On the Lege: Freshman Watson Thrives in Senate Environment

Lege is preferable to City Hall for former mayor

David Dewhurst (l) and Kirk Watson
David Dewhurst (l) and Kirk Watson (Photo By John Anderson)

Freshman senators do not ordinarily make significant political strides during their first legislative session, but Kirk Watson has managed to rack up some noteworthy achievements from his low-profile perch on the bottom rung of the Senate seniority ladder.

This doesn't surprise anyone familiar with the former Austin mayor and 2002 Democratic candidate for attorney general. To understand Watson is to understand his political ambitions, which are always apparent. Watson may owe some of his first-term success to fellow freshman Dan Patrick of Houston, a resident irritant. Compared to shock-jock Patrick, trial lawyer Watson is a sweetheart. Last week, Patrick's ego-driven brashness nearly drove Rodney Ellis over the edge as the senior senator tried to lay out a bill that would expand insurance coverage to include mental health. "I'll sign up right away," Ellis declared after the measure passed, despite Patrick's amateurish protests over the bill arriving on the floor without the freshman's amendments.

By contrast, Watson has demonstrated a willingness to temper his ego and hurry-up attitude – characteristics that served as both a blessing and a curse during his Austin mayoral tenure – to adapt to the genteel and carefully measured climate of the Senate. Perhaps his most remarkable feat so far has been the passage in the Senate of a greenhouse-gas emissions bill. The measure, Senate Bill 1687, could not have passed without the overwhelming support of the GOP-dominated Senate, especially when Gov. Rick Perry and other Republican leaders remain in denial on global warming. It was heard Tuesday in the House Environmental Regulation Committee, where it was left pending.

Watson also easily moved his e-waste bill through the Senate; it would require computer retailer-manufacturers in Texas to provide free pickup and recycling services to consumers. That one's also pending in the House Environmental Regulation Committee. On another environmental measure, Watson was the lead author of a bipartisan bill designed to add muscle and money to jump-start an existing (yet idle) state Clean School Bus Program.

"I'm really pleased with the session," Watson said late last week. He was still riding the high of passing the greenhouse legislation a few days earlier. The former mayor wisely credits his more seasoned peers for helping him move his bills, either in one piece or as progressive-tinged amendments to major bills relating to transportation and the utility market. Working with Republicans Troy Fraser and John Carona and Democrat Judith Zaffirini, he was able to make his mark on legislation relating to utility control, toll roads, and higher education. "My name may not be on them," Watson said, "but I found a way to get them out there."

No Zoning

Watchdog activist Tom "Smitty" Smith, who heads the Texas office of Public Citizen, didn't always see eye to eye with Mayor Watson, but he gives Sen. Watson "a good solid 'A' for his first session." Smith took a couple of seconds to consider a fitting description for Watson's showing. "His performance has been … probably 'stellar' is the best way to put it. He's a very, very thoughtful and effective member of the Senate. … He knows how far to go, and he is able to take principled stands without irritating other members by pushing too far at a time when he doesn't have the majority."

Smith and other Watson observers agree that the trial lawyer's traits are better suited for the rough-and-tumble Legislature than for City Hall, where his powerful personality often would run up against a system bound by its weak-mayor form of governing. Watson has come a long way since his days of shooting from the hip and inevitably ticking off one special interest or another. "He seems to be avoiding many of those kinds of problems in the Senate," Smith said. "There were times as mayor when he ran afoul of environmentalists and developers, for different reasons, and when he was going faster than the council could keep up."

The freshman senator doesn't speak ill of his time as mayor, but from his vantage point in the Legislature, it's clear that his City Hall stint is far behind him. "You know," he said, "I haven't had to listen to a single zoning case, and so by definition, I may be having more fun right now."

Even with all the accolades he's collecting, Watson, as most people who know him know, bears watching closely. After all, this is the same man who practices law at the politically influential firm of Hughes & Luce, which suggests that the senator won't go too far out on a progressive limb without checking in with his business constituents. He had their support on his environmental bills. On meaty give-and-take issues, Watson loves the thrill of pulling different folks together, if only temporarily, to achieve a common goal. "When I was mayor, the part of public policy that I enjoyed the most was that I was able to build a coalition around an issue," he said.

Indeed, Watson received high marks for his consensus-building abilities as mayor, but most of his successes were limited to the early part of his first term, before everybody he had pulled together pulled apart. The broader diversity of the Legislature provides a larger playing field for Watson to sharpen and hone his coalition-building skills on statewide policy issues. "I'm back in a position to have the kind of contact with people that I enjoy, where I feel like I'm working day to day, hour to hour, and somehow having a positive impact on people's lives," he said. "I just like being in the service realm." end story

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