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  • Key Stories: The GOP Leadership Fight

  •   For Watts, a Bid to Broaden His Party's Appeal

    By Edward Walsh
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, November 17, 1998; Page A11

    For the moment, and perhaps for some time to come, Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. (Okla.) is one of a kind: He is the only black Republican member of Congress.

    As such, Watts has attracted special attention since his first election to the House in 1994. He was a featured speaker at the 1996 Republican National Convention and in 1997 was selected by GOP leaders to deliver the response to President Clinton's State of the Union address, a plum assignment for a second-term lawmaker.

    Now Watts, a former star quarterback at the University of Oklahoma who played professional football in Canada, is seeking to raise his profile even higher. On Wednesday, when House Republicans meet to choose their leaders for the 106th Congress, Watts will challenge Rep. John A. Boehner (Ohio) for the job of chairman of the House Republican Conference, the fourth-ranking leadership position.

    Watts's bid for a leadership post follows his party's disappointing performance in this year's midterm elections, which underscored the GOP's weakness in attracting African American voters. Unexpectedly high black voter turnout in the South helped to boost Democratic fortunes in that most Republican of regions. Nationally, according to exit polls, only 11 percent of blacks who went to the polls on Nov. 3 voted for Republican candidates. In 1996, 18 percent of blacks voted Republican.

    Watts insists he is "not running as a black candidate" but as just one member of the Republican Conference. But implicit in his candidacy -- and in the attempt of Rep. Jennifer Dunn (Wash.) to topple House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (Tex.) -- is the argument that the GOP must broaden its leadership if it hopes to expand its appeal.

    "It is time to let the American people know that the Republican Party is the party of all Americans," Watts said in a letter to his GOP colleagues last week. "We are the party of inclusiveness. Our ideas are good for everyone."

    Watts's allies argue that he is exactly what the GOP has lacked -- an effective public spokesman. Among his backers is Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes, the millionaire publisher and likely Republican presidential candidate in 2000, who has been making calls on behalf of Watts.

    "Part of [the party's] problem was communicating a message," said William A. Dal Col, a senior aide to Forbes. "The key component of that communications [effort] falls in that office" of conference chairman.

    Watts is basing much of his campaign on a promise of swifter, more effective communications of the Republican message. He has not been shy about criticizing the existing House GOP leadership. "For too long," he wrote to other Republicans, "the conference has operated as a tool for the leadership rather than a resource for the members. That will change."

    But to many of Watts's fellow black conservatives, his communications skills alone -- even if enhanced by election to a leadership post -- will not begin to close the gap that separates the GOP and the vast majority of black voters.

    "You just can't ignore a whole race of people and expect to be a governing, majority party," said Phyllis Berry Myers, co-chairman of Black America's Political Action Committee. "Republicans don't have to change their message to get black voters. They just have to campaign for their votes."

    David A. Bositis, a senior policy analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, said that when he spoke to a GOP group last year he warned them that "until you get a larger share of the black vote you are not going to be a stable majority party."

    Watts, who will celebrate his 42nd birthday Wednesday, grew up in a poor Democratic family in rural Oklahoma. He has often described how, attending a 1980 debate involving Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), he was struck by how much the conservative principles espoused by the Republican mirrored what he had been taught at home. He advocates tax cuts and school vouchers to address the problems of the inner city.

    Representing a southwest Oklahoma district, Watts won reelection this year with 62 percent of the vote, despite adverse publicity over old debts in the 1980s and unpaid taxes stemming from earlier failed business ventures. He cites that strong endorsement from constituents in hinting that he may back away from his 1994 campaign promise to limit himself to three terms. Not "a whole lot of folks want [me] to leave," he said.

    Watts also has complained about being forced to play the role of "the black Republican," although he has clearly benefited from his unique position -- just as his party has sought to capitalize on it by giving him a series of highly visible assignments. Although he has criticized affirmative action, Watts says Republicans should not dismantle such programs until they are "ready to replace them with something else" and have made more of an effort to reach out to minorities.

    Indeed, last May, Watts joined 54 other Republicans and almost all House Democrats in defeating a GOP-sponsored amendment denying federal funds to colleges and universities that use affirmative action in their admissions policies.

    Watts echoes criticism of Republican leaders made by other black conservatives. "I'm surely not running as a black candidate. I'm running as a Republican," he said. "But I can assure you that if your vision for the future doesn't include me, I'm going to be somewhat apprehensive about your message. That's the way many minorities feel. I've talked to them."

    Berry Myers said that if Watts wins a place in the GOP leadership it will mark only a beginning in improving relations with black voters. "We on the outside understand that much more needs to be done," she said. "He makes our job easier but it's not over simply because J.C. is elected to a leadership position."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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