Part 1 in a series: Kirk Watson wants the job that he resigned from 21 years ago to run for Texas attorney general
This is a story about Kirk Watson, not me, but readers should know that nobody covered this candidate as closely as I did back during his first mayoral campaign in 1996-1997 and during his first several years in office. In an exclusive interview in August 1996 I asked and he answered questions for two solid hours. The transcript of that interview, which I’m publishing here for the first time, runs 46 pages and more than 17,000 words.
I introduced Watson to my In Fact newsletter readers August 21, 1996: “Class president and state debating champ in high school. Magna cum Laude graduate in political science. Head of the class at law school (where he graduated at the age of 23), and editor-in-chief of the Baylor Law Review. President of the Texas Young Lawyers Association. Chairman of the Texas Air Control Board. Chairman of the Travis County Democratic Party. At age 38, Kirk Watson of the Austin law firm Whitehurst Harkness Watson et al is a man who had his ticket to success punched in all the right places. He’s never been anything but a winner. He has even conquered cancer.”
Watson had been diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1992, underwent three surgeries, and finished chemotherapy treatments in 1993. Then in 1995 he had a fourth surgery to remove a tumor in the lymph nodes, which turned out to be benign. With those health problems behind him Watson jumped into campaigning with a vengeance.
In that long first interview in 1996, I pointed out that being mayor of Austin might be a political graveyard and seemed at odds with obvious clues to his ambitions, practicing law in an office around the corner from the State Capitol.
He responded, “People tell me, Kirk, if you’re planning on doing this as a stepping stone, you’re out of your mind. I’m not… If I were gonna pick and choose for future personal political gain, you’re right, this would not be the place to pick to be. But I’m really, that ain’t the reason I’m running for mayor.
So why was he was running for mayor? “This is a wonderful place to positively impact a lot of lives,” Watson said. “Virtually anything (I) do as mayor of Austin will make a difference on whether (my sons) Preston and Cooper have an equivalent opportunity to enjoy and prosper in this town.” Preston graduated the University of Texas at Austin in 2012, majoring in history. He’s now 33, living in Austin, and working in the tech sector. Cooper is 27, living in Waco and finishing PhD studies at Baylor.
In the summer of 1996 Watson’s first campaign hire was consultant was Alfred Stanley. Stanley told the Bulldog he hasn’t worked with Watson since then, but he still has fond memories.
“He told me that if we didn’t have $200,000 in the bank by New Year’s eve he would consider the campaign a failure,” Stanley says. He was getting close but hadn’t quite reached that magic number by late December. “I waited for Rollingwood Mayor Tom Farrell to get the last bit to make the goal. I stood on his doorstep on New Year’s Eve waiting for him to get home. Then I could look Kirk in eye and say, ‘We made the goal’.”
In fact, Watson more than met that goal, as it turned out. As I reported at the time, through December 31, 1996 Watson reported contributions of more than $273,000, while his chief opponent, incumbent Council Member Ronney Reynolds, netted slightly less than $150,000.
Stanley says, “I drove Kirk to his first speaking engagement and my car died a mile before we got there, maybe a half-mile. Somebody drove by. They had a tow rope and towed us to where people were waiting for us,” Stanley says. “There were maybe 20 people there. From those inauspicious beginnings, he went on to be a successful mayor, goal-oriented and accomplished.”
I saw firsthand that Watson was a great campaigner, able to convey his big ideas for Austin’s future—such as setting a goal to build 3,000 downtown residential units in five years—while warming audiences with self-deprecating humor.
At a March 26, 1997, candidate’s forum hosted by several Democratic groups, Watson, his coat off, sleeves rolled up, stood as erect as his five-foot, seven-inch frame would allow, stood sideways, and called himself a “compact mayor for a compact city.” He gripped his protruding belly to add, “with a little growth in areas we don’t want.” This drew laughs. “But I will get fit as the city gets fit,” he added.
Environmentalists flexing political muscles
When Watson launched his campaign in 1996 it was a time when environmentalists had only recently gained political power. That was a direct result of the smashing victory of the Save Our Springs Ordinance that voters approved in August 1992 with a landslide margin of 64-36 percent. A watered down alternative thrown up by opposed council incumbents netted just 35 percent.
The SOS Ordinance was brought to the ballot by a petition drive led by the SOS Coalition (forerunner to the Save Our Springs Alliance). The business community, particularly developers, were dead-set against it, as it would strictly limit what could be developed over the Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer. This aroused fears the restrictions would slow economic growth. It took years for opinions to change and accept that a clean environment is good for the economy.
In addition to the SOS Ordinance, there were other monumentally important environmental actions happening during Watson’s first campaign for mayor. Just a few months before he kicked it off, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in May 1996 approved the permit to create the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve for the protection of endangered and at-risk species. The preserve was to total 30,428 acres.
Former U.S. Representative J.J. “Jake” Pickle was on hand for the ceremony, as was Bruce Babbitt, the Interior Secretary. Babbitt called this “the very first place in the United States we have produced an urban conservation plan.” He also issued a warning: “This is the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end. We’ve got a long way to go.”
The Save Our Springs Ordinance established strict limits on impervious cover throughout the watershed. The goal was to preserve Barton Springs, the iconic swimming hole that environmentalists viewed as the Soul of the City, and protect the habitat of the Barton Springs Salamander unique to the springs. It had taken two federal lawsuits filed by the Save Our Springs Alliance to force Secretary Babbitt to finally declare the Barton Springs Salamander an endangered species. That action was listed in the Federal Register April 30, 1997—just three days before the mayoral election.
Watson won his environmental spurs years long before launching a mayoral bid. Neil Carman, clean air program director for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, was working for the Texas Air Control Board when Watson was appointed chairman by Governor Ann Richards in October 1991. Carman was worried. He had been deposed by Watson in a 1982 lawsuit in which the young attorney helped represent Permian Oil Co. Carman was soon converted, however. Watson’s leadership snapped the board out of its rubber-stamp lethargy and moved the agency into the forefront.
As TACB chairman, on the heels of a local battle to close down an East Austin fuel farm, Watson formed an Environmental Equity and Justice Task Force to address environmental racism.
“Kirk was visionary,” Carman said of Watson’s accomplishments at the TACB. Watson’s stint at the TACB ended in August 1993, after he had helped blueprint creation of the successor agency, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (now the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality). The Sierra Club in 1994 honored him with a special service award.
Environmental politics were already raging when Watson jumped into the mayor’s race. Council Member Max Nofziger had won his seat in 1990 and was one of the strongest voices advocating for passage of the SOS Ordinance.
On the other side, the City Council majority that had opposed the SOS Ordinance were known as the RULE council, named for Reynolds (Watson’s chief opponent), Charles Urdy, Bob Larson, and Louise Epstein. The RULE council majority boycotted, defied a court order, abstained, and fought in court to postpone the SOS Ordinance election that could have been held May 2, 1992.
Despite the delay, its approval in August 1992 paved the way for political payback. Epstein chose not to run for reelection in 1993. Jackie Goodman, president of the Save Barton Creek Association, and Brigid Shea, a leader in the SOS Coalition that got the SOS Ordinance on the ballot, both won council seats in 1993. Shea won by knocking Larson off the dais. In 1994, Urdy resigned to take a job at the Lower Colorado River Authority.
The 1996 election of Daryl Slusher and Beverly Griffith added to the pro-environmental council cadre with a solid five-vote majority.
In the mayor’s race of 1997, Reynolds was the last man standing from the RULE council and he was squarely in the environmental crosshairs. In the three months the SOS Ordinance election was delayed, more than 200 development applications flooded in to beat the deadline. More than 3,600 acres that would otherwise have been subject to SOS protections escaped.
Adding substantially to Watson’s appeal was that he announced In March 1997 that he was endorsed by the last four chairmen of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. Reynolds was endorsed by the Real Estate Council of Austin, which environmentalists viewed as being dominated by developers who threatened efforts to preserve the land and protect endangered or at-risk species.
It was Watson’s win in 1997, along with reelection of Gus Garcia and election of Willie Lewis and Bill Spelman, that completed the installation of seven council members all backed by environmentalists.
Big issues in 1997 campaign
Watson was striving for the mayor’s job that at the time was held by Bruce Todd, who after reelection in 1994 was finishing up his second term. A lot of important issues were front and center.
Austin’s electric utility—The City of Austin owns its electric utility, which by law has a monopoly to provide service within its market area. But dark clouds began to gather in 1995 when the Legislature opened the state’s wholesale electric market to competition. That paved the way for retail competition. Fears were that municipally owned utilities would have to compete with the larger investor-owned utilities.
As the ninth largest municipally owned utility in the nation, Austin Energy (then called the Electric Utility Department) in July 1995 had 297,000 customers. It was a cash cow that helped keep down Austin’s property tax rate, because residents get a dividend through millions in profits it transfers to the city’s general fund.
With the looming threat that Austin Energy’s monopoly might be ending, in 1995 the City Council discussed selling the utility. Major utilities and the Lower Colorado River Authority were getting ready to bid if the city called for proposals, which Mayor Todd favored.
There were also serious discussions about establishing an independent board to manage the electric utility like San Antonio had, with the mayor serving as the only elected official.
A consultant recommended slashing payroll, slashing energy conservation spending and slashing revenue transfers to the general fund. Either that or issue a request for proposals to gauge interest in buying, leasing, managing and operating the utility. A narrow council majority opposed issuing the RFP.
LCRA General Manager Mark Rose, who had served on council 1983-1987, said the city should keep the utility. “I think if Austin were to sell this utility now they would be participating in the biggest con in the history of Austin.”
To get advice on how to get the electric utility into fighting trim and stave off competition, the council hired Metzler and Associates. These consultants promised radical, not incremental, change—and delivered it. Just 10 days before voters were to pick a new mayor in 1997, In Fact broke the news that 400 positions would be eliminated from a workforce of 1,232, most in mid- to upper-management. Some of those cuts would be accomplished by early retirements. Temporary employees would be eliminated. Layoffs would soon take effect. The job cuts and reduced spending on energy conservation would save a predicted $50 million a year.
Building new airport—In September 1993 the U.S. Air Force officially closed Bergstrom Air Force Base. In anticipation of its announced closing, Austin voters in May 1993 approved up to $400 million in airport system revenue bonds to construct a new municipal airport. The ballot language included the provision that Robert Mueller Municipal Airport would close once the new facility was opened.
Redevelop Mueller site— Robert Mueller Municipal Airport opened in 1930 as Austin’s first civilian aviation facility. Austin’s rapid growth dictated a replacement be found. Initially, sites were set on building a new airport in Manor. That idea was quickly shelved when the Air Force made known its plan to shutter Bergstrom. Moving commercial aviation to Bergstrom allowed the 711-acre Mueller site to be redeveloped. Planning for that opportunity started soon after voters approved money to repair Bergstrom’s environmental damage and prepare the Air Force facility to accommodate commercial flights.
Problem was the state’s Aircraft Pooling Board was making noises about condemning the Mueller airport and keeping it open for the Texas Army National Guard and private aircraft flights. While Reynolds and Watson were on the campaign trail both agreed that Austin should have a single airport, but recognized the next mayor would be involved in delicate negotiations to get the state to back off.
Campaign finance reform—While Watson and Reynolds were successfully beating the bushes and raising big bucks to fuel their campaigns, an upstart petition drive was underway that might put an end to huge donations for mayor and council elections. Reynolds and Watson both opposed these reforms.
The idea to restrict individual contributions to $100 per individual donor was radical and would if enacted stop the big donations that were boosting liberal candidates to victory. The foremost of those big checks were written by rock-’n’-roller Don Henley, who backed several progressives in 1996 with checks of up to $40,000. Both candidates he funded won. Henley was at it again in 1997 but stayed out of the mayoral campaign, where the environmentalists’ favored candidate, Kirk Watson, needed no help. By the time the final reports were in, Watson had attracted in $749,000 in contributions.
Mayoral election ends in a shocker
Given that eight candidates were running for mayor in 1997, two with deep experience on the City Council and the name recognition that goes with it (two-term Reynolds and former three-term Max Nofziger), it was no surprise that in the May 3, 1997, election no candidate managed to get a winning margin.
Watson scored 30,728 votes for first place at 48 percent, Reynolds got 24,915 for second place at 39 percent. Nofziger got fewer than 10 percent. So a Watson v. Reynolds runoff was in order to see who would succeed Mayor Todd.
But a big surprise was in store. As I reported in the in Fact newsletter May 7, 1997, what was supposed to be routine rubber-stamping of the May 3rd general election results turned into a jaw-dropping experience unprecedented in Austin electoral politics. With the runoff still 26 days away, Reynolds conceded defeat.
Reynolds had made some last-minute attacks on Watson with a mail piece that tried to paint him as an extremist. But in stepping down from the runoff, Reynolds swore off the nasty stuff. “I do not believe in negative campaigning and I’m not willing to give up my principles to win a political race,” he said.
When Reynolds invited Watson to speak, the somber looking next mayor said of the concession, “It’s one of the classiest actions I think I’ve ever seen in politics.”
Watson soon took office despite not quite having a mandate from the voters. For the next three years he took some occasional good-natured ribbing from old hands like Council Member Gus Garcia, who in that same 1997 election won his third term.
A lot has changed since Watson’s first try at winning the job of Austin’s mayor
Elections in November—The November 8th general election will be the last in which Austin’s mayoral elections will coincide with gubernatorial elections. The top vote-getter this year will win a two-year term. To stay in office, this year’s winner will have to compete for a four-year term in the 2024 presidential election year when turnout is much higher, even in local races. In the 2020 election when five council seats were up for grabs, voter turnout was 71 percent. In 2018 when Mayor Steve Adler was reelected, turnout was 10 percent lower. When Watson was elected in May 1997 the turnout was a flat 17 percent.
Campaign finance limits—Another key difference between campaigning in 1997 and today is that back then there were no limits on what individuals could contribute. That worked to Watson’s advantage. This year’s candidates can accept no more than $450 from individual donors. That hasn’t slowed Watson. He raised $997,465 from 3,139 unique donors through June 30th—four times the amount raised by State Representative Celia Israel. Campaign finance reports due October 11th will provide additional details.
More registered voters—On election day May 3, 1997 there were 367,709 registered voters. On May 7, 2022, 883,731 voters were eligible on vote in the Proposition A election on eliminating enforcement of low-level marijuana offenses and banning the use of “no-knock” warrants. Mayoral candidates in this election will need to reach about 2.4 times as many voters with their messages than when Watson was first elected.
Majority minority city—In 1990 the City of Austin’s population was 62 percent Anglo, 31 percent Hispanic, and 12 percent Black. By 2020 the population had radically shifted. Anglos made up 47 percent, Hispanics 33 percent, and Blacks 7 percent. The Asian population, which wasn’t tracked in the 1990 data, by 2020 had reached 9 percent. The 15-percent reduction in Anglo population share could be a factor in this mayoral election, especially when Watson is running against Israel, a well funded Latina.
Only at-large office—In 1997, the council consisted of the mayor and six council members, all elected at-large. Watson’s first mayoral race ballot included three of those council seats. In 2014, the City Council elections for the first time allowed election of council members from geographic districts, with only the mayor elected at-large. It’s up to mayoral candidates to reach the entire voting population, while the five council races only need to reach a small slice of voters.
Far more people—The City of Austin in May 1997 had a population of 567,566. By July 2020 the population was 1,003,614, according to the City’s Demographics website. That’s a 77 percent increase.
Higher national ranking—Among the biggest U.S. cities in 1990, Austin ranked 25th with a population of 494,290, according to this ranking. As of 2020 it was the 11th largest and stayed there in 2022. But because Austin’s population is only slighter smaller than No. 10 San Jose, No. 9 Dallas, and No. 8 San Diego, Austin’s far higher growth rate is all but certain to move past all three of those cities in the near future.
Bigger metro population—In 1997 the population of Austin Metropolitan Statistical Area in 1997 was about 800,000. In 2020 the Austin Chamber of Commerce pegged the Austin MSA at nearly 2.3 million, nearly triple the figure for 1997. “Austin ranked first among the 50 largest U.S. metros based on net migration as a percent of total population in 2020,” according to the Austin Chamber of Commerce’s website.
Dimmer political future—In May 2000 Watson was reelected to a second term with 84 percent of the vote. Not quite halfway through that three-year term, at age 43, he resigned in September 2001 to run for Attorney General. He was part of what Democrats were calling the Dream Team of El Paso banker Tony Sanchez for governor and former State Comptroller John Sharp for lieutenant governor. The Dream Team got creamed. Sanchez finished 18 points behind Rick Perry for governor, Sharp trailed David Dewhurst by 6 percent, and Watson fell to Greg Abbott by a 16 point margin.
Now at age 64, and having served 14 years as a state senator, winning the mayor’s job again would likely be Watson’s swan song.
The only other former Austin mayor who tried to make that kind of comeback was Carole Keeton Strayhorn. After serving three terms as mayor 1977 to 1983 (Austin’s first and still only woman mayor), running as a Republican she later won election to the Texas Railroad Commission and State Comptroller. She finished the latter post in January 2007. In 2009 at age 69 she ran for Austin mayor again and placed a distant third.
Out of spotlight—Longtime political consultant David Butts worked for Watson in his first mayoral campaign. Now he’s back on that job again.
“A lot of people here now weren’t here when Kirk was mayor,” Butts says. In fact, Austin’s population increased by more than 330,000 during the intervening years. Watson served as state senator four and a half terms, from 2007 through early 2020. But, Butts says, “You’re not as visible as a state senator (as you are as mayor).”
This is the first article in a series about 2022 mayoral candidate Kirk Watson. Part 2 will address his performance as mayor from June 1997 until he resigned in September 2001.
I launched the In Fact newsletter covering city hall and local politics in July 1995. In August 1996 I got an in-depth interview with mayoral candidate Kirk Watson. For the next nine months I covered his campaign, along with three city council races, right through the May 3, 1997 election. In addition, I covered every city council meeting and work session from July 1995 through July 2000, as well as all mayoral and council elections in those five years.
After selling the In Fact newsletter where I published most of my work about Watson, I wrote about him for The Good Life magazine that we published, including articles about his mayoral resignation.
Interview with Kirk Watson, August 15, 1996 (46 pages)
In Fact No. 92 excerpt, May 7, 1997 (2 pages)
Want to get elected but not be accountable? September 28, 2022
Mayor and council candidates rake up $2.3 million, September 7, 2022
Urbanists vie to replace council member Kathie Tovo, August 30, 2022
Let the mayor and council campaigns begin, August 22, 2022
Delgado will not be on the District 3 ballot, August 18, 2022
Cosmetic executive runs for mayor on message of unity, ‘cooperation’, August 18, 2022
The Life and Death of Barton Springs, The Good Life magazine, July 2002