J.C. Watts On Direction Of The GOP

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In Tell Me More's “Wisdom Watch” segment, host Michel Martin speaks with a trailblazing former politician who has broken barriers in Congress. Julius Ceasar Watts, better known JC Watts, became the first black Republican from the south to win a Congress seat since Reconstruction when he was elected to represent Oklahoma's fourth district in 1994. He tells Martin how Washington has changed since his retirement in 2003 and whether Michael Steele has been an effective Republican National Committee chairman.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, I'll share my thoughts on the passing of Elizabeth Edwards. It's my weekly Can I Just Tell You? commentary, and that's coming up.

But, first, it's time for our Wisdom Watch conversation. That's where we talk to people who've made a difference through a lifetime of service and achievement, and hopefully have some wisdom to share. Today, we speak with a man who broke barriers in politics. He's a former football star who in 1994 made history by winning a seat in Congress representing Oklahoma's 4th Congressional District. That includes Norman and parts of Oklahoma City.

With that victory, J.C. Watts became the first African-American Republican since Reconstruction elected to Congress from a Southern state. He served until 2003. We thought this would be a good time to check in with him because with the new Congress convening in January, it will feature two freshmen African-American Republicans from Southern states: Allen West of Florida and Tim Scott of South Carolina.

J.C. Watts joined us earlier from his office at J.C. Watts Companies. That's a business consulting firm in Washington, D.C. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. J.C. WATTS (J.C. Watts Companies): Michel, you're very kind to have me on. Thanks for doing so.

MARTIN: You know, the diversity in the Washington political scene is a little bit more substantial than it was when you were first selected in 1994. You know, we have an African-American president, the current chair of the Republican National Committee is African-American. The first Latina Supreme Court Justice and, you know, all of the above.

But when you were first elected, I wanted to ask, did the fact of your being a black Republican elected, you know, from the South, was that something important to you? Or was it something that you hoped people would kind of forget about in a way after awhile?

Mr. WATTS: Well, Michel, while I did not lead with that, I was aware that there was some significance to it because I had obviously been reminded from the press and just the people that came into the district when I was running for Congress in 1994, I was maybe a little bit naive because I didn't understand the depth of it. But I was reminded in a hurry. I got probably a whole lot more attention than I deserved because of my skin color and because I was, quite frankly, not Democrat. But be that as it may, I worked to use whatever attention I was getting to advance the ball or move the ball, if you will.

MARTIN: I just want to ask one more question about your service in Congress. You were there from 1994 to 2003. Gary Franks from Connecticut served from 1991 to 1997. And since you two left, this is the first time, coming January, that there will be more African-American Republicans serving in that body. Why do you think that is?

Mr. WATTS: Several reasons. And I'll name one or two. I think Senator Obama running for president probably encouraged more Americans of African descent to run on both sides. We had - in the congressional ranks, we had, I think 32 black candidates. And only two won. And I think that you've got to give President Obama some credit for encouraging black candidates on the Republican and the Democrat side to step up and get more engaged. And I do think that people are genuinely more concerned about what's going on in Washington.

And I think they recognize that in order that in order to do something about it, you've got to be in the game. And you've got to be on the field. And on the field doesn't necessarily mean being a candidate, but, you know, it can be attending town hall meetings, rallies in Washington on both sides. But all in all, I think it's actually good. I think that's democracy working, and whether people agree with me or not, I like the fact that people are getting engaged and peeling the onion a little more, if you will, to try to understand issues better and get an understanding - a better understanding of the political process.

MARTIN: You haven't been soft on, though, your own party in this regard. I mean these candidates, I know you've been appreciative of the candidates who have stepped forward, but you've been critical over the years of the Republican establishment for not doing enough to encourage people of color to get into the process.

In fact, you wrote a piece in October of 2007, it was during the last presidential campaign and you said, for far longer than I've been involved in the political process, the Republican establishment has claimed to want to provide an alternative for the black community, yet party elite refused to show up for the game. The more I pondered some of the boneheaded decisions GOP candidates have made of late, I can't bring myself to believe that they're serious about capturing more than 8 percent of the black vote.

And you go on to have a number of other kinds of fun phrases in this.

Mr. WATTS: Right.

MARTIN: For example, you say that Republican candidates avoiding the Urban League and the Morgan State debate is as nonsensical as saying I want a bath but I don't want to get wet. And that now we find that you're current chairman, Michael Steele, is being criticized from many quarters, and people are saying it's time for him to go. So I wonder, I don't know whether, you know, obviously Michael Steele is his own stuff. But I do want to ask whether you think that that is changing.

Mr. WATTS: Well, Michel, based on what I said in 2007 in that piece that you just quoted, I say two words: case closed. I still stand by that. I'm not convinced that the establishment in the Republican Party, that they are concerned about growing or establishing a deeper relationship with the black community. And I've said on many occasions, I don't believe that all black people think alike; most black people just vote alike. They vote their interest and they don't believe Republicans do a very good job in representing their interest. And until the party can establish a deeper relationship with the black community, I think that perception will persist.

If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with J.C. Watts. He's a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma. He's currently in private business. He's the founder and chair of a consulting company, J.C. Watts Companies. When he was elected in 1994, he was the first African-American from the South elected as a Republican in the Congress since the Reconstruction era.

And just to tie a bow on this question, do you think that Michael Steele has been an effective leader for the Republican Party? I mean he's been a guest on this program and he says that he thinks part of the reason that people are criticizing him is that he's put a lot more emphasis on grassroots outreach and that that is not always appreciated.

Mr. WATTS: Well, Michel, to answer your question, Michael's had a very stormy relationship as RNC chairman with many in the Republican establishment. I scratch my head when you consider from the outset what many were being critical of him on. If you recall, he wrote a book, and they were critical saying he shouldn't have written a book and, you know, the RNC chairman needs to be focused on growing the party and grassroots and raising money.

Michel, I can understand that argument, but other chairs and wrote books. They said, oh, he's taken private planes; he's not flying commercial. But what's the big deal? Other chairs took private planes. They said he's making outside income. Other chairs had outside income. So I thought those arguments were bogus arguments.

Now, I think that Chairman Steele, as we've discussed, I think he's given those who are his enemies, and I don't think they're just his critics, I think they've been his enemies, he's given them plenty of ammunition to come after him. But, you know, I think when you look at the big picture, he's won elections. I think the grassroots would say that it's probably the first time in some time they've gotten the kind of love that Michael Steele has shown to them. So, while you can probably find some things to be critical of, I think the things that he has done - the good things that he has done far outweighed the things that he should not have done.

MARTIN: I want to talk about a piece that you recently wrote for the Ripon Forum. It's a group of moderate Republicans. And they were asking you to reflect on kind of where the party is now and where it needs to go. And you wrote a piece saying, this is the moment for Republicans to define our party once again as Lincoln did, as liberators of our people. You also go on to say that, you know, you really think this country has some serious issues but that the party needs to be more - well, I'll just say your words, and you can tell me a little bit more about what you have in mind here.

You say our problems are all of our problems. Many of them, poverty, education, the deficit, have no partisan claim. We are brothers and sisters in this journey. The pain of hunger feels the same in a Democratic stomach as it does in a Republican stomach. Demonstration of illiteracy manifests with the same intensity in the heart of a moderate, a conservative, and a liberal.

What are you saying here? Are you saying that the Republican Party, both political parties, are just, what, too focused on their own and not enough on the country as a whole?

Mr. WATTS: Well, Michel, first of all, I'm not saying anything that I hadn't said many times before. And I had a pastor friend of mine that I heard say once, he said, you know, and he happened to be a Republican and he said, you know, we've become so concerned about the right wing and the left wing that we are allowing the bird to die. And I think that's literally where we are in so many respects.

I think politics, it has become a matter of protecting my deal and, you know, when you look at what happened and the economic collapse for seven, eight years, six or seven years, I tried to get reforms with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and I said if ever there was a blip in the housing market, that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, because of the way they were being operated, they would create a meltdown, that they would destabilize the financial systems in the country. And most Americans today pay about 50 to 58 cents of every dollar they make in some government tax or government fee. I think that's too much. So...

MARTIN: The question I have here though, is that I think many people would say that a lot of people agree with the issues but they just don't agree on the best way to approach them. And Republicans, for example, as you know, the criticism over the last term has been - the Democrats have made this criticism, the White House has made this criticism - the congressional Republicans are the party of no and that they have not been willing to meet the president halfway, meet the Democrats halfway on the issues that everyone agrees are of significant concern to the country because they have found it more politically successful to hold their line.

So if that is the case, what's the incentive to take a different perspective? And particularly, if you take the argument that people, it's not that they don't see what the problems are, they just have a very different view...

Mr. WATTS: No, right. Right.

MARTIN: ...about what is the right way to approach them, right?

Mr. WATTS: Yeah. And I - no, I see exactly what you're saying and I agree with that because, you know, for those that would say that Republicans said that they were the party of no, keep in mind that party won 63 House seats and won six - got a lot more leverage in the Senate. But my add-on to that would be this: it's one thing to be angry; it's another thing to govern.

And I think now, you know, the hard part begins in terms of trying to govern. How do we find solutions? I think one of the things that I've pointed to in the last couple of weeks, it's been this debt commission. You know, it's a bipartisan commission established by the president. You know, they issued some pretty tough medicine for the country. These are the things that's going to have to be done to get us where we want to be in terms of dealing with the economy, in dealing with the deficits, dealing with the debt, you know, dealing with the waste in government etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. And so, if Republicans and Democrats are going to have their sacred cows, if you will, I don't know if we ever get there.

MARTIN: One more question on football. Just to remind people, you were a standout at the University of Oklahoma as quarterback, led the Sooners two consecutive Big Eight championships and two Orange Bowl victories. I hope you don't mind my mentioning that. Your alma mater plays Connecticut in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year's Day. So who wins that? And who wins the national championship this year, which is Oregon and Auburn?

Mr. WATTS: Auburn. That's right. Well, I'm...

MARTIN: Right.

Mr. WATTS: Well, I'm going to go the Oklahoma school. The University of Tulsa will beat Hawaii. Oklahoma State University will beat Texas A&M. Oklahoma University will beat Connecticut, so that's the gamut of Oklahoma schools.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATTS: And Auburn, gosh, your guess would be as good as mine. But, with the way Cam Newton has played over the last 13 games, I just don't see him slacking off, you know, in the final game. I think it'll be a good game but I'm going to play the odds and say that Auburn wins the national championship.

MARTIN: J.C. Watts is a former member of Congress. He represented Oklahoma's 4th District. He's the founder and chair of J.C. Watts Companies, and he joined us from his office here in Washington.

Thanks so much for joining us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATTS: Michel, thanks for having me on.

(Soundbite of music)

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