Former Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts is coming home to speak at the Annual Conference of the National Foundation of Women Legislators (NFWL), where he plans to speak about moving a male-dominated political system “outside of the comfort zone.”
He has a long history of breaking stereotypes, so he supports women in politics who are finding their way in an environment where women might be considered ineffective. Yet, it is also a time when women are coming to the forefront in politics in a state that elected Gov. Mary Fallin as the first female governor in 2010.
Watts first became widely known in Oklahoma as a successful quarterback for the University of Oklahoma in the late seventies, disproving the belief at the time of many football coaches that African-American players do not make good quarterbacks.
After having become the first-string quarterback in 1979, he repeatedly proved doubters wrong. The most convincing example of this was when he led the team to its Orange Bowl victory over Florida State University in 1981.
Watts broke down another stereotype when he became Oklahoma’s first African-American elected to statewide office after winning a seat on the Corporation Commission in 1990.
He went on to represent the 4th Congressional district from 1995 to 2003 in a time when there were few black Republican members of Congress. He was also the first black member of Congress from Oklahoma and gained several leadership roles in the House of Representatives. He was the fourth-ranking member of the House Republican leadership and the only black member of Congress when he announced his retirement in 2002.
After leaving Congress, he built a successful lobbying firm that specializes in bipartisan efforts. It is one of five companies that he leads.
In a phone interview with Oklahoma Gazette, Watts covered a wide range of subjects that he considers to be important issues in American politics and policy now: women in politics, the class disparity in punishment for crime and sentencing reform.
Women in politics
“We can get so accustomed to norms that when you see somebody that doesn’t fit the mold, you take a step back and say, ‘Whoa,’” he said.
Watts is pushing for a day in which people don’t identify “a female news reporter,” or a “black Republican,” but simply a “reporter” and a “Republican.”
“I’ve lived my life in a way that I’ve kind of been often on the front end of stretching people, to get them outside of their comfort zone,” he said.
He has seen women who were successful at politics who “can be just as significant in the policy arena as anyone else.”
The large disparity between sentencing for different classes of people in our society is an important issue for Watts.
“You have two banks that paid $24 billion in fines and nobody goes to jail,” he said, “nobody loses their job, and then we say that money hasn’t taken over in politics?”
He argued that when people see bankers walking away from their conviction by paying a fine and not spending time in jail, it is a harsh contrast to those on the other end of the societal spectrum.
People seeing some serving more time for what Watts calls “low-level offenses” than those bankers served has started to erode people’s confidence in our system, Watts said.
Jody Thomas, executive director of NFWL, is eager to get her organization to Oklahoma City because she believes that the state is phenomenal.
She once lived here, which allows her to compare Oklahoma City then and now.
“Bricktown wasn’t even there when I lived here last,” she said.
Unlike many organizations that try to build bigger and bigger attendance numbers at their yearly conferences, Thomas said that NFWL wants to keep its event small enough to allow for meaningful dialogue and networking among all of its participants.
That means the organization will allow only about 100 attendees, which will divide into small enough sessions to have lively discussions between panelists and everyone in the room.
Thomas said that NFWL’s goal is to provide a safe environment where women legislators can collaborate.
Annual Conference of the National Foundation of Women Legislators
6 p.m. Friday -10 a.m. Tuesday
Print headline: Effecting change, Former Congressman J.C. Watts speaks Friday at national conference in Oklahoma City.