Representative J.C. Watts, announces he won't seek re-election

Monday, July 1st 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) _ Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, the only black Republican in Congress and a member of the House GOP leadership, said Monday that he does not plan to seek re-election after this term.

``It has been a wonderful ride. It has been a wonderful journey. Of course, the work of America is never done, but I believe my work in the House of Representatives at this time of my life is completed,'' Watts said at a news conference in Norman, where he was a football star for the University of Oklahoma before entering politics.

``It is time to return home, to go on with other things in my life and assuming one of the most honored titles in America, citizen.''

Watts, 44, was first elected to the House in 1994. He joined the leadership four years ago, in the fourth-ranking position of chairman of the House Republican Conference.

Watts' departure could give Democrats an opportunity to pick up a seat in the battle for control of the House this fall. And he is the second member of the House GOP leadership to announce retirement plans, joining Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas.

``House Republican leaders must know something that the rest of the caucus doesn't, that their chances for holding the majority are slipping away faster than the sand in an hourglass,'' said Jenny Backus of the House Democratic Campaign Committee.

Watts said he wanted to spend more time with his family. He also has told Republicans that he is tired and needs to make more money for his family.

He said he was not sure what he would do after leaving Congress.

``My focus right now is one to make sure we retain the 4th District of Oklahoma as a Republican seat and that two that we not only retain our majority in Congress but expand that majority.''

Watts occasionally has complained that he was not included enough in leadership decisions. More recently, the congressman, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, expressed concern that President Bush did not communicate with him about the administration's plan to kill the Crusader artillery system.

The $11 billion artillery system was to be assembled at a planned facility in Elgin and training was to be conducted at Fort Sill, part of Watts' district.

Watts had a fast ride to the party's top echelon after his election among the Republicans' conservative class of 1994.

He spoke during the 1996 GOP presidential convention and gave the party's response to the State of the Union address in 1997. A year later, he was named chairman of the Republican Conference.

Oklahoma is losing a congressional seat because of population shifts. After months of internal struggle, the Legislature approved a new map that would give Watts and four other incumbents a safe district in which to seek re-election.

The Democrats are challenging the plan in the courts.

With Watts on the ballot, Republicans would have been virtually certain to hold on to the 4th District. Without him, officials in both parties say, a competitive race could develop.

GOP officials said last week that party officials had approached Tom Cole, a former Oklahoma state senator, secretary of state and party official, in hopes he would run if Watts bowed out. Cole, now with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, had declined to comment.

Among Democratic possibilities for the seat are Loyd Benson, a former speaker of the Oklahoma House, and Ben Odom, who challenged Watts in 1998.