A funny thing happened in the middle of the Republican revolution. During November’s mid-term elections, the party lost seats it expected to gain with ease, and Speaker Newt Gingrich left his troops in the lurch-making a hasty exit before he was invited to leave. Minus five much-needed votes and the leader of their PAC, House Republicans were forced to reconsider their public image.
Suddenly, diversity wasn’t such a bad idea. And in a vote of 121-93, Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma toppled Ohio’s John Boehner from his seat as the Republican conference chairman. Now No. 4 in the lineup, Watts is the party’s first black member in modern times to hold a leadership position. As GOP conference chairman, Watts will preside over the organizational forum at the outset of each new Congress at which resolutions, rules and procedures are agreed on. The chairman is also responsible for coordinating allies and coalition efforts, and in consultation with the leadership, assigning specific duties to the vice chair and secretary of the Republican committee. Finally, Watts will be responsible for helping members develop a message and political agenda. “It means I’ll get more staff and more headaches, but I look forward to my new responsibilities and challenges,” he says. “It doesn’t quite make me the voice of the party, but it will mean more visibility and I’ll be the point man from time to time,” he adds.
Watts believes the Republican party squandered a critical opportunity to strengthen its majority last fall by not focusing on the issues. He challenged Boehner for the conference chairmanship because “I felt I could do a better job of preparing members to tell our side of the story,” says Watts, who attributes a healthy economy, welfare reform and an overhaul of the IRS to his party. “It’s now my responsibility to communicate our message to the members of Congress and prepare them to tell our story and articulate what we’re doing legislatively.”
While Watts fought hard to win his new post from Boehner, some political analysts believe his election fits perfectly with the portrait some would like to now paint of the Republican Party.
“They got beat up, threw out the speaker and now they feel they have to make one step toward diversity because blacks and Hispanics are going the other way,” says Ron Walters, political analyst and University of Maryland professor. “The control of the party apparatus is in the hands of the conservatives and he’ll have to be very respectful of this. He’s not a free agent by any stretch of the imagination.”
Some might characterize Watts’ new role as being stuck between a rock and a hard place. On one side he’s faced with a group of conservatives who’ve spent the last four years trying to turn affirmative action into a taboo. On the other, he must make these same colleagues more appealing to blacks and other minorities.
“I give him credit for not going after affirmative action, but Republicans like Watts and Colin Powell must be willing