There are many roads to political stardom in Washington. Not many of them pass through the Ottawa Rough Riders’training camp in Peterborough, Ont.
J. C. (for Julius Caesar) Watts Jr. is now the most prominent black Republican in the United States. But in the summer of 1981, he was a young quarterback who had already achieved a measure of fame by leading the University of Oklahoma Sooners to victory in two Orange Bowls. The Rough Riders came calling, and suddenly Watts found himself in a dormitory at Trent University in Peterborough, a stranger in a strange land and not liking it at all. “I’m out in the middle of nowhere—at least what I thought was the middle of nowhere,” he recalled recently. “It was brutal.” He lasted 36 hours, then took a plane home to Oklahoma.
It got better. Watts returned to the struggling Rough Riders in midseason, helped win five of their last six games and took them to the Grey Cup against the Edmonton Eskimos that fall.
They lost, but it remains Ottawa’s most recent trip to the Grey Cup.
All that was several lifetimes ago. Since leaving the CFF, J. C.
Watts stayed with the team until 1985 before switching to the Toronto Argonauts for the 1986 season. Along the way, he acted as spokesman for an Ottawa restaurant called Fat Albert’s and picked up impressions of Canada—including the intense interest in the 1981 wedding of Prince Charles and then-Lady Diana. “Quite baffling for a country boy from Eufaula, Oklahoma,” he says with a smile.
Watts, now 39, has reinvented himself many times over. He went into business, with mixed success (he invested in oil just as the market soured). And in 1989, he did something very few black Americans do: he joined the Republican party. Trading on his fame in football (Oklahoma’s unofficial state religion), he became the first African-American to win statewide office in 1990. Four years later, he ran for the House of Representatives in a district that is only seven-per-cent black. From the start, Republicans saw him as a hot property and rushed to help him out: George Bush, Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole and even Charlton Heston campaigned for him. When he won and went to Washington, they showcased him. Fast August, Watts made a key speech at the Republican convention in San Diego, and in February he delivered the party’s official response to President Bill Clinton’s state of the union address. He was the most junior congressman ever to do so—and the first black.
Republicans need Watts to convince black voters that, at heart, they are not what they have seemed to be for the past 30 years: the party of white America. It’s a tough sell. For two generations, Democrats have cornered the market on civil rights and minority
causes; a minuscule nine per cent of African-Americans identify themselves as Republican. What’s more, Watts is not just a Republican, but a conservative, anti-government Republican who embraces the values of the Christian right. His message to black voters turns everything most of them believe on its head: government is not your friend, he says, it’s your worst enemy. Black people, he argues, traditionally relied on family and church—but government anti-poverty programs have destroyed their families and torn their communities apart. “Rather than erasing poverty, they have spread it,” he says. ‘We have deeper poverty after spending over $5 trillion than we had 30 years ago.”
There is no love lost between Watts and most established black leaders. They regard him as, at worst, a sell out, and at best, someone who benefited from the older generation’s struggle for economic equality and now disdains it. Watts, in turn, has denounced “race-
hustling poverty pimps” who talk about freeing blacks but really want to keep them on government handouts. “What scares them the most,” he has said, “is that black people might break out of that racial group thing and start working for themselves.” And he flatly opposes affirmative action—heresy for a minority politician: “You can’t do anything about your skin color, and I can’t do anything about mine. You just can’t solve discrimination with discrimination.”
o. Watts’s own story, though, g shows that race is anything but 1 incidental. He grew up as the son I of a policeman and part-time I farmer at a time in small-town 1/5 Oklahoma when blacks were still relegated to the balcony of the local movie theatre. He was the first black quarterback of his high-school football team, and remembers white players quitting in protest. “There’s no one in Congress,” he says, “who’s been called nigger more times than J. C. Watts.” His formula for overcoming such problems is straightforward, bordering on simplistic: “Hard work, sacrifice, commitment.” In Congress, he has translated that into a proposal to create so-called Renewal Communities promoting growth in poor areas. They would feature tax breaks for new businesses, and bypass federal bureaucrats by funnelling money through churches and private charities.
All that makes Watts a Republican hero, but so far there is little sign that African-Americans are listening. He pins his hopes on the underlying conservatism of black society. Polls show that about a quarter of black Americans regard themselves as conservative; like millions of others, they want lower taxes and tougher anti-crime laws. And a growing movement of black conservatives in universities is questioning the welfare state. But it’s a lonely struggle—even lonelier, perhaps, than being an Oklahoma farm boy suddenly stranded in small-town Ontario.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.