- The Washington Times - Monday, July 8, 2002

If you thought leading black congressional Democrats would celebrate the announced departure of Congress' only black Republican, Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, you were in for a surprise.
Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, for example, as ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, could become chairman of the powerful body if Democrats won the House. With Mr. Watts' seat in play, Democrats stand a chance, even if it is a long-shot, to pick up a seat in Mr. Watts' Oklahoma district.
Instead, there was Mr. Rangel, along with Democratic Reps. Eva Clayton of North Carolina and John Lewis, the civil rights veteran from Georgia (and President Bush, Vice President Richard B. Cheney and several other leading Republicans), calling Mr. Watts days before his Monday announcement to urge him to run again this fall.
Mr. Watts' mind was mostly made up, he said in a later interview, although he did think again when none less than Rosa Parks, hero of the civil rights movement, wrote to him, too.
"I am glad I stayed in my seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, Dec. 1, 1955," she wrote, according to Mr. Watts. "I would also like you to keep your seat."
This bipartisan chorus may have been Mr. Watts' last big political surprise. When he came to Congress in the Republican landslide of 1994, the former University of Oklahoma star quarterback was embraced warmly by the almost-all-white and male party establishment. They were eager to showcase a notable conservative non-white.
But Mr. Watts, who grew up in a poor and segregated section of Oklahoma, was more committed to the problems of the poor and non-whites than were some of his fellow party leaders.
So, as Mr. Watts soared in 1998 to an historic first for a black American the fourth highest office in the House Republican leadership pragmatic voices among leading black Democrats warmed to him because of what I call the "Multiple Basket Principle": Don't put all your eggs in one basket. With about 90 percent of the national black vote dependably going to Democrats, black Democratic leaders sometimes find themselves taken for granted by their own party and pretty much ignored by the other.
Mr. Watts, 44, often disagreed with the Congressional Black Caucus on issues like tax cuts, vigorous welfare reform and balancing the budget. But, in the give-and-take, make-or-break world of Congress, caucus leaders could deal comfortably with him. When they did, he provided black Democrats with a quiet but effective channel to the House Republican leadership.
In his lofty post, Mr. Watts urged his party to be more inclusive. He cooperated with Black Caucus members on issues like Africa trade, community renewal in low-income areas, support for historically black colleges and affirmative-action policies for federal highway funds.
Mr. Watts also refused to spearhead his party's opposition to the key issue of race-based affirmative action unless its leaders were willing to support his agenda of education, housing and economic development for low-income families and underdeveloped neighborhoods.
In this way, among others, Mr. Watts departure marks a setback for those of us who had hoped to see more black political empowerment in more than one political basket.
Back when Mr. Watts was elected in 1994, he and Rep. Gary Franks of Connecticut were the only black Republicans in Congress since Rep. Oscar De Priest of Illinois finished the last of his three terms in 1935. Political circles used to buzz with talk of how Mr. Watts, an ordained minister and star quarterback at the University of Oklahoma in the late 1970s and early '80s, would make a fine running mate for some nice Republican presidential candidate.
But, in the end, he appeared to be leaving with black Democrats urging him to stay and some of his fellow Republicans reportedly relieved to see him go. He made no secret of his disappointment earlier this year when he considered running for majority leader but pulled back to avoid a public clash with Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, with whom Mr. Watts had disagreed in the past.
That's politics. It ain't beanbag, as the old saying goes.
For a while, Julius Caesar Watts provided a modest but important bridge over America's troubled racial and political waters. I think he will be widely missed, and not just by Republicans.
Sometimes you don't appreciate a good bridge until it's washed away. Then you realize how much farther you have to travel in order to get to where you want to go.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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