for historically black colleges and universities, and is a strong voice in calling for Republicans to pay attention to education in general. He also has been an advocate for community revitalization and a leading proponent of the president's faith-based initiative.
Mr. Watts said he doesn't have any specific plans for what to do after he retires, and has no pending job offer. He also wouldn't rule out a return to politics, though he said he will enjoy working for his causes outside of Congress something his colleagues said they expect.
"I know J.C.'s not going to give up on the things that are important to him, he'll just work on them from a different vantage point," said Rep. Ernest Istook, a fellow Oklahoma Republican.
Mr. Watts' retirement leaves his seat in question. Democrats said the newly drawn district has "strong statewide Democratic leanings and will be competitive in the fall," while Republicans pointed to the way the new district has voted in the last three major elections senator and governor in 1998 and president in 2000 when the Republican took at least 60 percent of the vote.


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