Watts, Hill's Only Black GOP Member, retires.(NATION)

Article excerpt

Byline: Stephen Dinan, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Rep. J.C. Watts Jr., Oklahoma Republican and the highest-ranking black member of Congress, announced yesterday he will end his brief but prominent tenure in Washington by retiring at the end of the year.

"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," Mr. Watts, 44, said at a news conference in his hometown of Norman, Okla. "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."

Mr. Watts said he never intended to be a career politician and he is leaving to spend more time with his family. When he first ran and won in 1994 he pledged to serve three terms, and though he served a fourth at the urging of top party officials, he said he's accomplished enough.

"After 12 years in public service and 12 years of support from my family, I think now is the time for me to move on and come back and support them a little more," he said.

Mr. Watts is chairman of the House Republican Conference, the fourth-ranking slot among House Republicans. A number of high-profile folks tried to talk Mr. Watts out of his decision, including civil rights figure Rosa Parks and President Bush, with whom Mr. Watts said he played phone tag for a few days.

"I've got the president recorded on my answering machine at home," he said. "It's been kind of fun, my wife has been bringing the neighbors over and letting them listen to the voice of President Bush."

Mr. Watts is the only black Republican in Congress. There are no black senators from either party, though there are about three dozen black Democrats in the House.

"We will miss having someone in the Republican Party to which we are able to identify," said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, Texas Democrat and chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus. "Mr. Watts has been an outstanding role model as a high-ranking official in the Republican Party."

Mr. Watts said having Mr. Bush at the helm of his party and the country made him feel comfortable in retiring and believes the party would continue its outreach to minorities.

"I think the speed of the pack is determined by the leader. The leader of the Republican Party right now is George W. …