In Austin city politics, it's Mayor Kirk Watson's way or no way at all.
Kirk Watson warned us. In the speech he made after he was sworn in as mayor three years ago, Watson told the crowd he was "not going to be patient." Since then, Watson has displayed what might be described as a chronic case of ants-in-his-pants.
That hurry-up attitude, combined with a forceful personality, has allowed Watson to dominate the City Council more thoroughly than any politico of the last three decades. There is the right way, the wrong way, and the Watson Way. And inevitably, the Watson Way prevails.
During the recent fight over the transportation bond package that will go before voters in November, Watson went mano a mano with Beverly Griffith over a package of additional bonds that Griffith wanted for affordable housing and parks acquisition. Watson didn't want the focus to be directed away from the transportation package; insiders say he and other council members who voted against Griffith's bonds were also concerned about the potential debt load on the city.
Watson won the fight. But then, that's nothing new. Watson hasn't lost a skirmish on the council since he came to the office three years ago. His dominance is due to a number of factors: He's the only lawyer on a council that is continually faced with sticky legal issues. And he's not just a lawyer, he's a trial lawyer, used to persuading juries. He's charming and funny, and uses both talents well. He's a talented speaker. He's a champion debater who has been polishing his skills since he was in high school. And he uses those skills as a stiletto that he plunges into the heart of anyone who dares mix it up with him in public. As former council member Gus Garcia put it, Watson "doesn't take crap from anybody."
During his first term, Watson spent most of his time making deals -- and there were plenty of them. He engineered a peace treaty with developer Gary Bradley, convinced CSC to move onto prime city-owned real estate downtown, agreed to a long-term water purchase contract with the Lower Colorado River Authority, pushed through a bond package to buy open space and to fund a major expansion of the city's convention center. He's also pushing hard for light rail and the aforementioned transportation bonds.
Now that Watson is a lame duck (term limits force him out after he finishes this term), his chief challenge is to unite the council and continue pushing his agenda. During that quest, Watson can count on two things: support from council ally Daryl Slusher, and opposition from Griffith. Beyond that reality, Watson will have to seek coalitions with the other council members, particularly the new ones: Will Wynn, Danny Thomas, and Raul Alvarez.
Given how many different proposals Watson pushed in his first term, it's likely his second term will be spent consolidating his power base and finishing off some of the things he started. For instance, he will have to press hard if he's going to make much progress on the city's affordable housing crunch. Watson has also expended a lot of his political capital on the city's transportation woes.
Whatever happens with those projects and with the rest of his term, it's clear that Watson will continue to be a high-profile politico. He's loaded with ambition, and he's a natural politician who wants to move on to other, bigger government paychecks. Watson's likely target is the attorney general's job. He has the skills, money, and savvy to be a good AG, but it's unclear how the political winds will blow. If George W. Bush loses his bid for the White House (and returns to Texas), Watson may have to wait several years before making any run at higher office.
In the meantime, Watson is sprinting toward his vision for Austin. Earlier this year, he offered the Chronicle his views on world history and Austin's future. During the 19th century, Watson points out, the world was ruled by empires. The 20th century was dominated by superpowers. The 21st century will be, he predicted, "the century of urban centers. In 2020, we will look around and see a number of regional urban centers that are the economic powerhouses." Austin, Watson believes, will be among those powerhouses.
Watson may well be right. And the tasks he undertakes during his second term will do much to determine what Austin looks like in 2020.