J.C. Watts benefits from preferences

November 22, 1998|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- When I talked to Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts a few days before he was elected to be the first African American in the Republican leadership of Congress, he said he did not want to be elected because of his race.

Instead, he wanted to be judged by the content of his character, his ideas and his resume.

Good for him, I said, fully confident that he would not get his wish. Despite his lofty appeals to color-blind judgments, Mr. Watts could hardly have picked a better time to be black.

Race matters

He and other congressional Republicans will deny it, which only reveals the Republican paradox about race. While they insist to the public that race shouldn't matter, their actions show that it matters to them very much.

After the drubbing Republican congressional candidates took at the polls this month, even while their more pragmatic Republican governors were scoring big wins, party leaders were delighted to spotlight "fresh faces" that just happened to include a white woman and a black man among the contenders for House leadership posts.

Nothing has sensitized the Republican mind to race, gender and ethnicity quite like the successes that the gubernatorial brothers George W. Bush of Texas and Jeb Bush of Florida showed in drawing big votes from two important groups in the Democratic base, blacks and Latinos.

After Washington state's Jennifer Dunn failed to unseat Majority Leader Dick Armey in the secret ballot for the House's No. 2 position, Mr. Watts probably received an important boost.

After all of the media sound bites we have been hearing lately from contrite Republicans about fresh looks, fresh faces and fresh ideas, congressional insiders say there was no way the party could unveil yet another line-up of white guys. In the biggest upset of the day, Mr. Watts suddenly sailed over the top as smoothly as the passes he used to throw for the University of Oklahoma.

Republicans will deny Mr. Watts victory in the secret ballot for chairman of the Republican Conference was any form of affirmative action, partly because they have won so many white supporters by spreading the myth that affirmative action promotes unqualified people because of their race.

In fact, the best, most effective forms of affirmative action do precisely what House Republicans did. It sets diversity as a goal that brings rewards to the entire organization, then it seeks to find a diversity of qualified workers, students or managers.

To say that Mr. Watts, after four years in Congress, was better qualified than Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the seasoned incumbent he beat, would be laughable, were Mr. Watts not bringing something special to the table.

That specialness relates directly to the job Mr. Watts won. As conference chairman, the party's fourth most powerful position in the House, he will help shape the party's message, focus on member services and run the weekly closed-door meetings where lawmakers debate their most pressing legislative issues.

Mr. Watts has shown his effectiveness at selling the party's message across racial lines. He has won increasingly big numbers in three elections from voters throughout his racially diverse, heavily rural district in Oklahoma.

Political infighting

Yet, so far, his biggest stumbling blocks in getting his ideas implemented have been other, less compassionate Republicans. Since 1996, Mr. Watts and Rep. Jim Talent, a Missouri Republican, have been pushing the Community Renewal Act. It offers a package of conservative anti-poverty ideas, including school choice, enterprise zones , public-private partnerships, capital gains tax cuts and other incentives to cut red tape and boost educational opportunities for those who need government help the most.

Even when portions of the bill were passed out of the House for the first time during this autumn's recent budget process, they died in the Republican-dominated Senate.

Popular pol

Although Mr. Watts opposes "racial preferences," his appeal among fellow blacks has improved as he has steadfastly blocked congressional efforts to overturn affirmative action, unless something positive, like his community renewal act incentives, is passed in its place.

Now that they have elected Mr. Watts to high office, Republican xTC leaders have a golden opportunity to prove he's not a token and to profit from it. Polls show African-Americans, particularly the young, have grown increasingly restless in recent years with having Democrats take them for granted and Republicans ignore them completely.

So, if Republicans want to make Democrats sleep restlessly at night, J.C. Watts may hold the key. All they have to do is take him seriously for his ideas, not just his complexion.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/22/98

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