Former Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) says the Republican Party is “in denial” about its image problems with minority voters — and he argues the “burden of proof” is on the GOP to show it is sincere about repairing relationships with communities tilting toward Democrats.
Watts, who left Congress in 2003, recently launched INSIGHT America, a nonprofit group designed to boost diversity within the GOP.
It’s one of several GOP efforts at minority outreach launched in the wake of the 2012 election, in which President Obama won large majorities of the black, Hispanic and Asian American vote.
“Right now, there is not a strong relationship between minority communities and the Republican Party,” said Watts, who was in Washington on Wednesday to give a speech to the Heritage Foundation.
“The burden of proof is on us and it starts with relationships … We lost eight out of 10 demographics in the last election, so we have to be getting back to basics,” he added.
The basics, he said, include recruiting ethnic minorities for internships on Capitol Hill — one of his group’s goals.
INSIGHT America plans to hold networking forums with African American, Asian American, Hispanic American and Native American Congressional staff associations.
And it hopes to raise awareness about issues like economic development, poverty, and the re-entry of prison inmates into mainstream society, even though they are “not sexy Republican issues.”
For Watts, a former chairman of the Republican conference, these are the prerequisite building blocks for a party that he says is faltering with minority voters after years of neglecting them.
“I don’t believe that all black people think alike – I just think most of them vote alike,” he said, referring to exit polls showing President Obama won 93 percent of the African American vote last November.
“If you have many of them that would agree with Republicans on issues, then why don’t they vote with us?”
Watts said some of the messages that were sent to minority communities during the 2012 election wouldn’t have been so damaging had solid relationships been established in the first place.
He took a dig at GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney for his infamous comments that 47 percent of voters were dependent on government handouts and would never vote for him.
“When you’re in the football locker room with a bunch of guys of different backgrounds, you can say things that are politically incorrect and be able get away with them because you know these people well,” said Watts, a former University of Oklahoma and Ottawa Rough Riders quarterback.
“If you say something about 47 percent of the American population — regardless of how true that is — it may not bode well because you don’t have the relationship with those people you’re talking about to be able to say those things.”
Going forward, Watts says it’s up to the Republican Party to reach out to broad sectors of the American populace.
“Members of the Republican Party can’t continue to think like Washington centric consultants or else we are going to get our head handed to us.”
But Watts said “it’s not the mission” of his group to get more minorities to vote Republican.
“It might lead to that if we pass good policies … but we are focused on leadership development,” he said.
Watts said INSIGHT America is focusing on issues that he’s been talking about for 25 years — like helping ease the transition of former prison inmates into the workplace.
“People who’ve gone to prison pay their debt to society, and when they get out, they often times see the light and try to change their ways,” said Watts, who worked on the issue in the 1990s.
“It’s impossible for them to get a job though because of their record, so how long are we going to hold it against these people even though they may have gone to prison for something like the possession of marijuana? … Now many of them have to apply for food stamps and public housing.”
Watts also wants to address minority healthcare disparities, find ways to get more minorities to take jobs in the oil and gas industry and grow small businesses.
“We are naive if we think that growing a small business is all about good management, quality and cycle times – it’s about good access and relationships to help these small businesses grow into medium or large size businesses.”
He’s keen, too, on placing more minorities in Capitol Hill internships.
“Congressional offices can be assured that the interns they receive from INSIGHT America will have a seal of approval, because we know how and where to recruit these people whether it be from historically black colleges and universities to churches or other communities,” he said.