- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 24, 2002

With the retirement of Rep. J.C. Watts Jr., House Republicans are losing a nationally known leader who rose quickly through party ranks to become chairman of the House Republican Conference and the top-ranking black member of Congress.
The Oklahoma Republican's brief but high-profile career in Congress comes to an end after four terms in the House. Mr. Watts, the only black Republican, has left the door open to returning in the future perhaps in a Senate bid but has not decided what he will do in the immediate future.
"I've said I was going to do more parent-teacher conferences, Little League sports events and dance recitals," said the 44-year-old father of five. "What I'm going to do to make the house payments I don't know yet."
Rep. Jack Kingston, Georgia Republican and a close friend who worked with Mr. Watts on the conference, called him "extremely articulate, a great communicator" and "a family man." Mr. Kingston tried to persuade Mr. Watts not to leave, but came to the conclusion that "it was time" and that Mr. Watts "could actually have more influence on the outside than on the inside" of Congress speaking to various groups, serving on corporate boards and doing television and radio commentary, while spending more time with his family.
Mr. Kingston explained that Mr. Watts is "truly an ideologically driven guy" who is most concerned with advancing "the cause" of cutting back the size of government, relying more on individuals and smaller, private institutions.
"A lot of our Republican colleagues in positions of authority are very political," Mr. Kingston said. "J.C. is very philosophical. To him this whole thing wasn't about the office, it was about advancing the cause."
Mr. Watts said he did not seek out his leadership position.
"I didn't run in those circles, and I was happy doing what I was doing," he said. "I got calls from colleagues asking me to run, and I did it because I felt like I could make a contribution."
As chairman of the conference, Mr. Watts tried to build a better communications operation for Republicans to get the party's message out.
"When I took over as chairman, we were at about a 36 percent approval. Today, we're at about a 57 percent approval," he said. "That's about 42 million more Americans that have a favorable view of Republicans."
Legislatively, Mr. Watts said he was proud of his role in crafting and shepherding through Congress the American Community Renewal Act, which expanded economic empowerment zones. He called it "the most comprehensive piece of anti-poverty legislation to pass Congress in 50 years." He also cited his involvement in welfare reform and efforts to improve military health care.
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, Texas Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said she got to know Mr. Watts because their offices were in the same building and they would walk to the Capitol for House votes together.
"I respect him a great deal," she said. She noted that he was invited to join the caucus but declined. Still, they worked together on several issues, she said, including historically black colleges and universities.
"A number of us have a good relationship with him," she said.
Mr. Watts has a new book out, "What Color is a Conservative?" He has endured criticism in the past from some blacks for being a conservative, but has dismissed it.
"I'm way too secure in who I am to need somebody to validate me as a black man, as a Republican, as whatever," he said. "It's just never been my cup of tea."


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