By Patrick Rogers
Updated March 24, 1997 12:00 PM

CITY COUNCIL MEMBERS IN TINY Eufaula, Okla., hardly expected resistance when they renamed a street after local football hero J.C. Watts Jr., a University of Oklahoma star quarterback who had recently led his team to back-to-back Orange Bowl victories in 1980 and ’81. But the street already happened to be named after President Andrew Jackson. “I had historians and citizens raising Cain that we were desecrating the memory of a President,” says Mayor Joe Johnson. “We felt J.C. Watts would be more important to the history of Eufaula than Jackson ever was.”

Time has proven the Eufaula city council right. In 1994 voters from Oklahoma’s mainly white fourth congressional district sent Julius Ceaser Watts Jr. to Washington with a conservative Republican message (he blames government handouts for “enslaving” the poor, including African-Americans) and the charisma to deliver it like a Southern Baptist preacher (he was ordained in 1993). Now Watts, 39, has emerged as an attention-grabbing GOP asset—a label-defying populist and the only black Republican in the House. “To me ‘conservative’ doesn’t mean Republican or Democrat,” says the still-athletic, 220-pound pol. “It means the way my mama and daddy raised me…. By God, you were going to work and be in church on Sunday. You were going to go to school and act civilized.”

Watts is regarded as a man on a mission. “J.C.’s doing what he knows in his heart needs to be done,” says his wife, Frankie, 39, a homemaker, who met Watts at his eighth-birthday party. Symbolic of his anti-Washington stance, he lives in a small apartment near the Capitol four days a week, then returns to Norman to see Frankie and their five children—ages 6 to 20—on weekends.

Predictably, Watts’s conservative positions have angered mainstream civil rights leaders. “I don’t know if J.C. is knocking down barriers as much as knocking down [social welfare] programs,” says Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), son of civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson. Others point out that, despite his family-values rhetoric, Watts, who was his party’s pick to deliver the televised Republican rebuttal to President Clinton’s State of the Union address in February, quietly admits to fathering a daughter out of wedlock. (She was raised by one of Watts’s relatives.) Watts has also been criticized for failing to pay part of his 1994 and ’95 business taxes—$67,000, including interest—until last year. “I take full responsibility,” he says.

Watts’s peccadilloes have done little to dampen his popularity in southwest Oklahoma. Of course, as a former gridiron star, he has a decisive advantage: In a 1994 name-recognition poll, he scored a stunning 87 percent. “I’ve had a lot of people say that he’d be the first black President,” says Watts’s father, J.C. “Buddy” Watts, 73, a lifelong Democrat and jack-of-all-trades who worked three jobs to support his six children and late wife, Helen, in a racially divided town. “I remember I had to sit in the balcony of the movie theater,” J.C. Jr. says of growing up in Eufaula. “The black and white communities were literally separated by the railroad tracks.” In 1973, Watts became the Eufaula High School Ironheads’ first black quarterback. Courted by football recruiters from several colleges, he accepted a scholarship to the University of Oklahoma in Norman and by 1979 was a key part of the Sooners’ famed wishbone offense under head coach Barry Switzer.

When the New York Jets offered Watts a spot on the team but not as a quarterback, he headed north in 1981, playing in the Canadian Football League for six seasons. In 1986 he returned to Norman, working with disadvantaged kids in a church program and starting a money-losing petroleum marketing firm. In 1989, disillusioned with Democratic “liberal cultural values,” Watts reregistered—and ran for office—as a Republican, much to his family’s dismay. “I told my wife, ‘Now the Negroes won’t vote for him because he’s a Republican, and the whites won’t vote for him because he’s a Negro,’ ” says his uncle, Rev. Wade Watts, a Baptist minister. Rev. Watts was wrong: In the fall of 1990, J.C. handily won a seat on Oklahoma’s Corporation Commission, which regulates the state’s oil industry and public utilities, and ran successfully for Congress four years later.

Not one to shy from the political heat, Watts has plunged into the debate over welfare reform. On March 12 he reintroduced the controversial American Community Renewal Act, which includes a school voucher plan and federal funding for church-sponsored social services. His delight in the political fray has one constituent worried, however. “When he says this is going to be his last time running, two years from now, it’s hard for me to believe,” says Frankie. “J.C.’s not the type of person who’s going to come [home] and sit.”


JOSEPH HARMES in Oklahoma and JANE SIMS PODESTA in Washington