J.C. Watts, once perhaps the most famous black Republican in the country, has returned to politics in a surprising role: one of the most prominent supporters of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
The former football star and Oklahoma representative, who retired from Congress in 2002, reemerged in December when he appeared on FOX News to endorse Gingrich. Since then, Watts has campaigned aggressively for his former colleague, even as other African-Africans have accused Gingrich of race-baiting for his attack on President Obama as a “food stamp president.”
Gingrich’s primary rival in the GOP nomination process, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, has criticized the former Speaker for making millions as an adviser to mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But Watts, who has served as chairman of FM Policy Focus, a coalition of financial-services and housing-related trade associations that monitors the activities of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, has defended Gingrich’s claim he did not lobby for the firms.
Watts has also rejected the notion that Gingrich is invoking racial stereotypes in his rhetoric about Obama.
“Those people that say it’s racist, why is it that they think he’s talking about black people or talking about Hispanics. They never stop to think you have more white people on food stamps. Maybe someone in the white community should say ‘well, I think he’s racist against white people.’ They assume that it’s just Black people on food stamps,” Watts said earlier ithis month in defending Gingrich.
He added,”I don’t buy into that assumption… I could make the argument that it’s a racist question.”
In an interview with NPR, Watts said, “I think you have sensitivities, things that happen on both sides that I personally might not like, but I think it is a fact that more people [are] on food stamps today because we don’t have jobs.”
Watts is one of few black politicos to endorse Gingrich, support made that much more significant given his experience as a former House GOP leader, political commentator and the first black congressman elected from south of the Mason-Dixon Line since the Reconstruction.
Before the election of Tim Scott and Allen West in 2010, Watts was the last influential black Republican in Congress. He rose to prominence in the GOP partly because there were so few members of the party that looked like him. His background, growing up working class in Oklahoma and having been a football star, helped to endear him to the base and create something of a great black hope.
Watts’ rise was not without controversy. In a 1997 Washington Post article, Watts was quoted as referring to Jesse Jackson and Marion Barry as “race-hustling poverty pimps.”
But he rose to Republican Conference Chair, the fourth highest-ranking Republican in the House and could be seen regularly speaking out for conservative causes.
After eight years in Congress, he retired rather than try to move up further in the ranks in Congress. He shifted to business instead, heading up several organizations and establishing JC Watts Companies, through which he does consulting.
While Watts has remained involved in politics since then, his support of Gingrich’s presidential campaign is perhaps his most notable role. He has long tried to get more African-Americans to support Republicans, and he continues to do so, even while supporting the candidate who has drawn the greatest ire from African-American leaders.
“Somebody that looks like us needs to be at the strategists’ table to say ‘I know what you’re trying to say, but I wouldn’t say it like that,’” Watts said recently at an event called the “Conservative Black Forum” that was organized by West.
Follow Donovan X. Ramsey on Twitter at @idxr