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J.C. Watts Announces Retirement from Congress

Aired July 1, 2002 - 10:00   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Looking at a live picture from Norman, Oklahoma. That's where we expect lawmaker J.C. Watts to announce any minute that he plans to leave Capitol Hill and his role as the only African-American Republican in Congress. His decision will be announced at any moment. Watts' decision to retire could also pry loose the GOP's control of the House.

And there is Congressman Watts as he steps up to the podium to make this announcement that some have speculated about for weeks. As he gets a warm reception from the citizens of Norman, Oklahoma. Let's go ahead and listen in to Congressman J.C. Watts.

REP. J.C. WATTS (R), OKLAHOMA: Thank you very much. These microphones look like telephones, are they?

Thank you very much.

I appreciate everyone being here this morning, and thank you to the press for coming and to allow me this opportunity to share my intentions with the good people here in Oklahoma, and more specifically, the fourth district of Oklahoma. I am going to try to do this without using my $11.99 investment from Wal-Mart, but that may not be possible. I am going to attempt to do this nevertheless without my reading glasses.

Almost eight years ago the residents of the fourth district of Oklahoma gave me one of the greatest honors of my life by electing me as their representative to the Congress of the United States. They did so at a challenging moment in our national life. Like me, the voters of my district believed that our taxes too high, our deficit was out of control, our welfare system had trapped millions of Americans in a cycle of dependence and poverty, and our military strength was slipping in an ever-more dangerous world. The American people that lost faith in Congress and the residents of the fourth district of Oklahoma gave me an opportunity to go and make a contribution to change that.

The voters of my district said, "Join other members of Congress who share our values and views and get to work and fix the problems that face our country and our district." That is exactly what I have tried to do each and every day of the past eight years.

The battle to address the problems we faced in 1994 had been long, hard and sometimes uncertain. All the well-intentioned Americans and their representatives in Congress had other views and other priorities, and even in the fourth district not every citizen agreed with the goals and aspirations of the majority; that is as it should be. Our democracy thrives on elections, debate and compromise. It's part of what I like to call the magic of being an American.

But little-by-little, step-by-step, bill-by-bill progress has been made. Working with my colleagues and often across party lines, I have seen many of the goals accomplished that we set out to achieve in that exciting summer of 1994. We balanced our budget in a time of peace, proven that we had not lost the discipline so necessary for free people.

We reduced taxes not once, but twice. That helped working families improve their lives and fulfill some of their dreams, and it enabled small business men and women to invest more of their hard- earned capital to create the jobs and opportunities to vital to sustaining the American dream. Our welfare system has been transformed allowing millions of Americans to support themselves, reclaim their pride and independence, and dream of a better tomorrow for themselves and for their children.

Our military is being rebuilt and restored to greatness, and we have a commander in chief whom I admire and all Americans can trust and respect.

I am pleased to say that over the last eight years Congress have even managed to improve itself while achieving great things for the American people. The operations of Congress are more open and transparent; its staff is smaller and more responsive; its procedures more democratic; and its integrity less open to question.

I do not suggest that Congress has become a perfect place. It cannot be for it is an institution run by imperfect people. But I do believe that Congress is more responsive to the will of the American people, and that today neither party believes it holds a permanent majority in the United States House of Representatives. That's a very good thing for the American people and for the health of our political system.

For me personally, serving in Congress has been more than an honor. It has been one of the most exhilarating experiences in my life. Aside from achieving the great objectives that were laid out in my first campaign, my tenure in Congress has been marked by moments of enormous -- enormous -- personal satisfaction and achievement.

The passage of the Community Renewal Act, the most comprehensive piece of poverty legislation ever passed in the United States House of Representatives, and the faith-based initiative were high priorities for me, focusing in upgrading and improving the facilities and missions of Fort Sill Army Post, Tinker and Altus Air Force Bases were both matters of importance to our district and to our nation. And the chance to help thousands of constituents with individual problems is something, friends, I and my staff will always cherish.

Another thing I shall always treasure are the associations I have forged with my colleagues in the Oklahoma delegation -- Wes Watkins, Frank Lucas, Ernest Istook, John Sullivan, Brad Carson, Steve Largent and Mr. Tenacity himself, Tom Coburn -- and the associations that I forged with my colleagues around the country.

It has been a wonderful ride. It has been a wonderful journey.

The friends I've made in both parties will remain with me for life and I will follow their individual careers with interest, helping where I can, and always wishing them well.

Of course, the work of America is never done, but I believe that my work in the House of Representatives, at this time in my life, is completed. It is time to return home, to go on with other things in my life and assuming one of the most honored titles in all of America -- citizen.

This is not a decision I have reached easily. I've had extensive discussions with my patient and devoted wife, Frankie, my extended family, my staff, the president, the vice president, Rosa Parks, thousands of men and women in the faith community and my colleagues. Most importantly, I visited with many of the good people in the fourth district who so honored me by sending me to Congress on four separate occasions by ever-wider margins each and every time. Many have urged me to stay, but all have told me to follow my heart and follow my conscience. That's what I'm doing today in announcing my retirement from Congress at the end of this current term.

Retiring from Congress does not mean retreating from the public arena. Our democracy is based on citizen participation, and as a citizen, I intend to participate vigorously in the great ongoing debate over the future of the most wonderful nation in all the world.

In closing, let me once again express my appreciate to the good people of the fourth district for their support, for their constant prayers and their unceasing good will and decency. You have honored me greatly by giving me the privilege of representing you in the Halls of Congress.

I look forward to rejoining you as a neighbor, as a friend and as a productive citizen.

God bless you. God bless this magnificent country where wonderful things still happen to good people each and every day.

Thank you.


Before I go to questions, I want to just read something that -- I had talked to the president, talked to the vice president, talked to members of Congress. I talked to my political advisers who twisted my arm about every possible way that it can be twisted to say, "Don't retire." If I didn't love Tom Cole so much, I'd have kicked him in the chin.

(LAUGHTER) But I've got to share with you something that I was extremely honored to have this lady write me and fax me and share her thoughts, and I want to share this with you.

It says, "Dear Congressman Watts, thank you for your years of service to the United States House of Representatives. Many people are proud you have been dedicated to an opportunity few people of African-American descent have in this land. If you can, please remain as a pioneer on the Republican side until others come to assist you. I am glad I stayed in my seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus December 1, 1955. I did not know at that time people would rally as they did. I was pleased about their support, but it has sometimes been lonely.

"Through the years my life has had peaks and valleys, but I have never been sorry about my decision. The Lord has always provided.

"I would also like you to keep your seat and not think of your mantle as heavy, but think that you are chosen to prepare the way.

"Peace and prosperity, Rosa Parks."

KAGAN: You've been listening to Congressman J.C. Watts of Oklahoma as he speaks in his home state in Norman, Oklahoma announcing the end of his congressional career, saying he will not run for reelection. That calls to an end what will be an eight-year career in Congress. He is the only African-American Republican Congressman now serving.

Let's bring in our Kate Snow on Capitol Hill and get some perspective on this -- first, Kate, as I sit there listening to J.C. Watts, I have to think it might be the end of this stint, but this can not be the end of what we will hear from J.C. Watts.

KATE SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's entirely possible. A close associate of his has told me that, you know, it's not entirely unthinkable that he would come back some day, maybe serving Congress again or maybe get into politics in some other way.

But, I've been told over and over again, Daryn, and you saw it play out right there with some emotional words at the end, that this has been a very personal, difficult struggle for him, a very personal decision that he had to make. You heard him say, "for me personally, serving in Congress has been more than an honor." He said, "it's been one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life."

But when it came right down to it, he wanted to put some family first. He has five children with his wife. He also wanted the opportunity to do some other things. Our Judy Woodruff talked to him just a short time ago and he told her he hadn't decided what he's going to next. He used to be a youth minister. Maybe he'll go back to that, he says, but that's another bridge he has to cross.

Remember that this is a gentleman you might know better, because he used to be a football player. He was a football star at the University of Oklahoma. He then went on to the Canadian National Football League. He was once a Democrat, but then he switched parties, obviously, to the Republican Party, and as you've mentioned, Daryn, he is right now the only African-American Republican serving in the House, which makes him the only African Republican serving in Congress.

He had a number of concerns and some were saying that this was more of a political decision. Some were saying that he was concerned about not being able to move up within the House Republican leadership, that he was being stymied in that effort.

Others have said that he was upset, and he's acknowledged that he's been upset that the Bush Administration wanted to cut what's called the Crusader Artillery Program. You remember Secretary Rumsfeld announced that, and that is a program that was based in Oklahoma. So, J.C. Watts was very upset when that announcement was made, that another source of tension.

But then, finally, as I've mentioned, I think the personal reason above all, according to his associates, have been the most, the biggest reason why he's decided to make this choice. He talked to our Judy Woodruff a short time ago and talked about wanting to get back to his family.

KAGAN: Let's talk about the Republicans now...


WATTS: I've been in public service now for 12 years, four on the state level. It will eight on a federal level after this term ends, and so my family has supported me for 12 years, and I think it's time that I pay a little more attention to them and do a few more parent- teacher conferences and dance recitals and Little League baseball games.


SNOW: Little League baseball games, Daryn. You heard him say he wanted to follow his heart. He has talked to the president about this, the vice president, we learned, calling him last night begging him to stay on here, but he had to go with his heart -- Daryn.

KAGAN: And now the Republicans have to go with their heart and that is desperately try to hold on to the majority of the House side of Congress.

SNOW: Yes.

KAGAN: Even race aside, they can't afford to lose a single seat here, so what happens now and what's the game plan for Republicans?

SNOW: Yes. They absolutely can't, you're right, because it's so close, the margin right now in the House and with this election coming up; there are a lot of seats in play.

This one is said by political operatives to be a district that could go either way that the Democrats might have a chance at taking back.

I can tell you the Republicans are already moving on this. They are trying to recruit somebody by the name of Tom Cole. He's the former Secretary of State of Oklahoma, very well known politically in Oklahoma, and I know from sources this morning that he's indicated that he may be inclined to run. So, already some positioning going on to make sure they can keep that seat. Daryn.

KAGAN: In that town, you can't even wait for the seat to be empty before you have to start moving on things. Kate Snow on Capitol Hill, Kate thank you very much.




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