The Ripon Forum

Volume 41, No. 6

Dec 2007 - Jan 2008 Issue

The Republican Party and the Black Vote – A Q&A with J.C. Watts

By on November 16, 2015 with 0 Comments

JCWatts3When J.C. Watts was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Oklahoma’s 4th Congressional District in 1994, he became only the second black Republican elected to the House since 1928. During his term in office, he rose to become the Chairman of the Republican Conference, the fourth ranking position in the House leadership. He retired from office in 2002.

Since that time, he has been active in a variety of pursuits, including serving as Founder and Chairman of the J.C. Watts Companies, a consulting consortium that offers strategic advice and turn-key solutions for the emerging marketplace at the nexus of business and government, economics and culture. He is also a regular analyst on CNN, and writes a twice monthly column for more than a dozen newspapers.

This past October, he wrote a column that offered a frank and critical assessment of Republican efforts to win the black vote. The Forum recently spoke with him about the column and his thoughts on the GOP’s relationship with the African American community.


RF: Earlier this fall, you wrote a column in which you criticized the Republican candidates for President for failing to show up at a debate and a forum geared toward African American voters. Why do you believe they were wrong not to appear at these events?

JCW:  I think the Republican Party, when it comes to the black voter, needs some tough love and I think they need to know the bare-knuckled truth. I’ve had some that take an exception with some comments that I made, but the fact is the truth always hurts before it helps.

I think if you are to be an alternative, you have to be where the alternative is needed. One of the basic problems with the Republican establishment is that they don’t show up. Republicans don’t understand that the majority of African Americans are living black. That is, they live, they worship, they socialize exclusively, for the most part, with each other.  In fact, diversity for most African Americans, as with most Americans, occurs in the workplace. The white community, when they get diversity, they usually get it in the workplace.

One of the reasons that Don Imus got in the trouble that he got into is because I believe Don has no — and I’m just guessing, I don’t know — but I’m going to suspect that Don has very little diversity in his personal life. He doesn’t hang out with black females. You know, and I say this respectfully, I bet when you go out to dinner or, I don’t play golf, but if we go and play golf or we go to a football game, a Redskins football game, or wherever, we usually go with people who look like us.  We worship on Saturdays or Sundays or whenever; we go to our places of worship; we usually worship with people who look like us. And so again, as with most Americans, diversity occurs primarily in the workplace.

Otherwise, black people are reading black newspapers, black magazines, visiting black websites, listening to black radio, watching black programs on television. Then, here’s a forum to speak to African American voters who, by the way, aren’t saying, “We want anything, something that nobody else is getting.” They’re saying, “What is your plan on taxes? What is your plan on health care? What is your plan for minority health care disparity? What is your plan on the war? What is your plan on education?” So, if you’re not showing up to talk about your plan, then you’re not speaking to this demographic.  Well, if you’re not showing up to give your point of view, how do you expect to get more than eight percent of that vote?

It seems to me when the black community says, “you’re not showing up to speak to us” — and, by the way, I don’t believe the black voters are enamored with the Democrat leadership — I think there’s probably 35 to 40 percent of the black vote that says, “Just give us your plan, we don’t have anybody speaking to us.” But I think if you’re not showing up, if you are to be an alternative, you have to be where the alternative is needed.

You know, we talk a good game but we just have not [shown up.] I continue to be disgusted with the Republican establishment. And I say the Republican establishment because I think that most Republicans in the trenches are trying to figure out ways reach out and be inclusive. On a national level, the experts and the consultants and the political folks say, “No, you don’t need to go to Morgan State. You don’t need to go to the Urban League. We’ll just use as an excuse it didn’t work in the schedule.”  Well, that’s about the same as the kid saying, “The dog ate my homework.” It just doesn’t have a lot of credibility.

RF: Over the past several years, the Republican Party stepped up its outreach efforts to the African American community, yet the GOP’s share of the black vote was actually lower in 2006 than it was in 2004. Is that because the outreach failed, or is it due to issues and events beyond the party’s control?

JCW: Two things. One, if it’s not in your DNA, it’s not going to work. I give Ken Mehlman some credit for making some effort. That’s one person — it’s not institutionalized.  It’s not a part of the Republican establishment’s DNA to do outreach, to be inclusive. I give Ken some credit for doing that, but that’s about like me as a quarterback calling a play and we go to the huddle and the other ten guys, when the ball is snapped, they just stand around and watch and then I’m the only one running the play. Again, I don’t believe that Republicans have filtered it into the institution of the party.  Rich Bond was the RNC Chair back in 1992. Rich and I had this conversation back then.  We were talking about growing the base of the party and outreach and so forth and Rich said, “J.C., until we make the institution of the party available for outreach and for growth, it’s never going to happen.” And I have seen, in terms of the results of the vote, it just hasn’t been.  There’s so much opportunity, but there hasn’t been a lot of growth in the numbers because it’s never been institutionalized.  And as I said earlier, when they talk about reaching out, many in the establishment say, “Well, when you reach out to the black community, we’re not going to play special interest politics.” It’s all special interest politics! I mean, we have Republican candidates, and they’re for gun control but they went to the NRA and talked to the NRA. We have Republican candidates who are pro-choice, but they go and talk to pro-life organizations. Why? Because they want the vote and they take the approach that Bob Dole took to say, “I stayed up all night trying to figure out who I didn’t want to vote for me, and I couldn’t figure out anybody.” Well, it seems as though we say, “Yeah, we’ve figured out somebody that we didn’t want to vote for us — the black community.”


One of the basic problems with the Republican establishment is that they don’t show up.

Last night, I was listening to the [November 30th GOP presidential] debate. And I thought it was very telling when this black guy comes on and he says, and I’m paraphrasing:  “Black people by and large are very conservative, pro-life, pro-family, pro-tax relief, pro-choice in education, but why don’t we vote for you guys?” As it turned out, Giuliani and Huckabee were the two guys that answered the question, and Giuliani basically said, “We need to do a better job communicating our plans.” And I thought, but you don’t show up! Then he went on to say, “We need to take black people off of welfare.” And that was code word for the white conservatives. I say that respectfully, but that’s what his consultants would say: “Well, we gotta take black people off welfare.”

Huckabee, on the other hand, I thought his language was very interesting. He basically said “there are issues that disproportionately affect underserved communities. As governor, I recognize that, so I’ll disproportionately target the black community and other communities that need attention with dollars to target AIDS, health care disparities, and other pressing problems.” Mike Huckabee was speaking to the people that he needed to be talking to by answering that question. When the black gentleman said, “Why don’t we vote for you guys?” Giuliani and most of those candidates would have been talking to white conservatives, as opposed to talking to the guy that asked the question!

Again, it all gets back to diversity and infrastructure. If you have no diversity in your inner circle, those stupid mistakes — those stupid things — happen. I’m not saying this out of anger. I’m not saying it out of anything other than I think the Republican Party has been very, very shortsighted and even stupid in so many respects. I think they’ve just been naïve or indifferent to what it takes to really impact the black vote.

And I had so much hope for George W. Bush because I thought — and I do think — that George W. gets it. He got it as Governor of Texas, but his lieutenants, I think, have just totally been out of touch. And it’s sad because I think there continues to be a lot of opportunity there.

RF: What is more important in winning support among African Americans – is it having the right infrastructure, as you discuss, or having the right candidate and being right on the issues? Or is it all of the above?

JCW: Well, it’s all of the above. Use the analogy of being a parent: I’ve had to discipline my kids, as we all do as parents, and I’ll tell you what — discipline without relationship, in a parent-child relationship, leads to rebellion on the part of the child. If I discipline my kids and I don’t have a relationship with them, they’re eventually going to rebel. Now, if there’s a relationship, they’ll take that discipline much better.

The same holds true for outreach. Outreach without relationship leads to rejection. Republicans want to say we reach out. But what we do instead is 60 days before an election, we’ll spend some money on black radio and TV or buy an ad in Ebony and Jet, and that’s our outreach. People read through that. And so I think it’s all of the above.

Republicans want to say we reach out. But what we do instead is 60 days before an election, we’ll spend some money on black radio and TV or buy an ad in Ebony and Jet, and that’s our outreach. People read through that.

To give you some idea of how outdated we are, every Republican candidate invokes the name of Ronald Reagan. I don’t think they’ve ever stopped to think that you’ve got voters out there who don’t know who Ronald Reagan is. We’re still living in the decade of the ‘70s when it comes to campaigns and elections, and most of our candidates run very consultant-driven campaigns.  And those consultants, they don’t know out of the box. They don’t know demographics. They know the old traditional way of doing things that says because seven out of ten voters are white, we have to compete there.

RF: If you were Chairman of the Republican Party today, how would you go about winning the black vote?  What issues would you stress? What messages and themes would you convey?

JCW: First of all, I would say, if you don’t want me to do moral, legal, ethical things to grow the base of our party, don’t vote for me as Chairman of the RNC. Don’t ask me to do it, if you don’t want to be serious.

Secondly, I think Republicans aren’t losing black voters on social issues. I couldn’t have told you what a liberal or a conservative was when I was a junior in college. But I could have told you how I was raised growing up in rural Oklahoma. You treat people the way you want to be treated. You don’t waste. I was a conservationist long before I knew who Al Gore was or before I knew what climate change was. And I learned how to be a conservationist from my parents.

I think that Republicans and Democrats both get caught up protecting their conservative or their liberal credentials.  And they do that, in my opinion, to protect “my deal.” And when you are out to protect your “deal,” you can’t get out of the box. You can’t look at what works. You can’t look at what makes sense. I think we have to seek the truth. And we have to look for the truth.

Republicans like to see black people through the prism of Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. I talk to Jesse from time to time.  I talk to Al from time to time. And you know, there’s a side of me that makes me thankful for those guys being out there agitating. Because if they were not out there agitating, think  of where it might be? I think that there’s a side of what they do that holds systems accountable. Now do I think they abuse the system from time to time? Yes, I do. Do I think they cross the line from time to time? Yes, I do. But still, I think there is a place for them and thank God for them.

Thank God for those conservative activists who are out there agitating, those liberal activists who are out there agitating. It should caution all of us from time to time to take a step back, take a deep breath and say, “Are you doing this because you’re Republican or are you doing it because you’re right?” You know, I think we all need that — that pause and that accountability in our lives.  So I think you need to show up.

I’m not worried about black people and the social issues. I’m worried about the black community and the opportunity issues. DoD, aerospace — less than one percent of procurement opportunities. Telecom, homeland security, transportation — just go down the list and you can see not many opportunities. There should be more opportunities in each of those sectors for African American business. Am I saying that we should favor African American business over any other business? No, that’s not what I’m saying. The reason I believe that is this: in the city of Chicago, you know who employs the most black people?  Black people.

And so, I don’t think you need more taxes. I think you need more taxpayers.  How do you create more taxpayers? You encourage people to start businesses. You help them grow those businesses. I don’t necessarily believe that the reason that they don’t have more minority businesses in their procurement system is because they’re racist. I believe a lot of it is simply because they have no diversity in their infrastructure, and they think that diversity is giving $250,000 a year to the Urban League or giving $250,000 a year to the NAACP, and God bless them for doing that. They should be doing that. But if that’s going to be your diversity, you ought to be giving $2 billion a year to the Urban League, $2 billion a year to the NAACP.

So, I believe that we need to help minority business, help small business, help businesses start and grow in these communities. Now, they have a lot more interest in your tax plan. If you’re talking about eliminating the death tax, if they have nothing to protect, if they have nothing to pass on, the death tax means nothing to them. Lowering tax rates means nothing to them.

If you give people a stake in the system — red, yellow, brown, black, or white — people fight and protect and defend the system a whole lot more and a whole lot better, and they are a lot more passionate about it.

RF: If Barack Obama captures the Democratic nomination, should the Republican Party just write off the black vote in 2008?

JCW: There’s a side of me that says the Republican Party has already written off the black vote.  I’d forget about 2008. Let’s think about 2006, 2004, 2002.

It seems we’ve resigned ourselves to being content with getting eight or nine percent of the black vote. I can make a pretty strong argument after the election that every demographic out there wants to say, “If it hadn’t been for us, the President wouldn’t have won.”

When President Clinton won in ’92 and ’96, the unions wanted to take the lion’s share of the credit.  The trial lawyers would say, “We’re responsible for the President getting elected or reelected.” And, you know, you go to the Republican side and the evangelical community and Christian conservatives would say, “Oh, we’re responsible for the President getting elected or reelected.” Everybody wants to take more than their share of the credit for a President being elected or reelected on both sides of the aisle.


If you give people a stake in the system — red, yellow, brown, black, or white — people fight and protect and defend the system a whole lot more and a whole lot better, and they are a lot more passionate about it.

President Bush went from, I think, nine percent of the black vote in Ohio in 2000 to 16 percent of the vote in Ohio in 2004 because the marriage issue was on the ballot. I can make a strong argument that had President Bush gotten only 13 percent of the black vote in Ohio, he wouldn’t be President.

I think the Democrat establishment takes the black vote for granted, and they say, “We’re going to get 90 plus percent of the black vote, so we can do whatever we want to do.” And then the Republican Party says, “We have to win without them,” so they ignore the black vote. You’ve got 35 to 40 percent of the black vote that says, “We feel like we’re in a political twilight zone.  We don’t feel like either party is speaking to us and that they have any interest in what we are, what we’re concerned about.”

So I think, in ’08, Barack Obama makes this thing very interesting for Republicans and Democrats. I think we probably lose the black vote with Barack Obama. With Hillary Clinton, I think, we still have an opportunity.

RF: Finally, you were one of only two black Republicans to have been elected to the House of Representatives over the past 50 years. Looking back on your time in office, what do you see as your legacy and your greatest contribution to the country?

JCW: I was proud to have been a part of providing tax relief for all Americans. Abraham Lincoln said something to the effect that “that which you earn by the efforts of your own hand, you should be able to keep as much of, as possible.” I believe that.

When you look at those things I was a part of that really changed the culture or had an impact – a serious impact — on people’s lives, I think of my work with regard to minority health care disparities, historical black colleges and universities, American community renewal, and new markets tax credits.

I even think of the faith-based initiatives. It was very controversial, but I don’t believe that faith organizations should be discriminated against in receiving federal dollars to deliver community services. I was talking about that long before President Bush came to town. I think that those types of things — you take the politics out of them which is difficult to do – made a difference and had a good impact on the quality of people’s lives.

But you know, politics these days has gotten so crazy and so wrapped up into trying to protect my deal. I’ve become a bit disillusioned about it all. In some respects, I’ve become a little bit cynical. I’ve tried to work to not become cynical, because I think that’s often a sign of laziness. But my cynicism hasn’t come from laziness.  It’s just come from operating in and out of the system for 12 to14 years on the state and federal level and then, having looked at it over the last five years, thinking, my God, I don’t know if we solved the problems.

Because it’s not about solving problems, it’s about protecting my deal for Republicans and Democrats.   RF

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


If you enjoyed this article, subscribe now to receive more just like it.

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *