Mayor, Mayor

Kirk Watson's Aspirations Are Showing

Five years ago, Kirk Watson was a 33-year-old trial lawyer with a track record of winning multi-million-dollar verdicts against big companies. So when former Texas Governor Ann Richards picked him to chair a Republican-dominated, industry-friendly Texas Air Control Board, there was nervousness and disgruntlement all around. "He was an unknown quantity," said Pamela Giblin, a Baker & Botts attorney who represented chemical companies before the board. "All we knew was that he was a plaintiff's attorney with a lot of energy." Then, Giblin recalled, something short of a miracle happened. After rankling the board early on with his gangbuster approach, Watson tried something else. He put his mediation skills to the test and began winning over even the most resistant Republicans on the board. "He was tremendous," Giblin marveled.

Now, Watson wants to draw on that record of consensus-building and launch his first election campaign, to replace outgoing Mayor Bruce Todd. If that sounds eerily deja vu-ish, it's because Todd ran on the same problem-solving platform two terms ago, winning votes from environmentalists and business leaders alike. Like Todd, Watson has strong ties within the Travis County Democratic Party, which he chaired from 1994-96. Those ties, and those votes, could translate into a victory for Watson in 1997, but at what cost for a consensus-builder? Next year, Todd leaves office battle-weary and bitter, some would say, failing in his mission to please either side.

Watson, Democrat players will argue as a point in his favor, is no Bruce Todd. They claim Watson would do a better job working both sides of the political fence that Todd tried hard to straddle. "Kirk doesn't have a big ego that gets in the way of problem-solving," said Jim Marston, director of the Texas Environmental Defense Fund. (Watson is treasurer and a board member of the fund.) And Watson's community and political ties outside the realm of City Hall are likely to appeal to voters, says one political consultant who doesn't want to be identified. "He has a strong background in, and has earned the allegiance of, the Democratic party folks who have not always been that involved in local city council races. That brings in new blood, new money, and new enthusiasm. And, if nothing else," the source added, "he'll keep many of the business leaders from helping [Councilmember] Ronney Reynolds -- freezing their support and their contributions -- even if Kirk doesn't get their contributions."

Should Watson decide to run -- this week he says he's "90 percent certain" that he will -- he'll face a formidable opponent in Reynolds, who has made no secret of his plans to run for mayor. Reynolds says he'll make his formal decision in September. If and when he does run, he will likely enter the race armed with a war chest rich in backing from real estate interests and reliable support from his hometown team of affluent voters in Northwest Austin.

"Ronney will have a ton of money and the downtown lobbying establishment behind him," says political consultant Dean Rindy. "And the Real Estate Council [of Austin] will have to try hard to find a less offensive way to direct money to him -- but they'll find it." Rindy is referring to the help conservative business candidates Jeff Hart, Becky Motal, and Rick Wheeler received in this spring's council elections from the RECA, in the form of phone lists, mailings, and polls. Turns out, RECA's corporate PAC had paid for the bulk of the services; their opponents complained that such resources were in fact "soft" contributions from an allegedly illegal source. By state law, RECA's corporate political action committee is not allowed to contribute to individual political candidates. RECA claimed ignorance, but the "scandal" painted the three candidates as business stooges, all three of whom had attempted to ride the fence of moderation on the issues. If RECA endorses Reynolds next year as expected, the ramifications will be few: Reynolds is an unabashedly pro-growth conservative councilmember who thumbs his nose at complaints that he is insensitive to Austin's liberal/environmental causes. Yet, as Rindy notes, what might work against Reynolds, and in favor of Watson, is more on the symbolic front: Reynolds represents Austin's past polarization, while Watson represents the city's future coalescence.

And Watson, currently a partner in the law firm of Whitehurst, Harkness, Watson, London, Ozmun & Galow, is already trying to capitalize on that past versus future motif. "If I make the decision to run, it will be because the citizens are ready to move forward with someone who can bring innovation and vision to the table," he says. "We need to start trying to retain and reclaim what we love about Austin. I say reclaim because we're already starting to lose some of the things, like air quality, that brought us to this city in the first place."

Watson's consensus-building continues down at the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, an organization the potential candidate says he never considered joining until recently -- the current chair, Kerry Tate, urged him to enlist, wanting to put Watson in charge of the chamber's influential governmental relations committee. Tate, who has a favored position among the downtown business crowd, running one of the city's most visible advertising/PR firms, has put her support solidly behind Watson, a move that will likely encourage other business leaders to do the same. Although his chamber affiliation is still fairly young, former Councilmember Brigid Shea credits Watson for convincing the chamber not to "jump into supporting [electric utility] deregulation before getting the facts," as it nearly did. Watson isn't so quick to accept credit on that one, but he admits he strongly opposes the sale of the city's Electric Utility Department -- a proposal for which Todd has lobbied long and hard. Reynolds and Watson share feelings on that score -- at least for now. Reynolds helped block Todd's move to sell the utility last fall, winning the support of the liberal faction on the council, but there is speculation that Reynolds only did it to save the utility for the LCRA.

"My sense is that Kirk has the ability to bring the council together... He has the kind of vision and leadership abilities we need to take the city into the next century," says Shea. But then again, she herself left office this year with a few battle scars. Support from Shea was seen as damaging this spring with environmental issues buried under the boot of fiscal conservativeness, but that may well ease up by 1997, which would allow Watson to take advantage of Shea's formidable talents in grassroots fundraising.

There is a palpable excite- ment building in town around the 1997 mayoral race, and Watson is part of it. Without even announcing his intentions, Watson has become the progressives' great green hope -- and the only candidate, Democratic insiders say, who can possibly out-fundraise Reynolds. In fact, it may be Watson who is the formidable opponent -- when Watson told Reynolds in April he was thinking about running, Reynolds tried to talk him out of it. There will be other candidates, too. Attorney Tom Forbes is said to be thinking about his chances, and of course, Mayor Pro Tem Gus Garcia is known to have his own mayoral aspirations. According to the July 17 In Fact, however, Garcia now says he has aspirations for Place 2, in order to clear Place 5 -- the traditionally Hispanic seat he has held -- for another Hispanic.

For someone like Watson, who works as a behind-the-scenes operative to step into the spotlight seems particularly idealistic, if not downright naïve. But Watson's response seems already down pat, and in the end, so full of optimism, that he just might convince some people. "A lot of people have said to me, `My goodness, Kirk, why do you want to be mayor when you're going to get eaten alive in one term?' And my response is, there's a pretty wide gap between one term and terminal," he says, referring to a very personal matter -- his battle with cancer in 1992. "I'm not saying that I don't take personal attacks personally -- of course they would bother me... But I'm a firm believer in moving forward. I'm not interested in having a `fight of the week' at council meetings."

Garcia is probably the smart one in this bunch -- to be mayor in this town is a very short-lived career, and one in which it's almost impossible for your aspirations, let alone your ideals, to survive. Take a look at just the past three -- Bruce Todd, Lee Cooke, and Frank Cooksey -- all well-intentioned people with the city's best interests at heart (we hope). Yet Cooke and Cooksey departed, as will Todd, with marred legacies -- knowing that at least half the city hated them, and that the incrementals of their decisions, rather than the broad view to which they aspired, is what has survived in the public's memory. In the end, everyone risks being taken out of context.

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