Rep. Watkins Won't Retire After All
Sunday, June 14, 1998; Page A08
No one would accuse Rep. Wes Watkins of being inflexible.
In the past eight years, the Oklahoma legislator has been a Democrat, an Independent and these days, a Republican. Now, heeding the desperate pleas of his most recent party, Watkins yesterday abruptly reversed his dramatic decision to retire, dampening Democratic hopes of picking up a sure House seat in November.
"It's always great to be wanted," Watkins said in an interview. "I was serious about retiring. But I spent six weeks trying to find candidates who shared conservative Oklahoma values. We got people lined up and they backed off."
Watkins stunned party officials in April when he announced plans to step aside following surgery to correct a malformation at the base of the brain. He said that he had anticipated a long recovery, but found himself feeling stronger than expected. He will still have to undergo another operation this summer to repair cracked vertebrae.
Watkins said that his decision to run again was made easier by a pledge from House leaders to help him raise the $1 million-plus needed for the race.
The congressman's about-face illuminates how high the stakes are in this election year, where Democrats need only 11 seats to take back the House. The overwhelmingly Democratic 3rd District was certain to elect a Democrat with Watkins out of the way. "Little Dixie," as the district is called, takes up the southeast quadrant of the state. For 30 years, it was represented by former House speaker Carl Albert, a Democrat. When Watkins dropped out, not one Republican stepped forward.
There are four Democrats in the race, however, and the news of Watkins's improved health did not buoy everyone's spirits.
"This is typical Wes," sniffed Michael Faust, campaign manager for Democratic candidate Walt Roberts. "He a Democrat, he's a Republican. He's out, he's in. He's sick, he's healthy."
Said Pat Hall, state Democratic party executive director, "Maybe he just wasn't getting enough get-well cards."
A House leadership aide confirmed that Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (Tex.) and others in the leadership met privately with Watkins last week and promised him substantial financial support if he reentered the race. Watkins said the race will cost at least $1.2 million; he has about $575,000 in the bank to date.
"I campaign 16 to 18 hours a day, and spend a lot of time raising money," said Watkins. "I just said that I have to have help."
Watkins was first elected as a Democrat in 1976 to succeed Albert. He left the House in 1990 to unsuccessfully run for governor still as a Democrat. In 1994, he made another try for governor, this time as an Independent. The following year, when conservative Democrat Bill Brewster announced plans to retire, Watkins switched parties again, and was reelected to his old House seat as a Republican.
However, Democrats and Republicans alike acknowledge that his 1996 victory was simply a vote for Watkins personally and not necessarily the Republican agenda.
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