NORMAN, Okla. -- Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, the only black Republican in Congress and a member of the House GOP leadership, said Monday that he won't run for re-election.
"It has been a wonderful ride. It has been a wonderful journey. Of course, the work of America is never done, but I believe my work in the House of Representatives at this time of my life is completed," Watts said at a news conference in Norman, where he was a football star for the University of Oklahoma before entering politics.
Watts, 44, said he wanted to spend more time with his family but had no immediate job plans. He has also told Republicans that he is tired and needs to make more money for his family.
He was first elected to the House in 1994 and joined the leadership four years ago, in the fourth-ranking position of chairman of the House Republican Conference.
In a statement, House Speaker Dennis Hastert praised Watts and said his "eloquence and inspiration brought GOP values and principles directly into the working households across America."
A race for his post
His departure could give Democrats an opportunity to pick up a seat in the battle for control of the House this fall. And he is the second member of the House GOP leadership to announce retirement plans, joining Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas.
"House Republican leaders must know something that the rest of the caucus doesn't, that their chances for holding the majority are slipping away faster than the sand in an hourglass," said Jenny Backus of the House Democratic Campaign Committee.
Within minutes of the announcement, a race broke out for his leadership post. Reps. Deborah Pryce of Ohio, Jim Ryun of Kansas and J.D. Hayworth of Arizona declared their intention to seek the job, and other contenders were possible.
Watts occasionally has complained that he was not included enough in leadership decisions. More recently, the congressman, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, expressed concern that President Bush did not communicate with him about the administration's plan to kill the Crusader artillery system.
Rose quickly in ranks
Watts had a fast ride to the party's top echelon after his election among the Republicans' conservative class of 1994.
He spoke during the 1996 GOP presidential convention and gave the party's response to the State of the Union address in 1997. A year later, he was named chairman of the Republican Conference.
Bush, Vice President Cheney and other Republicans had lobbied Watts to stay in Congress, as did Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up a seat on a bus in Birmingham, Ala., in 1955 was a seminal moment in the civil rights struggle.
"If you can, please remain as a pioneer on the Republicans side until others come to assist you," she wrote. "I am glad I stayed in my seat."