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GOP Rep. J.C. Watts
GOP Rep. J.C. Watts
(AP file photo)

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_ Congressional Guide: Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.)

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Watts Walks a Tightrope on Affirmative Action

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 12, 1998; Page A17

It wasn't until Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) read a Financial Times interview with Rep. J. C. Watts (R-Okla.) in August that he discovered where his colleague actually stood on affirmative action. Sitting on a plane, Clyburn tapped fellow Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and said, " 'Bennie, read this. We have not done right by J. C. Watts,' " Clyburn recalled. "When you read what he had to say, he was exactly where we were on the end result."

After more than three years of decrying affirmative action – mandated preferences for minorities and women in jobs, education and other programs – while simultaneously refusing to abolish it, Watts has come to occupy a pivotal role in the House debate on the controversial issue. Even as Republican leaders have repeatedly given their blessing to measures aimed at rolling back such programs, the lone black Republican in the House has served as a bulwark against any dramatic change.

This phenomenon was on full display last week, when 55 Republicans voted along with almost the entire Democratic caucus to defeat California Republican Frank Riggs's amendment denying federal funds to public colleges and universities that rely on the policy in their admissions. The day before, Watts had joined liberal Democratic Rep. John Lewis (Ga.), also an African American, in circulating a "Dear Colleague" letter urging members to vote against the measure.

"This is not the time to eliminate the one tool we have – imperfect though it may be – to help level the playing field for many minority youth," they wrote.

The amendment, which lost 171 to 249, failed by an even greater margin than the measure offered last month aimed at eliminating racial preferences in awarding federal transportation contracts. While Republicans may bring up a similar amendment in the future, they acknowledge the Republican Conference is not ready to overturn affirmative action – partly because of Watts.

The true test on affirmative action came in early November, when the House Judiciary Committee met to mark up a bill sponsored by Rep. Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.) prohibiting the federal government from considering race or gender as a factor in federal hiring and contracting. House Republicans held an impassioned debate on the bill in a closed meeting, in which both Watts and Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Tex.) objected strongly to the measure. Four Republicans then joined the panel's Democrats in tabling the bill.

"It was his objection last fall that really convinced us to hold off on this and talk about it more," said Rep. John Linder (Ga.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Even as he speaks on behalf of black Americans to his colleagues, Watts still chafes at the idea of being pigeonholed.

"I work very hard not to have to play the role of the black Republican, the black conservative," he said, adding, "Like it or not, people force me to play the role of the black Republican."

Watts earned statewide fame in his youth not for racial activism, but for his success as quarterback for the University of Oklahoma Sooners. After playing in the Canadian Football League, Watts tried his hand at business. But after a few troubled ventures, he became a youth minister and began mulling a bid for public office.

Raised in a family of Democrats, Watts declared that the party had taken blacks for granted and switched to the GOP, becoming the first African American elected statewide when he became one of Oklahoma's three corporation commissioners in 1990. Four years later, Watts won a seat in Congress as part of the Republican landslide.

Watts has rejected the traditional trappings of being a black lawmaker, choosing not to join the Congressional Black Caucus. And he has flatly criticized affirmative action in public forums, recently getting into a sparring match with Jesse L. Jackson and NAACP Chairman Julian Bond on the subject during NBC News's "Meet the Press."

But he also is unsparing in his assessment of GOP leaders, arguing that they cannot afford to abolish affirmative action without first taking substantive steps to reach out to blacks. Watts noted that while House leaders brought Riggs's amendment to the floor, his bill aimed at revitalizing inner cities remained dormant.

"I would sure like to see them throw their support behind community renewal, and put the same kind of effort behind that effort that they put behind Riggs," he said.

Watts, who co-chaired Robert J. Dole's 1996 presidential campaign and gave a major speech at the GOP convention, was also openly skeptical of the Republican National Committee's outreach program.

"Look at the RNC, we probably have one black Republican at the RNC, one," he said. "How do we defend that, that you have one African American in charge of outreach . . . [who] probably doesn't have the authority to do outreach?"

Even though Watts's opposition may block any effort in the House to kill affirmative actions programs, some Republicans are still willing to raise the subject to spark a public debate. One Republican lawmaker, who asked not to be identified, said GOP leaders are convinced a greater percentage of Americans are eager to abolish affirmative action than the current margin in Congress reflects.

Here in Washington, however, the sentiments of lawmakers like Watts and Bonilla still hold sway. In addition to affecting the leadership's decisions, Watts exerts influence over rank-and-file members as well.

Watts's close friend Steve Largent (R-Okla.), for example, voted against the Riggs amendment, and fellow Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn was deeply conflicted about the issue shortly before voting in favor of the provision. According to Coburn, members of the Oklahoma delegation have held lengthy discussions about how to reach a common understanding on the subject.

"That's why J. C. is good to have around," said Coburn, who was criticized by some conservatives for signing onto legislation offering an apology for slavery. "It's all about reconciliation in this country. We're never going to solve these problems up here, because they're problems of the heart."

Watts is still defining his place in the House, lunching with Lewis, the liberal Democrat, one day and strategizing with his Republican colleagues the next.

During the vote on Riggs's amendment, black Democrats and white Republicans alike came over to pat him on the shoulder or shake his hand. But with the exception of one GOP aide, Watts sat by himself, as Republicans huddled around the computer display of the results and Democrats made their way to their side of the aisle.

Players: J.C. Watts

Title: Member, U.S. House of Representatives; Republican, Oklahoma.

Age: 40

Education: Bachelor's degree, University of Oklahoma.

Family: Married, five children.

Previous jobs: Quarterback, Canadian Football League; businessman; Oklahoma State Corporation commissioner.

Hobbies: Little League coach, watching movies with his family.

On his role in the party: "I work very hard not to have to play the role of the black Republican, the black conservative. Like it or not, people force me to play the role of the black Republican."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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