- The Washington Times - Friday, June 28, 2002

Prominent black Democrats are among those urging Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, the lone black Republican in Congress, not to retire.

"I want to see him stay," said Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat and a veteran of the struggle for civil rights. "I think he can make a contribution. It's important for him to stay."

Other members of the all-Democrat Congressional Black Caucus have encouraged Mr. Watts, the fourth-ranking House Republican, to stay in Washington. They include Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat and ranking member on the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

Mr. Watts, the conservative chairman of the House Republican Conference, said yesterday he still has not made up his mind whether to retire.

"We'll make a determination before July 8," Oklahoma's deadline for filing to run for office, said the father of six who has talked openly about his desire to spend more time with his children and his wife, Frankie.

Republicans from Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois to top presidential adviser Karl Rove have been urging Mr. Watts to run for re-election. But the lobbying by influential Democrats underscores his importance as the highest-ranking black in Congress. House Democrats have no blacks among their elected leadership posts.

"I've always felt like I've had a great relationship with the members of the Republican Conference and many members in the Democratic caucus," Mr. Watts said.

The former college football star equivocated publicly last week when asked if he intended to run again. At first, many of his colleagues dismissed the talk as a kind of political drama that Mr. Watts employs every two years.

But this week, more Republicans are saying they believe Mr. Watts is serious about retirement.

"I think he's out of here," said a top Republican staffer.

Mr. Watts said he is "flattered" by the attention but suggested that he is tiring of the lifestyle in Washington.

"I'm 44 years old, and I hope I've got a lot of life to live," Mr. Watts said. "I don't think anybody should want to spend the rest of their life in the House or in the Senate in Congress. I don't know when it's going to be time for me to move on, but I surely never intended for the government to take care of me for the rest of my life or to think that I should have a title behind my name for the rest of my life."

If Mr. Watts were to retire, it would leave House Republicans without two of their top four elected leaders. House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas is retiring this year.

Mr. Armey said he does not know which way Mr. Watts is leaning, although they have had long discussions about it privately.

"He loves his family; this is a tough time," Mr. Armey said. "It's very hard for me to say to J.C., 'Hey, I found my happiness [in retirement] but you've got to stay for two more years.'"

Mr. Armey said only members of Congress can understand "the true, heartfelt lonesomeness of missing his family."

If Mr. Watts were to retire, the short list to replace him as conference chairman includes Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio and Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia.

Earlier this year, Mr. Watts considered challenging House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas for majority leader when Mr. Armey retires. He has complained to his colleagues in leadership that he wanted more of a role in policy-making, in addition to his current job as the party's top communicator.

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