WASHINGTON – On Jan. 1, 1980, J.C. Watts was leading the University of Oklahoma on a comeback drive against Florida State as the final seconds ticked away in the Orange Bowl game.
With less than two minutes left, the quarterback found a receiver in the end zone to put the Sooners within a point, 17-16. Seconds later he connected again on a two-point conversion, winning the game and earning most valuable player honors.
Today, Julius Caesar Watts seeks glory in a different arena.
A Republican from Norman, Watts is perhaps the most controversial of the 73 GOP rookies in the House of Representatives.
He is a black man with deeply conservative ideas that fit well in the new Capitol Hill power structure, but are decidedly different from those of most black lawmakers preceding him.
Watts wants to reshape the welfare system and limit its use, build more prisons and hold offenders longer, force Congress to balance the budget and spend more money on national defense.
He has said he believes that the social programs that many on the left see as a safety net for minorities are part of a “decaying system” that is “anti-opportunity, anti-family and anti-property, and encourages irresponsibility.”
He has said he thinks that Congress needs to eliminate funding for inner-city midnight basketball, which advocates say has kept kids off the streets at night in dangerous, crime-plagued neighborhoods.
“The real question we need to ask is why are these kids on the street at midnight at all?” Watts said. “Where are their parents?”
Watts says he won’t support funding for those programs at the urging of black leaders in the House.
“I didn’t come to Congress to represent black people,” he said in an interview as he settled into his Capitol Hill office. “I came here to represent America.”
The congenial Watts, with athletic good looks and a disarming demeanor, has found himself at times facing a furious attack from the left. But like the Sooner quarterback who was Orange Bowl MVP, he has stood his ground fearlessly.
At a conference last month in Washington, Watts was expressing his ideas for revamping welfare when he was asked if he had “forgotten his black constituency.”
Unfazed, he countered that he would not be “pigeonholed” into accepting the beliefs of others.
“I think she was probably saying that I need to restrict myself to working for black people,” he said.
“It’s always been my belief that you should do the right thing, but for the right reason. Some would only want you to define the law to favor a certain group of people, define the law to favor blacks or whites or men or women or Hispanics.
“Dr. King said a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Watts said, referring to slain civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. “We need to fight injustice in whatever community it is in.”
Watts grew up a Southern Baptist in Eufaula. A star on the local high school football team, he was recruited and signed by Barry Switzer, then coaching a Sooner football program that was as good as any in the nation.
He was raised by J.C. Watts Sr., a Baptist minister, now 71, and his mother, Helen, who died last year. The fifth of six children, J.C. was a likable, quiet youngster with a penchant for hard work, his father said.
J.C. Watts Sr., who still lives in Eufaula on J.C. Watts Jr. Avenue, said that he never expected his son to walk the halls of Congress, but that he’s not surprised.
“If you raise your children right – to be good, honest, hard-working people – they’ll surprise you with how far they can go,” he said, adding that he agrees with most of his son’s conservative views.
The younger J.C. started two years at quarterback for the Sooners and Switzer, now head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, and led the team to Orange Bowl wins in 1979 and 1980.
“J.C. was a great player and a great leader,” Switzer said. “He was a leader on the field and a leader off it. He was as respected as any player I coached. I have said since the day he entered politics that he would be the first black governor of Oklahoma.
“He was a tough, tough kid that stood up and said what he believed in. He’s always been his own man.”
Teammate Billy Sims, a Heisman Trophy winner who later distinguished himself with the Detroit Lions, remembers Watts as “a politician on the field.”
“He was always trying to get certain guys to do things certain ways,” said Sims, who added that Watts would often schedule him to speak to youth groups around Oklahoma.
“He was really involved in those types of things. It meant a lot to him. Everyone could see that.”
Sims, now in the furniture business in Texarkana, doesn’t agree with all of the views of his conservative friend, but adds that Watts “is still looking out for the people who need help the most.”
“J.C. might take a different path than I would take, but he still cares,” Sims said.
Watts, who lost to the University of Texas twice as a starting quarterback, said he learned how to take criticism from Switzer.
“Coach Switzer taught me that you have to know who you are and what you are,” Watts said. “I have never forgotten that.
“I have gotten booed by fans in the student section at Oklahoma and I have been booed in the political arena. You have to have a tough skin and understand that you will have critics regardless of how well you do.”
After college, Watts played six years in the Canadian Football League for teams in Ottawa and Toronto. As a rookie, he was voted MVP in the Grey Cup game, the CFL’s Super Bowl.
Watts returned to Norman, where he worked in real estate and petroleum marketing before running in 1990 for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.
Watts was a Democrat until he switched to the Republican Party when he sought that first public office.
He gives some, but not all, of the credit for his success to the name recognition he gained running the Sooners’ explosive wishbone offense and beating such Big Eight powers as Nebraska.
“I don’t deny the fact that being quarterback for OU has had a great deal to do with me being in Congress today,” he said.
“But I think there comes a point in time when people say, `Yeah, J.C. won some Orange Bowls, but what does he think about the balanced-budget amendment and where does he stand on gun control and welfare reform and smallbusiness issues?’ I think my ideas, values and convictions played a critical role.”
In November, Watts became the first black Republican from South of the Mason-Dixon Line to win election to the House since Reconstruction.
He ran on a platform that included a ban on homosexuals in the military and the end of legalized abortion, unless a woman’s life is in danger.
His fellow black members of the House say they accept him as an individual, but oppose much of what Watts stands for.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., was a leader in the civil-rights movement in the 1960s and a friend of Martin Luther King Jr. He says he welcomes Watts, but can’t identify with him politically.
“He comes from a different background,” Lewis said. “I understand his views. I just don’t agree with them.”
Lewis said it is important for Watts not to forget his roots.
“Even if you are a Republican elected in a conservative district, you must not forget your blackness,” Lewis said.
“It is my hope that people like Mr. Watts will represent the people that elected him, but champion those issues and concerns dear to the African-American community. We all need to remember our fight for social justice and civil rights.”
Kweisi Mfume, D-Md., head of the black congressional caucus, echoed the concerns of Lewis.
“I know J.C.,” he said. “He is a very likable person. He has a unique perspective that makes him a breath of fresh air on both sides of the House. “He will represent the people of his district very well. He and I will disagree on some issues, but that is to be expected.
“But I think we need to remember that while we have crossed the river to get here, there are a lot of people that are still left behind.”
Watts said he understands why many blacks feel that he should be a Democrat, but believes that the party no longer represents his ideas and beliefs.
“I think the Democratic leadership deserted the values and principles that I stood for,” he said. “The Democratic Party today is not what it was 40 years ago. I think their message is wrong. I think their agenda is wrong and I don’t think their values and principles are the same as mine.
“It became a matter of conviction for me. Many would question how much sense it made for a black guy to change his registration to Republican when 99 percent of the black folks in this country are Democrats, or to register as a Republican in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 2 to 1.
“But I didn’t do this out of convention. I did it out of conviction. The principles I hold I didn’t get from the Democrats and Republicans; I got them from my parents.”
Republican leaders couldn’t be happier about Watts’ presence on their side of the House.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas said Watts could give the GOP inroads it hasn’t had in the past.
“One message he sends,” Armey said, “is that you can succeed as a black Republican. That it is morally and intellectually
Michael D. Towle, Inquirer Washington Bureau
Feb 8, 1995