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For Republicans, a different leader

Oklahoman brings conservative gospel to a broader audience

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 9, 1999


It's been a busy weekend for Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. Since he arrived home here, he has attended a local party fund-raiser, spoken to a group of businessmen at a country club, and delivered a sermon that would put any lesser preacher in a tremble.

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Throw in some quiet time with his wife and family and a ceremony to baptize two children of a close friend, and Representative Watts presents the image of a full-service congressman.

For leaders of the national Republican Party, it's just these qualities and this energy that make Watts a rising star.

He brings the hard-driving leadership and agility that made him a champion college quarterback at Oklahoma University. He brings the booming voice and persuasive passion of a Baptist minister. And now, as Republican Conference chairman - the third most powerful GOP position in the House - Watts has begun to find ways to remake his party in his image, making it appeal to supporters of both civil rights and social conservatism.

"The fact that he's black means that he's able to reach a more diverse audience and do a better job than most of us," says Sen. Don Nickles (R) of Oklahoma, who encouraged Watts to enter politics. "When J.C. speaks, [blacks] realize, you don't have to have the ideology of a Jesse Jackson or a Marion Barry to be an African-American politician."

Although Watts is the only current black Republican in Congress, he is certainly not the world's first conservative African-American. Until Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, blacks mainly voted for the party of Lincoln. But since then, and especially since Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, African-Americans have been among Democrat's most reliable voting bases.

As such, some observers say it will be difficult for Watts to lay out a groundwork for other black Republicans to repeat, particularly in districts where blacks are the majority. Watts represents a mainly white district.

Unusual situation

Yet others say his unique situation gives him remarkable freedom to take stands that are true to his own beliefs, even when this puts him at odds with both the black political establishment and his party's mainly white power base. In addition, his position as Republican Conference chairman gives Watts enormous power, putting him in control of the purse strings to party campaign funds. He has the power to decide which candidates deserve money.

He represents an effort to alter the tone of the party's message and appeal to a larger audience that includes blacks, Latinos, and other minorities that the GOP often turns off at election time.

"J.C. Watts is a comer," says Samuel Cornelius, a lifelong Republican, longtime civil rights activist, and former Nixon appointee who now serves on the board of the United Black Fund in Washington. To attract black voters without scaring off white ones is a task that will require leadership, Mr. Cornelius adds, and "J.C.'s got it.

"Leadership is the ability to get most of the people to agree with your ideas.... Republicans need to have a message that can get the attention of people both on the right and the middle, and maybe even a few people on the left. And J.C. Watts is doing that."

Indeed, during this recent weekend, Watts laid out his vision for the Republican Party.

"We should never run another election being defined by what we are against," says Watts, sitting behind a subordinate's cluttered desk at his Norman district office. "We stand for too much."

Raised by parents who were active in the civil rights movement, Watts had always been a Democrat. His own father, J.C. "Buddy" Watts, a Baptist preacher from Eufaula, Okla., once told a reporter: "A black man voting for Republicans makes about as much sense as a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders."

But the younger Watts's political transformation began in college, when as a journalism student he covered a debate between the Democratic incumbent and a young Republican upstart named Don Nickles. Watts was shocked to find himself agreeing more with Mr. Nickles than with the Democrat.