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The pending departure of Congressman J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) could mean the GOP will go from one African American face to none at all when the 108th Congress convenes in January.
Watts, 44, announced July 1 that he would not seek a fifth term in November. “I think it’s a wake-up call for our party to strengthen its efforts to reach our community and certainly get individuals elected to Congress to replace him,” says Michael Steele, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party and candidate for Maryland lieutenant governor.
Though Watts said the decision was prompted by his desire to spend more time with his family, one factor could have been a lack of support from his party. This, despite the fact that Watts, the poster child for black Republicans, is chairman of the House Republican Conference — the No. 4 position in the House.
“I think he’s a token in the Republican Party,” says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, author, political commentator, and president of the Inglewood, California-based National Alliance for Positive Action. “When it comes to real decisions that are made within the Republican Party and Republican inner circles, I just don’t feel that J.C. Watts is a major player at the table. And I suspect that J.C. Watts probably came to that recognition himself.”
Watts may have also hit a glass ceiling. Dick Armey (R-Texas), who has been Watts’ ally, announced plans to step down as House Majority Leader by the end of the year. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) will be Armey’s successor. DeLay and Watts, however, are not close. “With DeLay consolidating his control in the House, it was not going to be a comfortable place for J.C. Watts to be,” says David Bositis, senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C. “There was no way that J.C. Watts was going to move up in leadership, which is what he was interested in doing.”
So who are the African American Republican heirs apparent?
The most talked-about black Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives is Lynette Boggs McDonald, who is running for the Nevada 1st District seat. McDonald, a former Miss Oregon, is the first woman elected to the city council of Las Vegas. The odds of McDonald defeating the Democratic incumbent are slim, but she is considered the GOP’s best chance for electing an African American to Congress in 2002.
Another candidate is DeForest “Buster” Soaries, who is competing for the New Jersey 12th District seat. Soaries is the former New Jersey secretary of state. Joe Rogers, lieutenant governor of Colorado, seeks to represent that state’s 7th District. Ron Greer, a minister, is running in Wisconsin’s 2nd District. Jennifer Carroll, executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs, is a candidate in the state’s 3rd District. Clinton LeSueur is a possible candidate in Mississippi’s 2nd District.
All of the black GOP congressional candidates, however, are considered long shots at best. Bositis maintains that the Republican Party is overwhelmingly white in constituency and that it has written
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