Born to Run?
Somewhere between the pre-Christmas and post-New Year political chatter, talk of Kirk Watson's early exodus from his job as mayor veered swiftly from idle speculation to pronounced hints of an imminent departure. Just how soon we can expect the mayor's resignation is anyone's guess, but City Hall insiders' predictions range from "early this year" (whatever that means) to April or May, to at least 90 days before a special election can be held in August -- one of four uniform election dates allowed under the City Charter.
Watson, as most people know, has serious fire in his belly. Although his standard public answer to questions about his plans is "I don't know, but I'm flattered by all the attention," the persistent City Hall buzz is that the cancer-surviving trial lawyer plans to run for higher office in 2002, possibly as the Democratic nominee for Texas attorney general. And, along with other prospective Dem contenders, Watson is also said to be weighing a run for U.S. Senate. Whatever office he seeks, it's clear to those close to the mayor that he doesn't want to be mayor any more, given his privately expressed regrets about running for another term in the first place. The sooner he resigns, the thinking goes, the sooner he can get on with the business of raising money for his war chest.
That Watson may leave office earlier than anticipated has put mayoral wannabes and political operatives in a bit of a flux. On the council dais alone, there are three obvious mayoral hopefuls -- Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Members Beverly Griffith and Daryl Slusher -- all with terms ending in 2002. Term limits for the three would prevent them from running for re-election, unless they run for a different seat, à la former council member Gus Garcia, or embark on a petition drive for 15,000 signatures to secure a place on the ballot. A more logical step, they and their respective supporters are thinking, might be to scoot down to the center of the dais to occupy the mayor's seat.
Of the three, Goodman is the only one publicly owning up to her intention to run for mayor. One scenario, in fact, would have the mayor pro tem serving out the remainder of Watson's term until the next regularly scheduled mayoral election in May 2003. But then, that would give Goodman an edge over the other contestants and there are certain members of the progressive community (those who supported her first and only run-off opponent, Mark Tschurr, for example) who would probably go to great lengths to try and defeat her candidacy.
More, perhaps, than any other council member, Griffith has remained true to her vision -- and has antagonized more people in the process. She acknowledges she had considered running for mayor to continue pursuing her environment-economy-equity platform, but had hoped that time wouldn't come until 2003. Now, she says, "it would be premature to say anything because we don't know what our very fine mayor has in mind. He hasn't said anything about leaving early or causing a special election to occur."
As for Slusher, he probably has a better handle on the mayor's intentions than anyone else on the council. But what he knows, he won't say. He did offer last month that he would need the holidays to mull things over, but that he did not want to run if Goodman runs. Now, however, he isn't saying anything, except to joke that he doesn't fancy the idea of performing in The Nutcracker, as the mayor has done.
On the face of it, none of the three would make a particularly overwhelming candidate for mayor, given the council member mold they've been cast in all these years. And the trio would be competing for the same grassroots voting bloc (not to mention the dollars to fund an estimated $300,000 campaign), even though each of them at one time or another has managed to alienate the very folks who put them in office. But who says we need to settle for any one of them? Observed one insider: "Kirk will be leaving giant shoes to fill, and whoever wins needs to have a serious level of communication skill and leadership ability. The drop-off between Kirk and whoever is next needs to not be too steep. This is why a lot of people are uncomfortable with Beverly or Daryl or Jackie."
Let's see, who walks and talks the most like Watson? Some point to Council Member Will Wynn, who is still feeling his way around City Hall after being elected just nine months ago. Wynn, however, stated earlier this week that now is not the time for him to mount another campaign. Besides, he said, "Austin has a number of young, dynamic leaders, any one of whom could be mayor." At this point, there is at least one thing on which a whole lot of people agree: Austin needs a leader who can tame the mounting growth crisis. As political consultant David Butts says, "we need to figure out a way to limit growth without pissing off the Legislature. Their way of thinking is, 'if you can't eat it, drink it, spend it, sleep with it, what good is it?' But at some point we've got to start saying no, even if that means telling major employers not to relocate here."
So who is capable of rising to the heady challenges of the day? Beyond the three council members, at least three other names are in the mix: Robin Rather, a business owner and former SOS Alliance president; Lynn Sherman, customer and community relations manager with the Lower Colorado River Authority and a lawyer formerly with Bickerstaff, Heath, Smiley, Pollan, Kever & McDaniel; and Goodman's former run-off opponent Tschurr, a businessman and current SOS president who lost to Goodman in a beastly election in 1993.
Sherman, who would likely be a safe, middle-of-the-road bet for the business community, says he's interested in running for political office but not in the immediate future. Tschurr, lately a vocal critic of tax abatements for multi-million-dollar corporations, says he's not running for mayor but may consider running for a City Council seat if the candidates' policies run counter to his own environmental and financial visions. Or, he adds, "I may help underwrite someone else's campaign or get involved at a higher level." As for Rather, considered by some to be more of an insider than a politician, she's playing it safe and not commenting. Which can only mean she's giving the job serious -- very serious -- consideration.