10 Questions For J.C. Watts

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Congressman J.C. Watts (R-OK) will retire at the end of the term

J.C. Watts, the only black Republican in Congress, announced last week that he will retire when his fourth term ends next year — a blow to the G.O.P.'s efforts to widen its appeal. The conservative 44-year-old Oklahoman and former star quarterback for the University of Oklahoma talks with TIME's Douglas Waller.

Is the Republican Party still largely a whites-only party?


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It is. But I'm optimistic, because they're doing something about it. We surely didn't help our efforts during the Republican presidential primaries when we had about a 45-day debate on the word compassion. I thought that was the craziest thing I'd ever seen. If diversity is O.K. for God, it ought to be O.K. for Republicans.

You have said some black leaders are "race-hustling poverty pimps" for keeping African Americans dependent on government.

They've turned race and poverty into an industry. They say Republican policies have hurt poor people. Point to them. Look at the major cities where you have black leadership. You have black mayors, black city officials. But you often have the highest crime rate, the highest unemployment. Maybe it's time we look at different [policies] for dealing with old problems.

Why are you really leaving? Doesn't everyone say, "to spend more time with the family"?

This may shock and amaze some folks, but it really is to spend time with my family. I am the only member of the top-four leadership that has kids at home. [Watts has five children.] I'm never going to be a 9-to-5 dad, but I've got an 11-year-old son. And we know the statistics about young black males.

Are people in Washington skeptical?

I never got into politics for it to be a career. It doesn't take a lot of strength to hang on. It takes a lot of strength to let go.

Some say you're frustrated because you weren't moving up the ladder quickly enough.

I want to laugh when I hear that. I don't know if anybody has moved up the ladder more quickly than I have.

So what are you going to do?

I would love to be associated with some sports organization. I was a journalism major. That's kind of intriguing, to do something in the political-commentary arena.

You're an ordained minister. Would you return to the church?

I still get to preach 14, 15 times a year. But you have to make a living.

Not only did President Bush beg you to stay, but a number of black Democratic civil rights leaders have urged you not to leave. Are you deserting them?

You can't be so concerned about saving America's families that you lose your own. But it's pretty tough to listen to Rosa Parks tell you, "We need you to stay."

So has the Democratic Party sold blacks a bill of goods?

The Democratic Party has taken the black community for granted and said, "This is the most loyal constituency we have. They're not going anywhere." But the Republican Party has said, "That's the most loyal constituency Democrats have. They're not going anywhere. We've got to win without them."

How must the G.O.P. change to attract more black voters?

Bush gives us the best opportunity we've had to do that. But if the 2000 trend continues and we're still getting 8% of the black vote and under 35% of the Hispanic vote, excuse my vernacular, but that ain't good for the party. We just can't sit back and say, "Let everybody fend for themselves."