Kirk Watson and Celia Israel Lead Pack for the Next Mayor of Crisis City
Duo leads in funds, reputations, and housing plans
Austin's next mayor will only serve for two years until facing reelection, following a ballot measure approved in May 2021 that moved the mayor's race to the presidential cycle. Given the crisis atmosphere in Austin politics over housing, affordability, and equity, the winner will be expected to accomplish a lot in those two years, hitting the ground running from a campaign that's likely to not end until a December run-off.
With Kathie Tovo deciding not to run (though she has hinted at a potential '24 campaign), the two leading candidates are former mayor and state senator Kirk Watson and outgoing state rep Celia Israel. Watson has established himself as a juggernaut in the contest for the job he last held in 2001, with higher name ID (though a recent poll found that after voters learned more about each candidate, the race was a dead heat) and a colossal fundraising advantage. Watson has also locked in key labor endorsements early: the unions representing EMS medics, firefighters, hotel workers, and city of Austin civilian employees have also gone with the former mayor. Watson reported a haul of nearly $1 million in mid-July, but Israel's $253,000 intake was still record-breaking and she'll have a shot if she can keep Watson under 50% in November.
However, Jennifer Virden, a far-right Republican who nearly unseated Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter two years ago, may play a spoiler in Israel's strategy. Virden did well in the westernmost precincts in Austin, which made her competitive in the District 10 race against Alter, but her views are pretty darn fringey, even by Texas Republican standards. GOP voters only account for about 25% of the Austin electorate, so she has virtually no shot at winning citywide. But her campaign has money, most of which ($300,000) she loaned herself back in January, so Israel cannot take the threat of being pipped at the post for granted.
Watson and Israel have both rolled out housing strategies in response to what Watson calls an "emergency" and Israel a "historic crisis point." Israel's proposals are anchored in urbanist ideas, with explicit calls for more housing for working families – specifically of the "missing middle" variety, the four- and six- and 10-plexes and live/work units and row houses that are both rare and mostly illegal in Austin – and transit-oriented development along the Project Connect corridors. In what's become a key slogan of her campaign, Israel says, "This election is about who can afford to live here, and who gets to decide."
Watson's plan leans on his reputation as a leader who gets big things done (new City Hall, I-35 rebuild, Dell Medical School, etc.) to tackle reforms not just to land use policies, but to a city permitting process that was beyond broken when he was mayor the first time and has not gotten much better. He wants to incentivize not just developers but his colleagues to create decent housing where Austin needs it; the most controversial plank in his platform would give council members more say in the policies and codes applying to their districts, though he backtracked some when this started being compared to red-lining, ward politics, and Jim Crow. Right now, much of Austin's housing is being built east of I-35 and/or on the northern and southern fringes of town. Read more about Watson's plan at bit.ly/3T98jcx and Israel's plan at bit.ly/3pD75Zx.
As is typical with every mayoral race, 2022 will see a number of long-shot candidates. This cycle includes local fitness influencer and activist Erica Nix (Qmmunity Editor James Scott is following her campaign at bit.ly/3KhWXyM); 21-year-old UT student Phil Brual; and Anthony Bradshaw and Gary Spellman, neither of whom intend to do any fundraising.