Mayoral contest between two career politicians leaves progressives divided or uncommitted
Mayor Steve Adler, who forged a tenuous alliance between progressives and Austin’s business community, is in his final few months in office.
Several leading progressives have also recently left the council. The charismatic Greg Casar, a Democratic Socialist, stepped down in January to run for Congress, and the combative Jimmy Flannigan was ousted by voters in 2020. That same year Delia Garza won a post as county attorney.
Since then, the council has backed away from criminal justice reforms demanded by grassroots groups in 2020, most recently by reinstating funding for a previously nixed police program—the license plate reader program, which had been eliminated through a budget amendment in 2020—and by leaving unfinished many recommendations of the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, which they established in 2020.
These developments increasingly leave the far left without a clear champion at City Hall.
The frontrunner in the nonpartisan mayoral race, Kirk Watson, has courted the progressive left with donations to such groups as Austin Justice Coalition, Capital Area Progressive Democrats, and Workers Defense Project. But Watson, a former state senator, former chair of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, and one-time mayor, is an unlikely champion for a political movement demanding radical systemic change. In a recent article in the Austin Monitor, he was described as a “symbol of the old guard” and a “fixture of Texas politics” for decades.
Watson, 64, has raised big money from establishment business interests and is endorsed by the Austin Board of Realtors and Texas Restaurant Association Greater Austin Chapter, among others. According to campaign finance reports, Watson raised $997,000 through June 30th, including scores of donations from real estate professionals, lobbyists, and developers.
State Representative Celia Israel, the other leading Democrat in the race, is likewise a veteran politician, having served in the Texas House since 2015, worked as an aide to Rep. Glen Maxey (D-Austin) before that, and worked for Governor Ann Richards in the 1990s.
She has tried to cast herself as the more progressive of the two, and has won endorsements from Council Member Jose “Chito” Vela, State Representative Donna Howard (D-Austin), State Representative Vikki Goodwin (D-Austin), the LGBTQ Victory Fund, the Latino Victory Fund, Travis County Attorney Delia Garza, and Ground Game Texas co-founder Julie Oliver, who twice ran for Congress.
Oliver said in a statement, “Celia is the only candidate in this race who exhibits the political courage we need to get the really big, aspirational things done in Austin… Celia would be a mayor for all of us, not just those who can buy access.” Similarly, Vela said in a video endorsement that Israel “has the working class background and has what it takes to be the next mayor of Austin.”
Israel, 58, also won the nod of Austin Young Democrats, Northeast Travis County Democrats, and Circle C Area Democrats.
But Israel has struggled to lock up endorsements from unions and key progressive advocacy organizations that have had a growing influence in Austin politics in recent years. For example, Workers Defense Action Fund endorsed Watson over Israel, as did IAFF Local 975 (Austin Firefighters Association), Laborers’ Local 1095, UniteHere Local 23, AFSCME Local 1624—which represents city and county employees—and the Austin EMS Association.
Thus far Watson has also won endorsements from more elected officials than Israel, including both conservative Democrats—such as former Mayor Lee Leffingwell—and progressives, such as Travis County Judge Andy Brown. Other public supporters include City Council Members Sabino Renteria, Ann Kitchen, and Leslie Pool; and County Commissioners Ann Howard, Jeff Travillion, and Brigid Shea.
In an interview, civic activist Julio González Altamirano described Israel as “more progressive on housing, transportation, the budget, economic development, et cetera.” But he conceded that “labor groups and other progressive constituencies are not uniformly for Celia.” Some groups are backing Watson, while others are still on the sidelines.
Altamirano, who backs Israel for mayor but isn’t closely associated with her campaign, attributed this in part to a desire by stakeholders to back the winning horse—given that Watson is widely considered the frontrunner.
Watson’s experience and extensive political network are also playing a role: “Some (stakeholders) have good relationships with one or the other candidate and that supersedes ideology,” he said.
On the other hand, Paul Saldaña, a former chief of staff to Mayor Gus Garcia and a supporter of Watson, said that the endorsements are a vote of confidence in Watson’s competence: “There a lot of important decisions on the horizon and they’re leaning towards Kirk to get things done.”
Although Saldaña questioned whether it was helpful to describe Israel as the “progressive” candidate in the race, given the nebulousness of that term, he agreed that Watson was somewhat more centrist than Israel. Saldaña said that the city was looking for “stability” after a period of political turbulence. That dynamic favors Watson, he said, “because you really do need to have somebody who can be a consensus-builder and bring people to the table.”
Saldaña, who is also a former Austin ISD trustee and co-founder of the political action committee Habla y Vota, said that Watson’s coalition is diverse and he has strong support among Austin Latinos. “Kirk just resonates really well with us. We may not always agree, but he has an open door policy, he’ll call you back, he’ll meet you, he’ll debate you, he’ll do all those things—but most importantly he’s present,” he said.
Watson also had a record of facilitating tough conversations on racism during his time on council, he said, following incidents of police tensions with Black and Hispanic communities at the time. “What I remember and what made a very strong impression on me was that back in the late ’90s, Kirk was brave enough as the mayor of a big city in Texas to be facilitating conversations about racial reconciliation and racism, which is not an easy thing to do. That is still a very polarizing conversation for some in 2022.”
‘Break up the status quo’
According to Altamirano, Watson’s appeal this year is due in part to cyclical factors that favor a “safe” establishment candidate. Turnout in mid-term elections is typically lower than in presidential election years, and mayoral candidates need to raise funds not just to win the November election but also a runoff in December.
“The median runoff voter, depending on the race dynamics, you can expect that they’re going to be more—not necessarily Republican—but they will probably be more conservative because they will be older and a homeowner,” he said.
In such an environment, a candidate who could distinguish herself as the more aggressive change-maker might be able to advance to a runoff but would face difficulty at that stage. For Israel, therefore, the challenge is to run far enough to the left to distinguish herself from Watson, without alienating constituencies that she might need at the runoff stage.
On her website and in campaign emails, Israel says she’s running to “break up the status quo and get stuff done for working people.”
But Israel herself is not exactly an “outsider candidate,” according to Altamirano. “It’s really hard to categorize her coalition. Because if you try to characterize her as like the urbanist, social democratic, outsider candidate, that’s not exactly true,” he said. “There are some neighborhood folks, and folks who are skeptical of CodeNEXT, there are some of what I would consider establishment people there, obviously, a lot of long-term elected officials and civic elites that are supporting her.”
Israel’s public supporters include activists who stand on opposite sides of the CodeNEXT debate, such as environmental advocate Susana Almanza and housing advocate Greg Anderson, according to a list of endorsements emailed by Rich Thuma, Israel’s campaign manager.
Still, Altamirano prefers Israel’s policy proposals to Watson’s and thinks she’d be more aggressive on the dais. Like the current mayor, Steve Adler, Altamarino said he thought Israel would try to build majorities on the council with an inclination to aim for “the most ambitious outcome feasible.”
Comparing Watson and Israel, he said, “Are they both Democrats? Yes. In the scheme of national politics, are they both left of center? Yes. Have they both done things that are fairly progressive, by national standards and Texas standards? Yes. So…it really is not a label thing. I think it really comes down to the how much urgency we have around making some policy changes.”
“I think it is more about do you want that mayoral tie-breaking vote to take a little bit more of a proactive stance in pushing for a more aggressive change from the status quo policy direction? Or do you want a more moderate and slow approach to addressing challenges? And so I think temperamentally, that’s the big difference,” said Altamirano.
Saldaña, however, questioned whether Israel would be a unifying figure in the way that he thought Watson would be. He described Watson as the person to bring “resolution” to the fraught topic of the Land Development Code, which has polarized Austin city politics for nearly a decade.
“I think if anybody can help bring some type of resolution to get us back on track to address this Land Development Code, I think he can do it. And I think his experience has proven that, that he can do it,” he said.
Saldaña added, “I’ve been concerned about the direction our city has been heading in certain areas, as have a lot of people…who think we need some stability in the city. We need to kind of stop, check in, and then get us reset and move us in the right direction.”
“With all due respect to Celia—I have the utmost respect for her, she served as state representative—but honestly she hasn’t been around for a lot of these conversations, and I’m concerned that she’s not going to be that consensus-builder (that Watson would be) and certainly doesn’t have that public policy experience at the city level.”
Watson served as mayor from May 1997 to November 2001. He won 49 percent of the votes in 1997, advancing to a runoff that he won by default when his would-be runoff opponent Ronney Reynolds dropped out. Running for reelection in 2000, he faced no serious opponent and cruised to victory with 84 percent of the votes.
He lost a bid for Texas Attorney General in 2002 to future governor Greg Abbott but apart from that has won resoundingly in each of his senate contests, most recently taking 72 percent of the votes in the 2018 general election. He resigned that office April 30, 2020, to become the first dean of the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs.
For her part, Israel has served in the Texas House since 2015. She won reelection most recently in 2020 with 69 percent of the votes. Her voting record in the legislature won her top marks from progressive interest groups, and poor marks from conservative groups and business groups, according to legislative scorecards produced by the lobby groups. Watson earned similar marks from the same groups.
Apart from Watson and Israel, four other candidates are running for mayor: Anthony Bradshaw, Phil Brual, Gary Spellman, and Jennifer Virden.
The best funded and politically connected of these is Virden, who ran a nearly successful campaign for District 10 in 2020, losing to Alison Alter in runoff election by just 656 votes (51-49 percent). Virden began preparing and fundraising for her mayoral run not long after losing that election, allowing her to build on an existing network of supporters and donors.
Virden, a Republican, isn’t advertising any endorsements from conservative stakeholders, which might be a liability in a general election. In a recent interview with the Austin Monitor, she downplayed her party affiliation, saying, “I don’t have a lot of admiration for either of the national political parties. My personal views kind of run the gamut. And what I can commit to Austin voters is that they will not get my perspective thrown into their face on national issues, because that will not be my job as mayor of Austin.”
The Federal Elections Commission’s website indicates she made two $50 donations to Donald Trump’s Make American Great Again Committee in June and July 2020.
If she wins, Virden says she would fight to lower property taxes, boost police funding, and comprehensively review all city expenditures.
Needless to say, the odds of a Republican winning a mayoral race in Austin have to be considered pretty low. But with six candidates on the ballot, she wouldn’t need anywhere near a majority of votes to make it to a runoff.
That’s what happened in her D10 council race in 2020, when she beat Democrat Pooja Sethi and four other candidates for the second-place slot, taking 25 percent of the votes to Sethi’s 18 percent.
“Nothing would surprise me,” Saldaña said. “That certainly is a possibility. Because women are the dominating demographic profile of who our voters are and there are some folks who, you know, want to see a woman as our next mayor. So I could certainly see that as a potential scenario.”
Trust indicators: Bulldog reporter Daniel Van Oudenaren is a journalist with 13 years experience in local, state, and international reporting.
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