Watts said he hopes his organization can help his party build up its outreach to ethnic minorities.
As Republicans continue to grapple with their diversity problem, former Rep. J.C. Watts has moved to fill at least one void by launching a nonprofit charged with recruiting and placing ethnic minority staffers in GOP congressional offices.
Watts, an Oklahoma Republican and African-American who left Congress 10 years ago, said it could take years for his party to build the kind of outreach with ethnic minorities capable of countering Democrats’ success with such groups, which helped propel the party’s candidates to key victories in last year’s elections. Now a lobbyist, Watts hopes that his new organization, Insight, is one solution to a multifaceted problem.
“I am not offended by the words outreach, tolerance and diversity. I don’t see those as liberal code words,” Watts said Tuesday in a telephone interview.
Watts said his new organization, a 501(c)(4), would formalize an event that he has held in Haymarket, Va., for the past three years that served to connect African-Americans, Hispanics and other minorities interested in working for Republicans on Capitol Hill with GOP offices. The event has also served to help such individuals network with congressional offices and leaders of private-sector companies and community groups.
Insight will also seek to educate members on issues that affect minorities. Watts cited his work with Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, on legislation to prevent prison recidivism as an example of his plans.
Senate Democrats have run a program to place minorities in staff positions in their offices for more than five years.
The Senate Democratic Diversity Initiative was launched by Majority Leader Harry Reid and is a fully staffed office run by a senior adviser to the Nevada Democrat. Maria Meier, who runs the initiative for Reid, said Senate Democrats try to adhere to the National Football League’s “Rooney rule,” which mandates that at least one qualified minority candidate be interviewed for all open high-level coaching positions.
Meier said the initiative provides minorities who want to work on Capitol Hill with help navigating the interview process, writing résumés and other advice. The initiative also assists Democratic Senate offices with finding qualified minorities for open staff positions. The goal of the initiative, Meier said, is to help Democratic senators “make sure their staffs look like the constituents they serve.”
Charles Chamberlayne, a former aide to Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Watts’ new organization is a welcome development for Republican professionals who are ethnic minorities and want to see the GOP improve its prospects with voters from diverse backgrounds.
Chamberlayne, an African-American who now runs his own public relations firm, said Insight could help create a new grass-roots community of minority Republican congressional staffers that could boost the GOP long term, although he conceded that the real solution is to recruit and elect more candidates from ethnic backgrounds for them to work for. Still, what Watts is doing could help diminish the Republican Party’s stigma within minority communities.
“What J.C. is doing is helping to repair that bridge and build a bridge,” said Chamberlayne, who also advised then-Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., on minority outreach.
Rodell Mollineau, a former Reid aide who now works for the Democratic super PAC American Bridge 21st Century, lauded Watts for his effort and said the former congressman’s new group is a positive development for those interested in encouraging ethnic diversity on Capitol Hill. But Mollineau questioned whether Watts would be successful given that minorities tend to identify as Democrats, particularly since President Barack Obama was first elected in 2008.
“As an African-American I welcome all different venues for bringing more diversity to Congress and the administration,” Mollineau said. “But people come to Washington, D.C., to work on issues they believe in, and Congressman Watts needs to ask himself whether he can find minorities willing to fight for the things the Republican Party stands for.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.