As Austinites stagger through month 26 of their city council-imposed homelessness crisis and near a full year since the police defunding, an interesting bit of news has emerged: Former State Sen. Kirk Watson might be running again to be the city’s mayor.
Watson, a Democrat, was mayor of Austin from 1997 to 2001 and a Central Texas-area state senator from 2006 to 2020. Watson resigned from the Texas Senate in 2020 to take an academic position at the University of Houston.
On the surface, trading incumbent Steve Adler for Watson appears to be a liberal-for-liberal exchange. However, beneath the surface, differences between the two suggest changes could be coming to city hall—specifically on the issue of homelessness.
The issue traces back to 2019, when the Democrat-run Austin City Council repealed the city’s longstanding public camping rules, allowing unrestrained homeless squatting in nearly all public spaces (except city hall, notably). The decision sparked a swarm of new tent cities along sidewalks and neighborhoods, a drastic increase in the city’s homeless population, a more dangerous public environment (including record surges of violent crime), and a wildfire of public backlash.
The city council also spent more than $160 million on its homelessness plan in the past three years, with few tangible results and many questions about where the taxpayer money actually went.
On top of that, last year, the council defunded the Austin Police Department by up to $150 million (one-third of their budget), provoking a record spree of homicides and violent crime on the streets and a “dire situation” at the department.
Long dubbed “Austin’s Last Sane Mayor,” Kirk Watson was instrumental in designing the old homelessness policies that the current council threw out in 2019. While the original ban on public camping predated Watson’s term, Gus Bova of the Texas Observer has documented Watson’s role in expanding and entrenching that policy. While the Watson-era policy had its shortcomings, it was undeniably better than the lawless status quo.
The current status quo, of course, was so untenable that Austin voters of both political parties overwhelmingly rejected it in May, voting to override the council and reinstate the city’s original camping rules.
That rejection created a dilemma for city hall officials, who are now trying to walk back their policies in a face-saving manner. Given this dilemma, a Kirk Watson mayoral campaign has obvious appeal.
In addition, a Watson mayoral run would seem parallel to the current mayoral situation in New York City.
Eric Adams, the current Democrat nominee (and general election favorite) for NYC mayor, won his party’s nomination with an aggressively pro-public safety message. Adams’ approach stands in stark contrast with his predecessor, current incumbent Bill DeBlasio, who was an outspoken supporter of defunding police.
Given the current discontent, there’s an opportunity for a pro-public safety but otherwise conventionally liberal candidate to fill the lane Adams filled in New York City.
Kirk Watson seems to fit that bill for many in Austin—though importantly, on other issues, Watson has a dismal history. During his decade in the Texas Senate, Watson earned an “F” rating in every single legislative session on the Fiscal Responsibility Index.
The filing deadline for next year’s mayoral election is still nearly a year away, so the field of candidates will undoubtedly grow.