May 15, 2022

Kirk Watson, Running Again for Mayor, Wants Austinites to Look Forward

Reporting Texas

Krik Watson addresses the crowd during a rally in Austin in May 2022. Krissi Reeves/Reporting Texas

Beneath the blazing Texas sun, a hundred sweat-glistening Austinites sipped margaritas and mingled in the sandy backyard of the Scoot Inn in East Austin on a Tuesday in May. The historic  music venue’s marquee promised a local headliner —  familiar in name, but absent the musical identity usually touted on the outdoor stage. Topping the bill: Kirk Watson, former state senator, former Austin mayor and, now, a 2022 mayoral candidate. 

“I’m hopeful he’s going to bring better direction,” Austin resident Kathleen Kerr said. “He’s got a can-do attitude, which I like, and he’s thinking 20 years ahead, not two days ahead.” 

Watson, a longtime Central Texas political figure, is running his mayoral campaign on that exact notion: Austin needs a mayor with long-term, forward-looking direction —  not someone simply reacting to the day-to-day issues facing one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. 

But some may tie Watson to an era and a city of the past. He last served as Austin mayor from 1997 to 2001. While the city experienced significant population and economic growth during that time, Austinites now live a different reality. 

Since 2000, the city population has grown from about 650,000 to 950,000 — a nearly 50% increase. The city also continues to evolve into a bustling tech hub, boasting a 62% gain in tech jobs since 2010, according to the Austin Chamber of Commerce. Austin’s growth is not limited to tech. According to a recently released study by the Wall Street Journal, the Austin metro area touts the hottest labor market in the country. 

The flip side to the city’s growth and one of Austin’s most critical issues is housing affordability.

“We’re going to have to focus, it seems to me, on the other side of affordability, not just how much does it cost to build that house,” Watson said during a May interview. “But how do you put more money into people’s pockets, so they can afford them?”

The current Austin metro area median home cost is $517,495, up nearly 22% from last year. In November 2001, when Watson was last mayor, the metro area’s median home price was a cool $151,533. The skyrocketing housing costs have stripped the city of its ease of living, a core trait that, for so long, helped cultivate the city’s cultural identity. 

The 64-year-old lawyer and Democratic politician unflinchingly sees the city’s rapid transformation and complex challenges as an opportunity to leave his legacy on the city he’s called home since 1981. 

“The city ought to be looking at how to stabilize property taxes,” Watson said. “And for that matter, how do we address the cost of energy? And electricity? Because that’s a function of affordability too.”

In April 2020, Watson resigned from a 13-year run in the Texas State Senate to become the founding dean of the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs. While Watson said he found fulfillment and excitement in the high-profile position, he faced significant challenges navigating the remote role during the peak of COVID when universities across the country were wrestling with significant shifts in academic life. He resigned after only one year.

Since leaving the job, Watson has spent his days with his family, including his two young granddaughters, Effie and Birdie, and came to realize a familiar sense of purpose —  one rooted in legacy and vitality.

“Mayor was the first office I ran for, and it came after I had been diagnosed with metastatic testicular cancer,” Watson said. In 1992, the Austin lawyer had three surgeries and chemotherapy to temporarily achieve remission. Several years later when the cancer returned, this time in his abdomen. 

“The reason I tell you that is because one of the gifts of cancer was that it gave me the freedom to run for office. I felt a really important intensity and a sense of urgency,” Watson said. “Well, that’s the big change now, those grandbabies. The intensity that I have is a result of them and the urgency feels very similar.” 

Watson came to grips with a personal need to leverage his decades-long political career for a chance to leave the city in better shape than he found it. In February 2022, he announced his run for mayor. 

But there is much work to do. 

“Hitting the reset button is going to be about land-use reform, housing and affordability,” longtime local political consultant Mark Littlefield said. 

Littlefield supports Watson’s run for mayor and believes Watson can fulfill his promise to act quickly and creatively on unglamorous but important issues despite the snail-pace of municipal bureaucracy. 

Watson’s four terms in the Republican-dominated state Senate helped develop his legislative finesse. The District 14 senator worked across the aisle to advance a variety of Democratic goals such as government transparency and anti-discrimination laws while developing a reputation as a productive legislator. In 2019, he was elected Senate president pro tempore by his colleagues. 

“Watson frames his potential contribution to Austin city politics as this: anyone who says we only have binary choices on these really tough issues doesn’t know Austin,” Littlefield said. “When Austin has been the most successful, it’s when we say, no, there’s more than one way to do something. And that’s refreshing.”

While Watson imparts a forward-looking mayoral agenda, he knows that his political past will play a prominent role. 

“I truly believe that if I’m elected mayor, my relationships at the Capitol will work to the benefit of Austin,” Watson said.

First, Watson needs to be elected. And he is not the only familiar name on the ballot. While the filing deadline to run for mayor is not until August, the race is currently dominated by Watson and longtime Texas House Democratic Rep. Celia Israel.

Israel and Watson are the same age and share long public service résumés at the Texas Capitol. The queer Latina embraces many of the progressive values that Austinites regularly support and would represent one of the few breaks in a centuries-long pattern of the city overwhelmingly voting white businessmen and lawyers into office. 

In November, voters will decide if they are willing to place their bets on a political veteran emerging from the past or choose a new direction. 

In the meantime, Watson continues to focus on the city’s future. 

“What is our plan so that we’re prepared for the next 20 years?” Watson asked. “That needs to always be the question that comes into our minds every time we try to make a decision.”