WASHINGTON, July 1 (UPI) -- When Julius Caesar Watts was elected to Congress in 1994, he was immediately thrust into the national spotlight.
Only the second black Republican elected to the House since the Great Depression, J.C. Watts was one of the stars of the first GOP majority in 40 years. In 1998, his colleagues elected him chairman of the House Republican Conference, the No. 4 leadership position. Now, after eight years of service, he is retiring.
The move is not unexpected. Watts tried to step down before the 2000 elections but was persuaded to run for a fourth term by House Speaker Denny Hastert, R-Ill., and others who were concerned about the Republican Party's ability to retain control of his congressional seat without him. Watts himself alluded to this Monday at the news conference announcing his retirement when he said, "I do not suggest that Congress has become a perfect place. It cannot be, for it is an institution run by imperfect people. But I do believe that Congress is more responsive to the will of the American people and that today neither party believes it holds a permanent majority in the United States House of Representatives. That's a very good thing for the American people and for the health of our political system."
Many Republicans feel his departure creates a void in the party's leadership that will be hard to fill.
"This is a tremendous loss for conservatives and Republican adherents," GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway said. "Rep. Watts brought a unique blend of competitive yet sportsman-like conduct, communications savvy, and a deep appreciation of the need to build consensus without abandoning principle."
Watts was a particular favorite of GOP conservatives because of his strong stand on moral issues and because of work on issues like the Watts-Talent Community Renewal Act to reduce taxes and regulations and encourage local and faith-based approaches to the issues of the inner city and rural America.
"We are going to miss him. He is someone who has stood up time and again for the interests of the family and for the unborn," the Family Research Council's Genevieve Wood said. "However, any congressman who says he wants to leave because he needs to spend more time with his family has our support. It is hard to take issue with that even though we are going to miss his strong voice in support of our issues."
Some suggest that the current tone on Capitol Hill also played a role in his decision to leave.
Columnist Arianna Huffington, who has been a longtime supporter of some of Watts' community initiatives, called his decision to retire "a real shame" and blamed the prevailing climate in Washington for it.
"Increasingly you are finding people who are leaving (Congress) because they believe they can do more good from the country from the outside," she said. "The list of good people who have left or are leaving is very long," she said, citing Watts and former Ohio GOP Rep. John Kasich as examples.
"Congress has become the kind of place where it is very hard to be a leader," Huffington said. "It is very hard not to become part of the status quo."
GOP strategist and commentator Rich Galen, who writes the Mullings.com newsletter, in part, shared Huffington's views but suggested it had been that way on Capitol Hill for a long time.
"There comes a point in people's lives when they are ready to make a change," Galen said. The political arena is no exception, he said.
Some elected officials, he said, "eventually come to the conclusion that they have gone as far as they can go in politics" and that it is time to go do something else.
"J.C. Watts has been the conference chairman for four years and he knows how to do that job and he has come to the realization that it is time to move on. When you are J.C.'s age, the chance to go and do something new is very attractive," Galen said.
Conway, whose firm The Polling Company does political work for GOP candidates as well as corporate and ideological surveys, agreed that the current climate played a part in his decision.
"Many of the Republicans in leadership recognize that winning the White House while losing the Senate created a bittersweet situation -- where, unfortunately bitter has prevailed," Conway said. "The obstructionist, obstinate, obtuse Daschle-Leahy crowd has prevailed. It is impossible for the House to deal effectively with a Republican president if the Senate continues to stand in the way. The lure of the private sector is quite strong for people who, like J.C. Watts, want to continue to make a difference."
Watts' departure brings to four the total number of GOP leadership posts that will have no occupants when the next Congress is organized. Some of the names being tossed about as his replacement as conference chairman are Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga.; Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash., and Rep. Chris Cox, R-Calif., who is currently the chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee.