In a field of 73 GOP freshman representatives in the last Congress, Oklahoma's J.C. Watts was a rookie sensation.

Only the second black Republican elected to the House since Reconstruction, the 39-year-old former football star was a favorite of party leaders.

Elected in November to a second term with a 58% majority in his southwestern Oklahoma district, the businessman and ordained Baptist minister has obvious appeal. He's self-confident, even boisterous, before an audience.

The GOP, eager to make the most of its minority success stories, has pushed Julius Caesar Watts Jr. into high-profile roles whenever possible.

Last August, the father of five landed a prime-time speech at the Republican National Convention. The former University of Oklahoma signal- caller wowed the crowd by quipping that vice presidential nominee and ex- Buffalo Bill field general Jack Kemp was only the party's "second-best quarterback."

On Thanksgiving Day, Rep. Watts gave the GOP's traditional message to the country, in which he praised Congress for overhauling welfare.

To the delight of bankers in his home state, Rep. Watts has just signed up for another stint on the House Banking Committee and hopes to create a legislative record to justify his growing media prominence.

His priority: cutting regulations so banks can loan more money.

"Economic growth is at 2.4% annually, and I think we can do much better," he said in an interview. "Financial institutions are obviously critical to economic growth and contribute most when they can make loans and get money into the marketplace to small business and entrepreneurs."

Though he made little impact during his first term on the banking panel, he plans to step up his efforts this year.

He said he would reintroduce the one major piece of banking-related legislation he sponsored in the last Congress, a proposal to give banks Community Reinvestment Act credit for lending in poor and rural areas designated as "renewal communities."

Co-sponsored by Jim Talent of Missouri, chairman of the House Small Business Committee, the controversial plan would require state and local leaders to cut taxes and reduce licensing and zoning burdens in communities nominated for the program.

In addition to expanded CRA credit, the program would offer a variety of tax breaks for businesses that invest in these communities.

"One of the real burdens of the minority community is lack of capital," he said. "We've got to do things that create capital for these communities, such as modifying the tax code."

Though the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee's human resources subcommittee held hearings on the bill in July, the proposal went nowhere.

Undaunted, Rep. Watts said his bill demonstrates how conservative policies can ease regulatory burdens and help distressed communities at the same time. "Trying to work those things out can be tough," he said, "but they are not so insurmountable that they can't be overcome."

For working to cut taxes and CRA burdens, and to boost development lending, Rep. Watts gets high marks from Oklahoma bankers.

"I think he's done an outstanding job," said Frank Swan Jr., president of First State Bank in Harrah, Okla. "He's a strong supporter of community banks and understands a lot of issues we are up against trying to comply with consumer laws and serve customers at the same time."

Rep. Watts, who grew up poor in Eufaula, Okla., said he has seen how a lack of investment and opportunity can crush a community, but he chooses a conservative solution shunned by most minority colleagues.

The Community Reinvestment Act, fiercely guarded by banking committee Democrats and the Clinton administration, is one of his favorite targets.

"You shouldn't ask financial institutions to lend money when circumstances are such that it's going to be a questionable loan," he said.

Instead, he wants the banking panel to combat lending discrimination and reward institutions that do business in distressed communities.

"Let's give some relief to make it easer for banks to lend," he said. "That's the role of the banking committee."

"I want to see capital formation for small business and minority entrepreneurs," he said. "I don't believe any community should be redlined; that's like saying let's allow this neighborhood to sit on the vine and die."

Rep. Watts predicted he would remain on the banking committee as long as he stays in the House. The five military bases in Oklahoma preclude him from giving up his prized seat on the National Security Committee, and it's doubtful he could win appointment to a second high-profile committee like Ways and Means or Commerce.

Whether he stays in the House is another question, however, said Oklahoma Secretary of State Tom Cole, who convinced Rep. Watts to enter politics with a successful run for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission in 1990.

Mr. Cole predicted Rep. Watts would one day run for statewide office- governor or senator.

"He's the first Republican to represent his district," Mr. Cole said. "If he can win there, I can guarantee he will win statewide."

Mr. Cole even likes Rep. Watts as a candidate for vice president. "He's that strong a candidate. He speaks passionately about things conservatives believe in."

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