Julius Caesar Watts (born 1957), a conservative African American politician and former football player, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994. His victory represents the first time that a black Republican from a Southern state has won a seat in Congress since Reconstruction.
In 1994, the American public met a man whom Oklahomans and football fans had known for two decades-J.C. Watts, Jr. That year he was elected to represent Oklahoma's fourth district in the U.S. House of Representatives. The race wasn't even close; he won a three-way competition with 52 percent of the vote. In 1996 he scored another victory in a three-way race, this time winning 58 percent. A decisive win is nice, but not unusual. However, Congressman Watts is an unusual man. He is the first African American Republican from a Southern state to win a seat in Congress since Reconstruction, and the only African American in the Congressional Class of 1994. His victory is all the more remarkable because his constituency is conservative, 93 percent white, and more Democrat than Republican (63 percent are registered Democrats). He is the first African American from either party to deliver an official response to the State of the Union address, which he did following President Clinton's 1996 speech before Congress. As a star quarterback, Watts led the University of Oklahoma football team to consecutive conference championships and Orange Bowl victories. Now, charismatic and well spoken, he has achieved a high profile in the political arena-some have called him the GOP's great black hope for the twenty-first century.
Born on November 18, 1957, Watts is the fifth of six children born to hardworking parents from a poor neighborhood in Eufaula, Oklahoma. His family maintains a strong work ethic, commitment to the community, and faith in God that began generations ago. The strength of his father's guidance belies his sixth grade education. J.C. Jr. often quotes his father to illustrate the source of his conservative values. On the topic of self-reliance, Watts told Washington Monthly that his father (who has worked as a policeman, Baptist pastor, and cattle owner) was fond of saying, "the only helping hand you can rely on is at the end of your sleeve." This and other southern adages color the speech of son as well as father.
Keep Your Eye on the Ball
Watts distinguished himself as a high school athlete, and was awarded a football scholarship to the University of Oklahoma. Although he eventually became well known among football fans in Oklahoma, it took time and patience to get there. He related a story about his freshman year as No. 7 on a roster of eight quarterbacks to Mike Tharp for U.S. News & World Report, saying that he became so discouraged that he quit and went home. His father's response: "If what you're doing was easy, everybody would be doing it." He went back on to become a football hero at OU, and then played professional ball in the Canadian Football League, where he was named most valuable player in the Grey Cup championship game-Canada's Super Bowl. The advice his father now gives is, "don't lose your common sense."
Watts grew up in a family of conservative Democrats and was himself a registered Democrat. He never considered becoming a Republican until he covered a political debate as a journalism student. Watts found that he agreed with the Republican position and his later experience as a small businessman increased his support for the Republican platform. He observed that Democrats had taken African Americans for granted, not earning their support or rewarding their loyalty. According to Watts' account in Washington Monthly, "My uncle [who led the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Oklahoma] has probably delivered more black votes for the Democratic Party than any person in the state of Oklahoma, yet it was a Republican who gave him a state job." When Watts sought help from Democrats to start a business project they failed to respond, whereas Republican businessmen did not.
Oklahoma Republicans were delighted by his interest in their party. "You would have to have been a blind man not to see the potential, " says Oklahoma Secretary of State, Tom Cole, whom Watts consulted when he considered joining the Republicans. As he told Amy Waldman for the Washington Monthly article, "A good-looking black football star with statewide name recognition and a clean-cut image was a dream come true."
Watts invested in an ill-fated business venture, but also began making a name for himself as a public speaker at civic and Christian events. Already an ordained Baptist minister, he also headed youth activities at a large Baptist church. When he expressed interest in running for public office Democrats turned their backs, but Republicans embraced him. There were many prominent blacks in the Democratic Party, but he was a novelty for the Republicans. Watts succeeded in winning a seat on the powerful state corporation commission, which regulates the telephone, gas, and oil industries. According to the same Washington Monthly article, Watts won due to his name recognition, his speaking ability, the incumbent's vulnerable record, and his well-financed campaign-contributions coming largely from Republican business people involved in the industries overseen by the commission. Shortly thereafter he won the race to represent the Fourth Congressional District.
Some people discount Watts as an opportunist out to make a name for himself, but others disagree. Robert Woodson, a black conservative and president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, has stated, "He already was something. He came here to do something." Even those who question his route to Washington don't believe anything other than conviction brings him to his voting decisions. On most issues he takes a strong stance. He talks about character and family values. He opposes abortion, big government, gun control, and gay rights. He supports a balanced budget, free enterprise, school prayer, and the death penalty-all of which reflect the views of his constituency and make him a Christian Coalition favorite.
Consider the Facts
Since arriving in Washington, Watts has taken an interest in restoring low-income neighborhoods. He is adamant in his view that if Republicans are going to dismantle welfare, it has to be replaced with something constructive. He co-sponsored the American Community Renewal Act, which recommends that enterprise zones be established along with other programs to strengthen civil society and create opportunities in urban areas. As he told about … time, "The legislation will bring spiritual, moral, and economic reform to communities by encouraging private sector investment and individual savings, offering school choice, and allowing citizens the option to use faith-based programs."
To those who consider him a Republican pawn, he points to his support for issues not commonly addressed by the Republican Party, such as human rights violations in Nigeria. Watts has pointed out that he also supported the budget amendment against the wishes of the Republican leadership. On the subject of race, he is clearly proud of his heritage, and does not distance himself from mainstream African Americans such as Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas. He feels his views mirror those of most average Americans, including African Americans.
Watts expresses ambivalence about affirmative action. He explains, "I don't believe we should pick winners and losers based on skin color or gender….We can lock horns as a group to fight racism and discrimination, but success has to come from the individual." Yet he is not willing to agree that it's a level playing field out there, nor is he willing to politicize the debate, as many Republicans have openly tried to do.
In an interview with about … time he elaborated, "In this color thing, whether or not we're going to be able to get there, I can't say. But I can say while I've got a voice in the process, that I need to be advocating a system of equity…. I think America today is struggling for a definition of what is fair."
The Great Black Hope?
Watts thinks he should be judged by his voting record. He wants to be known as an independent thinker: "In this city, if you don't fit a certain identity, it's tough for people to handle. I didn't come up here with any heartburn or any conviction to be the black Republican or the black Conservative. I came up here to cast a vote on the issues just like any other Republican or Democrat, black or white."
When questioned about his future, Watts will only say that he hopes to make the most of opportunities that come his way. On government and politics, he expresses optimism. Watts thinks people generally trust elected officials, but don't trust the system. He is part of what he hopes is the "new" Republican Party. To that effort Watts brings the athletic charisma of Jack Kemp, the eloquence of a Baptist minister, and a great deal of common sense.
Further Reading on Julius Caesar Watts Jr
African American Almanac, Gale, 1994.
The Almanac of American Politics, National Journal, 1995.
about … time, November-December 1997, p. 18.
New Yorker, February 11, 1997.
U.S. News & World Report, December 26, 1995, p. 90.
Washington Monthly, October 1996, p. 34-40.