Watts, J(ulius) C(aesar) 1957–
J(ulius) C(aesar) Watts 1957–
J. C. Watts, Jr. made history in 1994 when he became the Congressman for the fourth district in Oklahoma, making him the first black Republican from a Southern state to be elected to a national government position since Reconstruction. Watts won his seat, as many Congressional candidates did in the mid-1990s, by adopting a conservative political and social agenda, in many ways identical to the G.O.P.’s “Contract with America.” He favored welfare reform, capital gains tax cuts, and a balanced budget amendment while opposing abortion rights, gun control, and cuts in defense spending. During his tenure in office, Watts’s political philosophy often puts him at odds with other black members of Congress, but he felt that more and more African Americans were embracing the Republican platform, with its emphasis on ending big government and promoting family values. A central tenet of conservatism is the notion that anyone can achieve the “American dream” by working hard and holding high standards of performance. “Success has to come from the individual,” Watts told The Washington Monthly. “… My papa always said that the only helping hand you can rely on is at the end of your sleeve.” This attitude, paired with deeply held views on moral issues, made Watts an attractive candidate to such right-wing groups as the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority.
Watts spent his time as a congressman trying to broaden the base of black support for the Republican party by demonstrating how Republican ideas on free enterprise and private sector investment can improve the lives of the urban and rural poor. According to Amy Waldman in The Washington Monthly, Watts “has adopted the [Republican] party’s platform heart and soul. Indeed, he’s become one of the most articulate espousers of its philosophy.”
Julius Caesar Watts, Jr. was born in 1957 and raised in the small farming community of Eufaula, Oklahoma. His father often worked two jobs simultaneously to support Watts and his five siblings, and the family was closely tied to the Baptist church. Both Watts’ father and his uncle, Wade Watts, were politically active in the community. His father sat on the Eufaula City Council while his uncle headed the Oklahoma chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people. On every occasion, Watts and his siblings were encouraged to work hard, be self-reliant, and follow the tenets of the Christian faith.
Born Julius Caesar Watts, Jr. on November 18, 1957, in Eufaula, OK; son of Julius (a minister and businessman) and Helen Watts; married Frankie Jones; five children. Education: University of Oklahoma, BA, 1981. Religion: Baptist.
Career: Canadian Football League, Ottawa, Canada, Ottawa Roughriders, quarterback, 1981-85; Toronto Argonauts, 1986; Watts Energy Corp, Norman, OK, president-owner, 1987-89; Sunnylane Baptist Church, Del City, OK, youth director, 1987-; Oklahoma State Corporation Commission, commissioner; US House of Representatives, OK, congressman, 1994-2002.
Memberships: Fellowship of Christian Athletes, board of directors; National Drinking Water Advisory Council; Oklahoma Special Olympics; National Rifle Association
Awards: Named Orange Bowl Most Valuable Player, 1980 and 1981; Grey Cup Most Valuable Player, Canadian Football League, 1981; inducted into Orange Bowl Hall of Honor, 1992.
Address: Office —2420 Springer Dr., Suite 120, Norman, OK 73069.
Tall and athletic, Watts found great success on the football field. He was the first black player ever to make varsity quarterback at his high school, and when the coach named him to the slot, some of the white players walked off the team in protest. This did not stop Watts from excelling at the quarterback position and he soon caught the eye of college scouts from all over the region. He was heavily recruited, and he finally accepted a football scholarship to the University of Oklahoma, where the football team was coached by a man named Barry Switzer. Switzer, in an interview with Jet magazine, commented on how impressed he was by Watts on and off the field, saying “I always knew J. C. was a leader…. He never gave me an ounce of trouble—wish I could say that about all my players…. He baby sat my children. He was dependable.”
For Watts, however, the experience at the University of Oklahoma was not entirely rosy. As a freshman benchwarmer, seventh on a roster of eight quarterbacks, he grew disillusioned and quit twice, returning to Eufaula on both occasions. His father persuaded him not to give up on his athletic and academic careers by telling him, “If what you’re doing was easy, everybody would be doing it,” or so Watts recalled in U.S. News and World Report. Taking his father’s advice each time, Watts returned to the University of Oklahoma and it was not long before he was rewarded for his perseverance.
Promoted to the starting quarterback position in 1979, Watts led the Oklahoma Sooners to two consecutive Orange Bowl appearances in 1980 and 1981. Both times the Sooners won, and both times Watts was named the Orange Bowl’s Most Valuable Player. The Orange Bowl victories gave Oklahoma the Big 8 Championship in both of those years as well. Needless to say, the “dependable” J. C. Watts became a hero throughout Oklahoma. Later in life, Watts would compare his achievements in politics with his football victories in a Sports Illustrated interview, saying, “The election probably means more, but I don’t know in this state.… Not after having played against Nebraska and Texas.”
Switched from Democrat to Republican
Even while he was in college Watts spent much of his spare time giving motivational speeches and preaching in Baptist churches, especially to the youth. He became known statewide for his stirring sermons and his ability to hold the attention of a crowd. After earning his bachelor’s degree in 1981, Watts joined the Canadian Football League for a six-year stint as quarterback for teams in Ottawa and Toronto. In his first year he won the Grey Cup Most Valuable Player Award, an equivalent honor to the American Super Bowl MVP. During the off-seasons Watts returned to Oklahoma, where he preached, operated a small business, and invested in real estate.
What Watts wanted to do was go into politics, yet he faced a dilemma. Traditionally, the Democratic party supported minority candidates, giving specific groups and communities more of a voice in Congress in return for party support and votes. However, during his college years, Watts had been impressed by the views of Republicans such as senatorial candidate Don Nickles. Watts’ decision on what party to join was finally swayed by the notion that the Democratic party offered him the best chance for election and acceptance. For a few years, Watts fought hard for his party and their beliefs, but gradually, as the 1980s progressed, Watts became more and more disenchanted with the Democratic party. He felt the party was taking its support from blacks and minorities for granted, offering them few incentives to keep their loyalty. This opinion was confirmed when he wanted to start a real estate venture and got help from local Republicans. Later, when he expressed his interest in politics to the local Oklahoma Democrats, their response was decidedly lukewarm. Watts saw more potential for success in the Republican party—and besides, that party’s conservative ideals and moral stance more closely resembled his own values. He changed his party affiliation in 1989.
By all accounts Oklahoma’s conservatives were delighted to have Watts in their fold. Here, they hoped, would be a pioneer who could make the Republican party more attractive to black voters. Watts was intelligent and articulate. He made a compelling case for the conservative agenda. And he quickly drew a high rating from the politically potent Christian Coalition for his stands against abortion rights, gun control, and gay rights.
Within one year after switching parties, Watts became the first black ever elected to a statewide office in Oklahoma. He won one of three seats on the state’s Corporation Commission, a powerful body that is charged with regulating the telephone, gas, and oil industries in Oklahoma. His stay on this commission was controversial. According to Amy Waldman, “Campaign contribution reports showed [Watts] had accepted nearly $100,000 from individuals whose businesses were regulated by the commission.” The reporter added, “Oklahoma elects rather than appoints its utility regulators, but doesn’t bar them from accepting funds from the industries they regulate. The potential for unhealthy relationships—unhealthy for the state’s consumers—is obvious, and often realized. But Watts’s service on the commission was particularly industry-friendly, according to commission observers.” U.S. News and World Report cited a Oklahoma Observer editorial that said of Watts: “As a commissioner, he’s been a wholly owned subsidiary of the utilities he’s supposed to regulate.”
Watts vehemently denied any improper activities while serving on the Corporation Commission, and through hard work and campaigning he won back the public’s trust. The Republican party, impressed by his clean image and high standing in the community decided to nominate Watts as the Republican candidate for Congress in Oklahoma’s fourth district in 1994. Riding a national tide of anti-Democratic sentiment, he was elected by a comfortable margin of nine percentage points. His win was important on both a personal and national level since no black Republican had been elected to Congress from a Southern state since the Reconstruction era just after the Civil War. The importance of the occasion was not lost on prominent Republicans such as Jack Kemp, Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, George Bush, and actor Charlton Heston, who supported Watts actively during his campaign and befriended him in Washington, D.C. afterwards.
For his part Watts lent his full support to the Republican-sponsored “Contract with America” and the many pieces of legislation connected to it. According to Waldman, he “supported … a tax cut for the wealthy, and cuts in programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, Head Start, Medicaid, school lunches, and student loans and grants.” Perhaps not surprisingly, Watts declined an invitation to join the Congressional Black Caucus, because so often he voted differently from most of its members. He told Black Enterprise: “I think the CBC and I want the same things for the black community. The difference is how we get there.”
Watts had his own ideas about improving the lot of the urban poor. In 1995 he and Congressman Jim Talent of Missouri initiated a wide-ranging anti-poverty program called the “Renewal Community Project.” Watts and Talent conceived a series of legislative acts that would give tax breaks and reduced regulation to small businesses, provide school vouchers so that parents could have more choice over the schools their children attend, and offer funding to organizations that attack social problems from a “faith based” foundation. “We’ve allowed big government to replace the institutions that formerly gave structure and order to our neighborhoods,” Watts explained in Black Enterprise. “The reality is that big government and increased federal money are part of the problem.” Watts was also critical about many black political leaders. Writing for Macleans, Andrew Phillips wrote that “There is no love lost between Watts and most established black leaders. They regard him as, at worst, a sell out, and at best, someone who benefited from the older generation’s struggle for economic equality and now disdains it.” Douglas Waller, an interviewer for Time asked Watts about his statement that some black leaders are “race-hustling poverty pimps,” Watts explained, “They’ve turned race and poverty into an industry. They say Republican policies have hurt poor people. Point to them. Look at the major cities where you have black leadership. You have black mayors, black city officials. But you often have the highest crime rate, the highest unemployment. Maybe it’s time we look at different policies for dealing with old problems.”
Watts was never completely satisfied with affirmative action programs as they stood, although he had proved to be a moderating influence among Republicans who would scrap affirmative action altogether. Noting that he opposes affirmative action “in principle,” Watts told The Washington Monthly: “I don’t believe we should pick winners and losers based on skin color or gender. The group cannot get educated for you, the group cannot make responsible choices for you, the group cannot be a self-starter for you: We can lock horns as a group to fight racism and discrimination, but success has to come from the individual.” He later explained to Maclean’s, “You can’t do anything about your skin color, and I can’t do anything about mine. You just can’t solve discrimination with discrimination.”
Watts was prominently featured at the 1996 Republican National Convention that nominated Robert Dole as its candidate for president. Most political observers noted that Watts’s speech in support of the Republican platform was one of the highlights of the event. The national notoriety carried over into his own congressional race, and Watts easily won re-election in his district in 1996. While some magazines hailed him as “the GOP’s Great Black Hope,” Watts was quick to point out a few problems with that tag. First of all, he represented a district that was almost all white. Second, he found the emphasis on his race disturbing, because it would not be an issue if he were a Democrat. “You always hear ‘black Republican,’ but you never hear ‘white Democrat,’” he told Sports Illustrated. “We’ve got to get beyond the labels and the stereotypes. Other people have hang-ups about it. I don’t.”
During his tenure in Congress, Watts continually commuted between his offices in Washington, D.C., and his home in Oklahoma, where he and his wife, Frankie, raised their five children. Difficult as the long-distance travel was, Watts felt it was essential for voters to see that he practices what he preaches—strong family values. “The quickest way to destroy America is to destroy the family unit,” he stated in U.S. News and World Report. “I can help in making sure Congress understands the strong foundational role the family plays in society.”
Watts was passionately devoted to his family and family values and it was for this reason that, during the summer of 2002, Watts announced that he would not be seeking another term in Congress and would be retiring. Some critics have suggested that Watts left because he has not been included in major decision making in the inner circles of the Republican party, but Watts maintained that his family was the primary reason. When his wife pointed out that he only saw the kids for about three hours each week, he knew he was making the right decision. During a news conference in Norman, Oklahoma, Watts declared, “It has been a wonderful ride. It has been a wonderful journey. Of course the work of America is never done, but I believe my work in the House of Representatives at this time of my life is completed … my tenure in Congress has been marked by moments of enormous—enormous personal satisfaction and achievement.” He also explained to Time, “Washington is a cynical place. I never got into politics for it to be a career. It doesn’t take a lot of strength to hang on. It takes a lot of strength to let go.”
Watts will be remembered for his success in creating faith-based and community-based organizations and for his work to make black colleges more visible. He will be remembered for sponsoring a bill to honor slave laborers who built the Capitol building in Washington D.C., and for sponsoring legislation to build a National African American Museum in Washington D.C. In addition, many will recall his impressive motivational speeches, particularly his speech about teaching individual self-restraint, and his response to President Clinton’s State of the Union address regarding a balanced budget and family values. In 2000 The Republican National Committee announced the establishment of the J.C. Watts Civic Achievement Scholarship Program. Taking the opportunity to tell his full story, Watts published his autobiography, along with contributor, Chriss Winston, What Color Is A Conservative? My Life and My Politics in 2002 and continues to write articles for numerous political and new based magazines.
Black Enterprise, June 1995, p. 38; July 1995, p. 22; March, 1999, p. 28.
Black Issues in Higher Education, August 17, 2000, p. 9; May 24, 2002, p. 12; August 1, 2002, p.8.
Booklist, October 1, 2002, p. 283.
Chicago Tribune, July 1, 2002.
Jet, June 12, 1995, p. 7; July 22, p. 34.
Maclean’s, August 11, 1997.
New York Times, October 8, 1996, p. A21.
Sports Illustrated, November 21, 1994, p. 57.
Time, November 30, 1998, p. 44; July 15, 2002, p. 8.
U.S. News and World Report, December 26, 1994, p. 90.
Vital Speeches, March 1, 1997; June 15, 2000.
Washington Monthly, October 1996, pp. 34-40.
—Anne Janette Johnson and Christine Miner Minderovic
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