Cast a Giant Shadow

What Kirk Watson got done, left undone, and left behind

Cast a Giant Shadow
Photo By Jana Birchum

Over the past five years, we've gotten used to seeing and hearing (and writing) comparisons of Kirk Watson with one or another epic figure of history and myth. Kirk as Captain Kirk, as Captain Ahab, as Napoleon, as King Arthur, as Babe Ruth pointing to the stands, as the rock-opera Jesus Christ Superstar ("He's just a mayor ... And we've had so many mayors before ...").

And now -- as Frodo Baggins. For such a little guy, he sure does cast a big shadow.

Perhaps it proves Kirk Watson's rep as Best Mayor Ever -- or at least as Austin's most charismatic politician since LBJ -- that we scribes and pundits have felt no shame painting him as a hero, even in semi-sarcastic terms. Then again, that big shadow was sharpened by a very bright light. Kirk Watson was the first mayor to take the keys of a major American city called Austin, Texas, and for most of his 41/2-year tenure the wheels of his power were lubricated by a tidal wave of money.

Would anybody have cast such a giant shadow from City Hall, or is there really something special about Kirk Watson? Probably the latter -- although not everyone agrees that the go-go bravado and the antipathy toward business-as-usual were without downsides.

Here's the more important question: Now that the money has dwindled to a trickle -- now that the downsides of being a major American city are as visible as the upsides -- has Kirk Watson left us better off than we were four-years-and-change ago? We shall see.


Who He Was

If politics is, as cynics say, nothing but a popularity contest, then it's no surprise Kirk Watson is a successful politician. "I like him a lot personally," says Texas Monthly Editor Evan Smith, voicing the sentiments of many. "It's hard not to. He's especially fun to run into at parties. Can you imagine just shooting the shit with Rudy Giuliani?"
Cast a Giant Shadow
Illustration By Nathan Jensen

Actually, we like Kirk Watson personally, too, even though we were often critical of his mayoralty, and even though we have been on the wrong side of his not-so-pleasant temper. But don't take our word for it. "I do admire, respect, and like Kirk, but of course city politics and life on the City Council is not Sunnybrook Farm," says Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman. "So if you don't come to loggerheads on issues you probably aren't doing it right, anyway."

Yet Goodman also sees, as others see, the projection of strength that makes Watson more than just a Hale Fellow Well Met. "You can't help but notice he's an overachiever," she says, "and his public persona is one of personal and professional success with a 5-star rating. But the public rarely sees -- or thinks about -- the personal stamina, determination, and deep caring that has had to be a daily part of the Watson family's survival, and so I think a lot of the public may miss knowing a lot of who he is."

For many -- including Watson himself -- the mayor's triumph over testicular cancer explains, or at least symbolizes, much about his reputation for hard work, his commitment to his family, and his drive to have everything done yesterday. And he has impressed a lot of people as a genuinely good guy. "I have found Kirk Watson to be an authentic, compassionate, creative, good, and brave man of faith who has tried to do the right thing in his life," says Pastor Joseph C. Parker of David Chapel Baptist Church, who's known Watson since they were both law students, 20 years ago.

Watson's image can also accommodate being respected -- perhaps even feared -- rather than liked. "Never have I known anyone more committed to public service than Kirk Watson," says Mary Scott Nabers, who as a former member of the state Workforce Commission and Railroad Commission and chair of the Chamber of Commerce has some grounds for comparison. "He puts in endless hours, is a quick study, has energy beyond belief."

Kirk Watson may not be an extraordinary man, but he's an unusual one in his field. There are plenty of dot-commers who have all the same virtues, but they don't run for office, and people who do run for office (especially in Austin) also have virtues that are not Watsonian. Says Zoning and Platting Commission Chair Betty Baker, "Unlike Theodore Roosevelt, Mayor Watson doesn't speak softly; he does, however, carry an awfully big stick. He listens, and better than that -- he hears. He's in a hurry, though, so it wouldn't be smart to get in his way. I admire him greatly."

Says Goodman, "I know people sometimes thought he was too impatient, went too fast, but I think because he is a visionary, because he does care about making the world a better place, because he is an overachiever, and maybe because he knows well that life is short, he's impatient. And so he gets things done."


What He Did

Projecting the persona of irresistible force is often the same as actually having power, which made Watson's very presence an invitation to upend business-as-usual, or else. "Kirk was the 'mother hen' during the truce negotiations between the environmental and business leaders," says development lawyer David Armbrust, who represented the Real Estate Council of Austin in those 1998 talks. "He kept all of the chicks in line, and threatened to oust them from the roost if they fell out of step. Kirk did not allow himself to get bogged down in trench-warfare politics. He stuck to his long-term vision, and it paid off."

Goodman's former council colleague, Brigid Shea, who was on the other side of those discussions, draws the link between the Watson persona and these facts on the ground. "Kirk was a marvelous, powerful whirlwind," she says. "If the main criticism was that he moved too fast and didn't include enough folks along the way -- I'll take that flaw over the inertia and bickering of the past.

Cast a Giant Shadow
Photo By Jana Birchum

"I believe 10-20 years from now, when historians look back at Kirk's leadership they will view it as a seminal turning point for how the city grew," Shea continues, "from the Smart Growth Initiative to the inducements to bring major employers into the center of the city -- and housing and retail and the 24-hour downtown we always said we wanted but never got -- to the forced 'marriage' of the Chamber and SOS over Prop. 2 (the 1998 water-quality land bond package), to the aggressive lawsuits against Austin-bashing legislation."

That's a pretty good dossier of the political highlights, if you consider them as such, of the Watson era. Shea could have added the $100 million water-rights deal with the Lower Colorado River Authority, or the long face-off over the development of the Triangle in North Central Austin. Many problems Watson got credit for solving, with such bravura, were ones that had stymied city councils for decades -- securing agreement between real-estate and environmental interests, or getting a new City Hall built, or opening a new airport.

It was when new problems began to emerge, in his second term, that Watson's giant shadow started to shrink, because those problems -- growing economic inequality, public safety concerns, social service gaps -- don't have obvious solutions, and new ideas were not really a signal feature of the Watson era. The short-run solution was to toss money around, but that only lasted as long as the money did.

But in his first term, previous generations had left viable solutions that nobody until Watson could marshal the strength and credibility to get done. "I think the progress that we have seen in downtown, [concerning] development, is directly attributable to his willingness to listen, learn, and implement," says developer Scott Young. "So many politicians approach these problems too academically and cannot get past the utopian view of how things should be versus the practical problem of how to get it done."

But the downside of that is that we may often be tackling today's problems with yesterday's solutions. For example, the CSC/City Hall complex could have been built, in much the same form if not style, by 1985 had not traditional Austin politics intervened. Over the nearly 30 years the city has owned its Warehouse District property, it never considered any use other than a civic center, and for the last 20 of those years the template of City-Hall-within-a-commercial-complex had never been challenged. Today, it would seem the last thing we need downtown is office space for major employers bringing traffic in from the suburbs -- but you live and learn.

Despite his winner persona and fairly solid mandate, Watson could not simply bulldoze initiatives into existence, and his string of successes in his first term owed much to strategy and tactics. "Mayor Watson adroitly surveyed the Austin political landscape, then extracted tangible objectives from disparate political and community groups," says Kent Collins of Post Properties, a key player at the Triangle and developer of the West Avenue Lofts. "He then found and promoted specific projects and solutions which achieved those objectives. This is the 'matrix' he should be remembered for, not the Smart Growth Matrix. Austin should miss him."

In the very beginning, Watson did manage to pull some toads out of his Stetson hat. "I've found Kirk willing to change direction when his initial plan may not be where everyone else wants to go," says environmental leader George Cofer of the Hill Country Conservancy. "For example, when the idea came up to move the Ice Bats to the shores of Town Lake, Kirk quickly recognized that there was no broad support for that idea." "Quickly," in this case, meant close to overnight. The Town Lake Park complex now materializing is, again, the product of ideas voiced and action taken long before Watson strode onto the stage, though it took the Era of Good Feelings to put bond money on the table to make it happen.

Cast a Giant Shadow
Photo By Jana Birchum


What He Didn't Do

Many milestones and touchstones of the Watson era involved money -- big bond packages, development incentives, deals brokered between enviro-neighbors and developers whose stake was almost solely fiscal. While that doesn't discount any of Watson's skills as a leader, it was surely easier to pull off political/economic coups -- like the Prop. 2 water-quality bonds, or the at-the-time popular incentive packages for CSC or Intel -- in a rich city than it would have been in a poor one.

That's instructive when one looks at the Eastside, where Watson's shadow was not notably enormous, because pushing Austin's money around the table did not really address the problems at hand, even if it had gotten all the way around the table. Now, Watson's own commitment to equity and equality did not strike many East Austin leaders as shallow or insincere; quite the contrary.

"Mayor Watson, a white male, understood the changing face of Austin from a predominately white face to a multi-colored face," says Joseph Martinez, chair of the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Planning Team and now Betty Baker's vice-chair on the ZAP commission. "I saw him as a man who understood he worked as a servant-leader for all of Austin, not just white, high-voter-turnout areas. Kirk Watson showed me ... that he truly believed that the East Austin neighborhood was his neighborhood."

Likewise, Watson's old friend Joe Parker -- who in addition to leading David Chapel, chairs the Chestnut Neighborhood Planning Team -- notes that Watson "decided to take on the volatile and divisive issue of race. ... His vision included dealing with race relations as one of the areas which would be centerpieces of his overall approach to community reconciliation." This led to one of the more famous images of Watson's administration: his off-the-dais embrace of a young African-American victim of the 1995 Cedar Avenue police riot, upon the City Council's approval of the settlement of the case.

That settlement, of course, came a cropper, and Parker adds that "race relations may not have improved as much as Kirk and I would have liked. But he was willing to bravely endure the criticism from blacks and whites who either thought he was not doing enough to improve race relations and attack racism, or thought he was doing too much."

Not everyone is as supportive as Parker. Rev. Sterling C. Lands II, pastor of Greater Calvary Baptist Church and a member of the Planning Commission, says "personally, I really like [Watson], and he is probably one of the shrewdest politicians that has sat in the mayor's seat in some time." But "his initiative regarding racial reconciliation was a bold and clever political move that resulted in many meetings but little, if any, racial reconciliation. I believe Watson helped usher in an economic boom for Austin, but people east of I-35 -- specifically black and most brown people -- only read about it in the Statesman."

Those who have attacked Watson without compunction have often done so in the name of the little people, however defined. Among the most vitriolic has been Texas Monthly Publisher Mike Levy, whose frequent e-mails have described the Watson years as not "good government. Or even mediocre government. We have had bad government, democracy at its very worst." Levy then itemizes the many ways in which Austin is going begging -- public safety being his primary, but not sole, concern -- to the detriment of the average people of the city.

Cast a Giant Shadow
Photo By John Anderson

"Kirk Watson is a man of great talent and energy and intelligence, which, unfortunately, he chose to direct during his tenure as mayor to serving the needs and interests not of Austin, but of his own personal political ambition beyond this city," Levy continues. "Since 1976, when I first became involved in civic activities [famously as the force behind the start-up of Austin's EMS department], and an observer of local government, Kirk Watson has, in my opinion, been the very worst mayor we have had. A man with no genuine concern for the human condition, Watson has proven to be just another politically ambitious trial lawyer. Nothing more. Nothing less."

Almost the same harsh assessment comes from a man who otherwise agrees on little with Mike Levy, environmental leader Bill Bunch. "Early on, Mayor Watson did a few important, even necessary, things to help protect Barton Springs and the environment. He brought people together. He exercised real leadership, even some level of courage," Bunch says. "But then he chose to be a great politician rather than a great leader. There's an important difference.

"Mayor Watson could have inspired all of Austin to participate in building and preserving a great city," Bunch continues. "Instead, he chose to do deals in the back room, regular citizens not invited. When you know you are smarter than the whole city combined, you don't need the wisdom and creativity of your subject-citizens."


Where Do We Go Now?

Where Watson goes now, of course, is on to his race for Texas attorney general, in which it will be interesting to see which parts of his persona and résumé rise into the spotlight. (For more on tomorrow's Captain Kirk, see "Statewide Watson," right) As for the rest of us back home, even though the progress made during the Watson era may be incomplete or even misdirected, few observers see Austin returning to its past political culture of stasis. As George Cofer puts it, "I think Kirk's legacy is that the community has stopped just talking about the work, and is now actually doing some of the work."

"I liken Kirk Watson's administration to treatment for bipolar disorder," says Council Member Will Wynn. "Before Kirk, Austin had a bad case; the political mindset of this town was split neatly in two, with one half advocating growth and development and the other environmental protection. Neither concerned itself much with the needs of the other, and Austin was the worse for it. Kirk's legacy is breaking down those barriers and paving the way for an era of dialogue, cooperation, and true planning."

Even if he did get out of hand sometimes, Kirk Watson was the kind of politician people like, which means you'll see more politicians like him. Even current Mayor Gus Garcia, who casts a pretty giant shadow himself without need for the Watson afterglow, describes himself as "like Kirk, only slower." Says David Armbrust, "Kirk raised the bar for all of the leaders, public and private, in our community. He is living proof of how one person can make a huge difference through leadership and vision."

One might instead say that Kirk managed to clear the bar where it really was, rather than doing a good job leading a small town that doesn't exist any more. "He worked enormously hard, all the time, in the manner of mayors of much bigger cities," says Evan Smith. "That sets a high bar not just for Gus but for all future mayors. When the history of the Austin mayoralty is written, Kirk will deserve credit for making the office more legitimate."

And Kirk Watson was a successful mayor, in large part, as are many successful politicians, because his persona dovetailed with what the people who live here now want Austin to be now. As former Austin Children's Museum director Deborah Edward aptly summarizes, "Seeing the Mayor around town always made me proud of how Austin does business. There seemed to always be an energy that radiated from him that we could do anything, and wasn't it great to be alive and active in Austin, Texas?"

Even those revolted by the new big city of the Watson era don't want Austin to be a morose and petty provincial backwater, and even those who are breathing a sigh of relief at the collapse of the tech bubble do not want the future to continue as the present. Future mayors will be judged accordingly, not only on how giant a shadow they cast, but on how well the city of Austin fits inside it. For a big chunk of the past five years, Kirk Watson's shadow was just the right size.

  • More of the Story

  • Statewide Watson

    An early preview of Kirk Watson's race for attorney general

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