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Republicans Cast Watts as Leader, Healer

February 22, 1999|SAM FULWOOD III | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EUFAULA, Okla. — J. C. "Buddy" Watts Sr., a jolly, 75-year-old joke-telling Baptist preacher, is rocking on his back porch, button-popping pleased over the splash his namesake son is making up there in the nation's capital.

But he makes no secret that he would prefer that his son--the only black Republican in Congress--had stayed closer to the family's political heritage. Uncle Wade, who died recently at 84, was a fiery civil rights crusader who headed the Oklahoma state NAACP. Buddy served a stint on the town council in his hometown. All were bred-to-the-bone Democrats.

"A black man voting for the Republicans makes about as much sense as a chicken voting for Col. Sanders," Buddy Watts said during a long afternoon of folksy conversation. "I couldn't be no Republican because the Republican Party is against the poor man."

Needless to say, father and son avoid political debates. "I try to stay away from this kind of talk around him. He and I don't see eye-to-eye on this. I don't see any reason for there to be a problem in the family over politics."

Even if he has turned away from his father's political beliefs, J. C. Watts Jr. is quick to point out that he embraces many of his father's values, albeit with a conservative cast.

"My father was pretty strict," J.C. Watts said. "My parents understood that if you buy your bed, you sleep in it. You have respect for adults. You work hard. You don't steal. Things that are all considered conservative principles. It had nothing to do with Republicans or Democrats to me. That was just the way I was raised."

Those who know Watts best say he is a prideful man, refusing to be pigeon-holed because of his race as a knee-jerk vote for liberal causes or showcased by white Republicans as a poster boy for equal opportunity. By nearly all accounts, he is committed to conservative politics. So much so that his colleagues have tapped him to spread their gospel.

With the verdicts finally rendered in President Clinton's impeachment trial, GOP congressional leaders are anxious to move on. As lawmakers return to the Capitol today, following a brief recess, the Republicans are intent on building a legislative legacy they can run on in 2000. And Watts, installed late last year as chairman of the Republican conference--the third-highest post among House GOP members--is crucial to this effort.

As conference chairman, Watts, 42, will be called upon to promote the Republican agenda, a task skeptics fear may require more than his charming smile, sharp oratory and easy demeanor. But converting naysayers is part of Watts' political mystique. Coming of age at a time when black quarterbacks, even at big-time University of Oklahoma, were a rarity, he has often been called on to prove himself in a game's crucial moments.

Watts, who voted to impeach Clinton, is expected to play a pivotal role in salving public anger toward the House Republicans for their drive to oust the president.

The story of how Julius Caesar Watts Jr. came to this moment originates in this tiny town, a farming outpost of fewer than 2,700 people on the edge of an artificial lake in southeastern Oklahoma. The town, about half black, is little more than a Main Street lined with storefront lawyers, fast-food joints and dry goods merchants. Eufaula's best graduates tend to leave for jobs in nearby Tulsa or Oklahoma City, never to look back.

Those left in Eufaula are mostly working poor and typically Democrats. This was the life everyone expected for Watts.

Betty Bailey, who runs J. M.'s Restaurant, remembers giving Watts his first regular paycheck for working the grill and busing tables at a time when few blacks dared to dine in the restaurant. "He was a good worker, a real good worker," she said. But like many here, she underestimated his promise. "I never would have thought of him in that way, didn't see him as big in politics," she said.

J. C. was the fifth of six children born to Buddy and Helen, who died in 1992. "I tried to teach him honesty," the father said. "You know, if you straighten up a child when they're little, they'll grow up straight as a grown-up."

Road to Joining the GOP's Side

An indifferent student, J. C. thrived under the tough-love discipline of his parents. His father farmed during the week while serving as manager and maintenance man for several rental properties. In addition, Buddy Watts served as a police officer and dabbled in community politics. On Sundays, he preached at a nearby Baptist church.

For J. C., an early aptitude for football and baseball kept him away from some of the more back-breaking farm work that fell on his older siblings.

On the gridiron, Watts won the starting quarterback position for the Eufaula High School Ironheads. No black boy had ever done that, and, at first, it didn't sit well with many in the town. Several of the white boys on the team quit in protest, but the coach's decision stuck. Watts responded by leading the Ironheads to the state playoffs.

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