Rollins joins campaign for black candidate

January 28, 1994|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Apparently on the theory that the best cure when you're thrown from a horse is to get right back on, Republican political consultant Edward J. Rollins has signed on to assist the campaign of a black minister running for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania.

Mr. Rollins' claim, later recanted, that he enlisted black clergymen to suppress the black vote in masterminding the election of New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman in November triggered a post-election investigation and appeared to send his political consulting career into oblivion. No charges were brought against him, but a Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate, Barbara Hafer, promptly dropped him as her campaign manager.

The new client is Joseph Watkins, 40, a Philadelphia RTC development consultant who was associate White House director of public liaison in the administration of President George Bush until 1991 and was a staff aide in the early 1980s to then-Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana. Mr. Watkins said last night that Mr. Rollins would serve at his own insistence on a pro-bono basis as the campaign's chief strategist, the same role he played in the Whitman campaign.

Mr. Rollins could not immediately be reached. He is in China, where his firm, Rollins International, is involved in a U.S.-China joint venture in development of the port of Nanjing, an associate said.

Mr. Watkins is to announce his candidacy formally next week for the Republican nomination to oppose Democratic Sen. Harris Wofford in November. Rep. Rick Santorum, a second-term House member representing Pittsburgh, is rated the front-runner in the Republican primary May 10.

In December, after the furor over Mr. Rollins' remarks had begun to die down, Mr. Watkins said, he telephoned the Washington consultant, with whom he had casually discussed the possibility of a Senate race the previous summer, and asked if he could come to Washington and talk to him.

When they met, Mr. Watkins said, he asked Mr. Rollins directly what had happened. "I was impressed with his sincerity," he said. "He said, 'I made a very bad mistake. I'm really sorry, and I don't know how to fix it.' Then he apologized and asked me if I would forgive him. He was apologizing to me as a black person. He didn't know I was an ordained minister until I told him. 'You are?' he said."

It was only then, Mr. Watkins said, that he asked Mr. Rollins to help him in his campaign. "People will pose the question," Mr. Watkins said, "why would I work with a man who said what he did? I did what anybody in my ministry would do. I said, 'Of course, I forgive you and I accept your apology.' "

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