Feb 23, 2022 - News

Austin's political son plots his return

Kirk Watson

Former Austin Mayor Kirk Watson said Tuesday he's running for his old job. Photo: Ricardo B. Brazziell/American-Statesman

Kirk Watson wants back in City Hall.

Driving the news: After telegraphing his intentions for months, the former Austin mayor and Democratic state senator said Tuesday he's running to be the city's mayor again.

Why it matters: Watson is the immediate front-runner in a bid to regain his spot as king of Austin City Hall.

A savvy, master dealmaker who dominated local politics since the late 1990s, overseeing Austin's boomtown rise, he quit his gig as dean of the Hobby School at the University of Houston in May, only a year into the job.

  • The 63-year-old Watson, an attorney by training, had said the pandemic changed his appetite for leaving Austin.
  • In recent months, he met with political advisers and made mayoral-like appearances around town — telling news outlets he was considering a run.
  • Sociable, deeply connected and widely respected, he'd have no trouble raising campaign money.
  • Watson probably has the greatest local name recognition of anyone who has flirted with politics who isn't named Matthew McConaughey.

Campaign finance reports show that Watson has been spreading around cash this past year to key endorsing groups, from Tejano Democrats to University Democrats to the Austin Justice Coalition.

Yes, but: Does Austin want him back?

With the city tilting leftward, Watson, who steered clear of "defund the police" rhetoric during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, risks seeming out of step with some voters who might be hungry for a woman of color to finally head the city.

Between the lines: Axios interviews over the last few months show Watson has wide support, with unconventional bedfellows spanning Austin hoping he runs to bring stability and reconciliation back to local politics.

  • Matt Mackowiak, chair of the Travis County GOP, told Axios Watson "was one of our very best mayors."
  • Paul Saldaña, a leader of Hispanic Advocates and Business Leaders of Austin, called Watson "effective."
  • Of note: Candidates' party affiliations will not appear on the ballot, allowing Watson to scoop up votes across the political spectrum.

Plus: Any current council member faces claims that they presided over housing, homeless and police crises.

Current Mayor Steve Adler's second term ends in early 2023. Jennifer Virden, a conservative real estate broker, Democratic state Rep. Celia Israel and City Council Member Kathie Tovo — who has not formally launched a campaign — are the other major candidates.

What's next: The election will be held Nov. 8.

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