Former U.S. House Rep. J.C. Watts said Monday the Republican presidential candidates need to have more African-Americans “at the strategists’ table” to woo black voters and help them avoid controversial statements that might offend African-American voters.

At the “Conservative Black Forum”, an event on Capitol Hill hosted by Rep. Allen West of Florida, Watts, who was in the congressional leadership during the 1990s, complained that no member of the Republican National Committee was attending the event. He said it was an illustration of the lack of contact between the party’s leadership and black voters.

“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.

Interestingly, the former Oklahoma congressman noted he is in the inner circle of the campaign of Newt Gingrich, who Watts endorsed in December. Gingrich has come under fire for calling President Obama a “food stamp president.”

West said he organized the forum because he thinks many African-Americans hold conservative views but don’t back the Republican Party.

“I really believe at the core of the African-American community truly is conservatism,” said West at the start of the two-hour event.

West, South Carolina Rep. Tim Scott and conservative activist Star Parker were among the conservatives who appeared at the event. Emanuel Cleaver, a Democratic congressman from Missouri who is the head of the Congressional Black Caucus, also attended the event and defended President Obama’s policies, which the other panelists criticized.

Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr