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10 July 2000

Northern City Journal
(ISSN 1528-9575)
Vol. 1, No. 26

Minneapolis, Minnesota

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Why Bush Should Choose J.C. Watts as His VP

by Jerome F. Winzig

American presidential candidates follow a time-honored tradition of choosing a vice-presidential running mate that strengthens the ticket. Sometimes the choice balances the ticket geographically. Occasionally the vice presidential candidate satisfies a different political wing of the party. Other times the vice presidential candidate adds important qualities to the ticket, such as the ability to articulate issues in front of different audiences.

Rarely, however, does the choice of a running mate present the opportunity to radically change the nation's political landscape. This year, Texas Governor George W. Bush could change the face of race relations and redraw the lines of liberal/conservative politics in America by choosing Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts, Jr. as his running mate.

Choosing Watts for vice president would challenge a powerful racist stereotype perpetuated by many in the news media and in both political parties: namely, that most persons of color, and especially African-Americans, are Democrats and political liberals. Shattering that stereotype would benefit the entire nation by ensuring that persons of color are involved in both major political parties.

Watts would also provide the Republican Party with an articulate conservative spokesperson who would augment Bush's sometimes tongue-tied manner. His candidacy would also push the Republican Party farther towards true conservatism and away from mere protection of monied interests.

Watts would balance the ticket in other ways. While Bush and Watts today hail from the neighboring states of Texas and Oklahoma, their roots are quite different. Watts was born and grew up in rural Oklahoma, while Bush was born in New Haven, Connecticut while his father was a student at Yale University.

So who is J.C. Watts, Jr.? For starters, he has a most improbable name that he shares with his father, who went by the nickname "Buddy." The "J.C." that appears on all of his official literature actually stands for Julius Caesar. No wonder his father went by "Buddy" and he uses only his initials!

He was born to Buddy and Helen Watts on November 18, 1957 in Eufaula, a small town of several thousand people in east central Oklahoma, the fifth of six children. After graduating from Eufaula High School in 1976, he attended the University of Oklahoma, where he received a B.A. in Journalism in 1981. While in college, he also played as a quarterback for the Sooners football team, leading them to consecutive Big Eight championships and Orange Bowl victories. After graduation, he played for Ottawa and Toronto in the Canadian Football League from 1981 to 1986.

During the 1980s, Watts went through some financial hard times. Two properties he owned were foreclosed on and sold at a sheriff's auction. He fell behind on his state income taxes in 1983, 1984, and 1986, and the state of Oklahoma filed tax liens against him. However, he did not declare bankruptcy and managed to pay back his creditors.

In 1987, Watts returned to Oklahoma, where he became Youth Minister at Sunnylane Baptist Church in Del City, a suburb of Oklahoma City, a position he held until 1994. His first public office came in 1990 when he was elected to the three-member Oklahoma State Corporation Commission, the state's utility regulator. He was first elected to Congress from Oklahoma's Fourth District in 1994, the first black Republican since Reconstruction to be elected from south of the Mason-Dixon line.

He captured national attention in 1996 with a speech before the Republican convention, when he said, "You see character does count. For too long we have gotten by in a society that says the only thing right is to get by and the only thing wrong is to get caught. Character is doing what's right when nobody is looking. "

The following year, he was chosen to deliver the 1997 Republican response to the State of the Union address. In that speech, he said, "For the past 30 years, our nation has spent five trillion dollars trying to erase poverty. And the result, as you know is that we didn't get rid of it at all. In fact, we spread it. We destroyed the self-esteem of millions of people, grinding them down in a welfare system that penalizes moms for wanting to marry the father of their children, and penalizes moms for wanting to save money."

Today, Watts is a rising leader in the Republican party, chairs the House Republican Conference, and lives with wife Frankie live with the three youngest of their five children (Keisha, Jerrelle, Jennifer, Trey, and Julie) in Norman, Oklahoma.

Watts has written about how this young black man who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in a poor community in rural Oklahoma happened to become a Republican. During his senior year in college, he was assigned to cover a debate between a young Republican business from Ponca City, Oklahoma and the Democratic mayor of Oklahoma City. Afterwards, he found himself confused because he agreed with the Republican candidate more than the Democrat: "His words resonated with the values on which I had been raised, echoing all the things my dad had taught me: work hard, play fair, be responsible, pay your own way. Those words I thought my dad owned. I couldn't believe a Republican--let alone a white Republican--would be agreeing with my father."

Nine years later he finally switched parties, and the person he most feared telling was J.C. "Buddy" Watts, Sr. He says his father took it fairly well, and points out that his father "was what was known as a geographic Democrat--not an ideological Democrat. I think my dad is typical of many African Americans, who tend to be Democrats by geography or tradition."

Watts articulates values that transcend racial lines: "I speak from a set of principles that I believe will totally reorder the political landscape in America. My convictions are based on a deep, abiding faith in the fundamental principles of the party of Lincoln--principles that I believe appeal to all people, regardless of race. Ours is the only party founded on an idea--the idea of freedom. From that one idea flowed others: the idea of cultural renewal, equality of opportunity and empowering people, not government. These ideas transcend race, creed, and color."

At the same time, Watts challenges his own party, and says, "The party that Frederick Douglass defended can still appeal to minorities....I have always believed the Republican Party will not truly become the majority party until we regain our legacy as the party of minority Americans."

If he gets the nod from Bush, this Congressman from Oklahoma will change people's minds. It's part of his family heritage. An important figure in his life was his uncle, Reverend Wade Watts, state president of the NAACP. In 1979, he was invited to a radio debate with Johnny Lee Clary, the Grand Dragon of the Oklahoma Klu Klux Klan. Before going on the air, Clary refused to shake hands with Reverend Watts, but Watts shook his hand anyhow and said, "Hello, Mr. Clary. I'm Reverend Watts. Before we go in, I just want you to know that I love you and Jesus loves you."

Over the years, Reverend Watts continued to tell Clary that God loved him, without backing down one bit on his beliefs. Once Clary called to threaten him, saying, "I want you to know we're coming to get you. And this time we mean business." Without missing a beat, Reverend Watts replied, "Hello, Johnny Lee! You don't have to come for me. I'll meet you. How about a nice little restaurant I know out on Highway 270? I'm buying."

The response stunned Clary. He didn't send his KKK thugs out, and kept thinking about Reverend Watts. Years later, when he finally recognized the poisonous hatred of the Klan, resigned his position, and even joined an interracial church, it was Reverend Watts who invited him to speak at his own church, and the former Klansman and the former state head of the NAACP became friends.

Reverend Watts' nephew could also change history. This leader from the party of Lincoln says, "[O]ur problems can't be solved by legislation alone. Surely we have learned from our long, difficult journey a great truth: government can't ease all pain. We must deal with the heart of man." It's a message that would invigorate this year's presidential campaign.

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