For Republicans, a different leader

Oklahoman brings conservative gospel to a broader audience

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.

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.

"The Democratic models have gotten us to where we are today," says Watts. "Under the model of welfare, poor people can't save money that they earn. That's not a smart model. Under the current tax system, we penalize savings and investment and productivity. Those are three things we should be rewarding."

He agrees that his civil rights background, strong religious beliefs, and firm social conservatism are an unusual combination in American politics.

"When you get into politics, people want to put you into a box," he says. "The congressional black caucus and I want the same objective, but I choose to get there differently. I don't think I have to act like every other Republican congressman or act like every other black member of congress. I choose to be an individual."

This attitude has occasionally put him at odds with his fellow Republicans.

"In the 104th Congress, there was a provision in the crime bill that would have allowed a 13-year-old to be tried as an adult." Watts says he voted against it. "At the time I had a daughter who was just two years away from that age, and based on dealing with an 11-year-old in my own home, I just couldn't support that."

But his college conversion to Republicanism has caused even greater consternation among some politicians and activists. Certainly, many liberal African-Americans view Watts as something close to a traitor. Perhaps out of civility, a number of congressional black Democrats refused to comment, when asked to talk about the common ground they might share with Watts.

But Watts says football prepared him for the occasional boo. College Coach Barry Switzer taught him: "The only way to shut the boos up is to produce."

Producing policies that appeal to African-Americans and Republicans may be more difficult than delivering a game-winning pass.

"Blacks have always been conservative on issues, in part because they are the most heavily churched community in the country," says Ron Walters, a professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Maryland in College Park. "But ... those are social issues. For blacks, the larger question is: Do you want to change your position in society?"

For the many African-Americans who live near the poverty line, that answer is a definite yes, says Dr. Walters. "If you can't get money from the private sector, either for business loans or higher wages, then you go to the government. Of course, the government hasn't showed up that much, but they've been more dependable than the private sector."

Changing that perception may be the toughest job of all for conservatives like Watts. And if his tireless seven-days-a-week work ethic is any gauge, Watts carries his message everywhere he goes, whether in Congress, at country clubs, or at the church pulpit.

Behind the pulpit

Preaching seems to be Watts's best gift. Consider his performance one cool Sunday morning at a brimming Bethlehem Baptist Church in Lawton, Okla.

In a sermon that puts 500 congregants into the sandals of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, Watts talks of faith and patience, not immediate results.

"The Christianity we serve in 1999 is sometimes based solely on results," Watts says, getting a chorus of amens from the mostly African-American congregation. "We want the blessings, but we don't want the things you have to do to get the blessings."

His voice grows louder.

"We're looking for God's deeds, but all the time God is trying to show us His ways," he says, picking up speed. "God did not keep Daniel out of the lion's den. God did not keep Joseph from being sold into slavery. God did not keep these three Hebrew boys out of the fiery furnace. God did not keep His only son from dying on the cross."

Then Watts drives the point home. "What I'm trying to say to you, Bethlehem Baptist church, is that even if we can't get God to act on our time schedule," Watts says, "we can trust Him, we can trust Him."

After all the politics, it must be nice to preach to the choir.

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