For the first time since 2014, Austin is going to choose a new mayor – but who that will be is still undecided.
As election night came and went, nobody emerged with the 50% needed to win Austin’s mayoral race outright, so next month, Austinites will vote in a runoff between former state Sen. Kirk Watson and outgoing state Rep. Celia Israel.
Watson previously served as Austin’s mayor between 1997 and 2001 – a tenure during which he gained a reputation as someone who can compromise on big issues, something he took with him into the state Legislature. Kirk Watson talked to the Texas Standard about why he thinks he’s the best choice for mayor.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: To start off, housing’s been maybe the biggest issue of this campaign season. It’s something that affects people in Austin, but frankly, all across Texas, especially in the bigger cities. Why has this been so difficult to tackle and what would you do to try to address it?
Kirk Watson: Well, I think it’s been so difficult to tackle because the way it’s been handled up until now, for about the past decade, is that it’s been an “all or nothing” approach. And so when you have all or nothing, sometimes you end up with nothing. And it’s been very stagnated. I served on the Texas Sunset Commission for many years when I was in the state Senate, where we would review agencies and figure out how you make them work better. One of the first things we need to do is we need to do that with the Austin Permitting and Development Services Department. Then what we need to do is we need to make sure that we work with groups to say, how do we get a baseline of additional housing in all the different parts of the city? And then the final thing I would say is we have to use our transit corridors as a foundation for housing and density. But the bottom line to this is we’ve got to break out of this “all or nothing” mentality. And I’ve proven in the past on big issues that I’ve been able to get that done.
I want to talk a bit now about the planned expansion of Interstate 35. Highway expansions are something happening in Austin but also all around the state of Texas. You’ve gone on the record generally supporting the Texas Department of Transportation’s plans to expand I-35. I’d like to hear a bit about why, because you yourself have made the point that making the highways bigger doesn’t necessarily ease congestion.
Sure, and frankly, what I’ve said all along – although in campaigns, of course, things get distorted a little bit – is we need to make this the best plan we possibly can. And for quite a while I have been very successful in pushing TxDOT to improve this plan. So for example, as recently as 2017, TxDOT was talking about even maybe adding lanes to the upper deck. And I was able to get them to take out the upper decks altogether. We have to make that road work. That road is a part of, when we talk about affordability, which we were just talking about, it’s a regional issue, and transportation plays a role in affordability and how you get people into your town.
That road is also right now a bad road when it comes to being able to do anything with transit. Having two transit lanes added to it as managed lanes would allow us to do like what we’re doing on Mopac, where you have greater opportunity for transit – something that’s just a loss now. And then the final thing I’ll say about that is: That road is a monument to the divisions in this community and to racism. And if we could lower that road and be able to cap it and stitch east and west together, we ought to do everything we can to try to achieve that.
Let me move on to another issue that has been a big part of progressive politics the past couple of years, and that has to do with staffing and funding for the police department. In large part due to police budget cuts and prosecutions of some police officers for their actions during the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, this has been a big part of the conversation in Austin. What’s your take on whether Austin’s police are sufficiently staffed and funded?
Well, I believe we need to have full staffing, and they’re not fully staffed. But let me come at it from this approach: Look, everybody in this town has a right to be safe, and they have a right to feel safe. But again, it’s not a binary choice. We can have a just policing system by utilizing good recruitment, training, supervision and have a transparent system of accountability that actually works. But we have to be fully staffed. We have to reduce the response times that we currently have in Austin.
The Austin City Council has a reputation for taking progressive stances on several issues, including abortion, homelessness and policing. Do you think that that should be the posture of Austin city leaders? Or do you think that it’s better to stay below the radar of the state Legislature?
No, no, no. Again, I don’t think you have to have to do it one way or the other. Austin is a special place, and we need to defend the ability for people that elect folks to local government, to be able to carry out the desires that they want to carry out. That doesn’t mean you have to pick fights. You know, lay the telephone down from time to time – you don’t have to tweet every time you do something. But the truth of the matter is, if I’m elected mayor, I’m going to defend the values of my city, even if those values differ from people at the state Capitol.
I want to pick up on what you just said about laying the phone down. Do you have a feeling that maybe there’s political posturing that city leaders have?
Yeah, I think that too often our politics today is being played out on Twitter and things like that where it doesn’t need to be. You can defend your values, but that doesn’t mean that you’re always looking for a fight, and it doesn’t mean that you can’t work to have relationships so that you’re not just hoping that you’ll be in a fight and somehow, you know, maybe even losing the fight somehow makes you look like you’re a better advocate. That’s ultimately not doing the good for your constituents.