Jan 24, 2024 - Politics

Austin mayoral race heats up

Illustration of Austin City Hall with lines radiating from it.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Austin Mayor Kirk Watson now faces at least two challengers as he prepares to announce his re-election campaign.

Driving the news: Carmen Llanes Pulido, an affordable housing advocate who runs the group Go! Austin/Vamos! Austin, announced Tuesday she's running for mayor.

The big picture: Watson narrowly won the mayoral post in 2022 over Celia Israel with an appeal to moderate Democrats and Republicans.

  • As someone long involved in Austin politics — he also served as mayor in the late 1990s and as a state senator — Watson has relatively high name recognition and has proven himself a prodigious fundraiser.
  • In December 2022, for example, which included the runoff with Israel, he raised $167,195. She raised $54,231 during that period.
  • Israel is poised to become the next Travis County tax assessor-collector.

Between the lines: Watson, who ran on a platform of government getting things done, carries the strengths and weaknesses that come with having an incumbent's record.

  • "The complaints I hear about Watson are mostly about his partnership with Abbott and the Department of Public Safety," Ed Espinoza, an Austin political strategist who is not working for any of the candidates, tells Axios, referring to the divisive partnership that led to widespread arrests of Black and Hispanic people and that Watson suspended last summer.
  • "That was a situation where Watson really thought he and the governor could reason and work together on something, in a way that politics operated a long time ago. That was a tough lesson for him."
  • Watson has "come in with a direct management style, and people may not always like it, but he got the HOME initiative" — which aims to reform property development rules to allow more density — "across the finish line, something people had been trying to do for decades."

Of note: Watson has not announced he is running for re-election in November.

  • David Butts, who consulted on his campaign in 2022, said he thought Watson would announce a re-election effort by this spring.

What they're saying: "People see a lack of transparency and a genuine problem with the influence that wealthy special interests wield," Llanes Pulido said in announcing her candidacy. "We need leadership that listens to the needs of people from all ends of the economic spectrum."

  • Politically speaking, Llanes Pulido could pull much of the support that Israel did.

The intrigue: Tovo, who said she would "fight against bad plans like the I-35 expansion and the state's attacks on our local freedoms" and would court progressive voters, historically counted neighborhood groups for her support.

  • "Her base is the neighborhood people," Butts, the political consultant who also worked on her city council campaigns, tells Axios. "And that's not enough votes. The new urbanists, who go for density, don't like her, and tried to beat her every time they could."
  • Another candidate in 2022, the more conservative Jennifer Virden, could run again — "but only 20 to 22% of the vote is Republican in the city, on a good day," says Butts. "And she couldn't get all of that against Watson, to tell the truth."

What's next: Watson, who has tried to find common ground as he aims to iron out tense relations between the police and City Hall, will likely run on "restoring confidence" in city government, says Butts, who said he expects to join the Watson campaign again.

What we're watching: How presidential year turnout will affect the mayor's race.

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