Kirk Watson. Remember him? He is, like, so five minutes ago. As widely expected for months, he's taking a powder on Austin to run for Texas attorney general against John Cornyn. And the upcoming campaign to replace him is shaping up to be a dialogue on the legacy of one of Austin's most powerful and popular men. And that wouldn't be Watson.
No, while His Nibs hooks up with his new friend from Laredo, prospective D ticket-topper Tony Sanchez, his old friend from Laredo -- semi-retired, three-term council member Gus Garcia -- has slammed his hat into the ring with a speed matched only by the haste with which most of the credible contenders have jumped out of his way. (Garcia ran unopposed when he won his third term in 1997, but that rare achievement will not likely be repeated this time, as long as perennial candidates like Jennifer Gale walk among us.) For the record, Watson has officially resigned but remains in office until the anointment -- that is, the Nov. 6 special election to serve out his unexpired term.
Council Member Daryl Slusher, who came within 1,500 votes of the top spot in 1994, and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman both made clear long ago they did not intend to become roadkill in what Slusher, at least, thinks would be a can't-win race. Plus, and just as important, "I like Gus Garcia," Slusher says. "I miss working with him. I look forward to having him back as mayor."
Likewise, tech entrepreneur and former SOS Alliance chair Robin Rather has, after great rumination, decided to sit this one out, though she's "absolutely, definitely" not ruling out a 2003 run. (She is also the mother of a nine-week-old son. Rather thinks she could have pulled it off, but doesn't really want to.) "I plan to continue working as an environmentalist and community activist," she says, "and I look forward to working with Gus as mayor. Gus symbolizes everything that's real about Austin. After 10 years of boom, we need someone who understands Austin's roots."
That leaves Council Member Beverly Griffith, who has carefully positioned herself as the anti-Watson in preparation for a mayoral bid in either 2003 or sooner. But that was before Mayor Gus Garcia was a gleam in the political eye, and Griffith -- who has been out of town on vacation this week -- has sent mixed signals about current events.
Not that many people have mixed feelings about Griffith. Though her lonely and ornery stands have made her the candidate of choice among many old-line neighborhood and environmental leaders, it's rare in feel-good Austin to encounter the kind of visceral distaste many worthy citizens feel about Beverly Griffith. "If Gus ran and beat Beverly," says one city higher-up, "he would be giving the city a gift of immeasurable value." And out in the trenches, we are told, "there are people who want Beverly to run against Gus so that she'll get slaughtered and go away."
Despite this bile, the wealthy and well-connected Griffith is an unlikely rebel but a potent political force, and even if she never becomes mayor, whoever does will have to massage her base and attend to her agenda. And, in a written statement sent to media this week, Griffith offers a précis of what her backers want in the next mayor -- preserving neighborhoods, creating affordable housing, safeguarding the environment, and so on. The implication is that the Watson machine has not done all it could in this regard. This list would apply just as well (or better) to Garcia as to Griffith, which has led many observers to think she's ready to drop out.
Now someone from outside the central-city pale may emerge, wrap up support in the suburbs, tap into simmering populist discontent with Smart Growth in the Birkenstock belt, and drive a whole new truck through the holes in the Green Machine. But the few center-right suburban names mentioned in recent months have dropped off the map. And practically speaking, anyone who hasn't already started beating the political bushes is going to have a very hard time bringing off an insurgent campaign in just three months.
Which brings up the $64 question: What about 2003? Back when Garcia's name first popped up on the Mayor-o-Meter, you'd hear talk about him being a one-termer (or, more precisely, a half-termer) who'd return to eminence grise status as soon as an up-and-comer -- like Rather or Council Member Will Wynn -- was ready for prime time.
But while many expect that Garcia will indeed not seek a full term in 2003, he is, shall we say, not the seat-warmer type. Garcia points out that Watson's unexpired term will feature "tight budgets, a flat economy, two council elections, and a session of the Legislature. So it's not going to be a vacation." (And don't forget a likely re-vote in 2002 on light rail, of which Garcia was a staunch supporter.) Indeed, the budgets are so tight and the economy so flat that the city's proposed FY 2002 budget does not appear to have any free money to hold a special election, so Watson's bound-for-glory train might be taking a couple of cops or librarians or groundskeepers with it.