Unions Bet on Mayoral Candidate Kirk Watson

Endorsements flow in, though his proposals may leave some Austinites wanting more

Kirk Watson stands on Sept. 2 surrounded by endorsing organizations, including LIUNA Local 1095, Unite Here Local 23, AFSCME Local 1624, and Austin EMS Association (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Former state Sen. Kirk Watson has swept the major labor endorsements on his march to become the next mayor of Austin. The Austin EMS and Fire associations, which represent the city's medics and firefighters; AFSCME Local 1624, which represents the city's civilian employees; Workers Defense Project, which advocates on behalf of construction workers in cities throughout Texas; and the Austin Central Labor Council, which is composed of leaders from a range of AFL-CIO affiliated unions, have all gone with Watson.

The fact that the city's most prominent labor groups endorsed Watson is in itself not especially noteworthy (except for WDP, which state Rep. Celia Israel had a shot at winning). Labor groups tend to side with the candidate who leaders think has the best shot at getting elected because, as U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said about elections, "winners make policy, losers go home." Unions want to publicly support and help elect the candidate who can help enact policy benefiting their members, and with Watson the mayoral front-runner, primarily due to fundraising, he's the no-brainer choice for labor.

He also has won the respect of union leaders, including Carol Guthrie, president of AFSCME Local 1624, who watched as Watson, during his first go-around as mayor in 1997, opened doors at City Hall that were previously sealed shut for labor. Watson also played a critical role as senator in defending state licensure of plumbers in Texas when legislative inaction nearly dismantled the state agency responsible for licensing plumbers; in 2007, he also carried the bill granting EMS unions authority to engage in labor negotiations with municipalities via the meet-and-confer process. Beyond the tangible victories Watson has won for labor in Austin, union leaders say he also hasn't done anything to make enemies of local labor leaders, so they have had no reason to turn their back on him.

Though Watson's labor endorsements themselves aren't particularly surprising, one motivation for them, which has been simmering under the surface, might be: union leaders' frustration with City Manager Spencer Cronk. "City Hall is more dysfunctional than ever," one union leader told the Chronicle. They, and some other union leaders, say Cronk doesn't do enough to hold his department heads accountable, that his commitments can't always be trusted, and that he's expanded the city manager's power to new levels that Watson is better-suited to rein in.

With labor endorsements wrapped up, candidates are moving on to the various clubs and community organizations that endorse in local races. There, Israel has scored two early victories, earning the endorsement of the Northeast Travis County Democrats (which largely overlaps with the Texas House District she has represented for eight years) and the Circle C Democrats.

Watson and Israel have both released transportation plans and, as with their respective housing plans, Israel's proposals are bolder and more visionary, if less pragmatic. Israel would prioritize negotiations with the Texas Department of Transportation to produce a better I-35 expansion plan, specifically by burying more lanes underground so they can be capped with land used for parks and multimodal transit infrastructure. Also included in Israel's plan: delivering Project Connect in a way that "honors voters' expectations" – i.e., not scaling back the vision of the plan to account for increasing design and construction costs; reducing traffic fatalities by fully embracing a Vision Zero policy framework; and working with Capital Metro and community partners to provide free or reduced transit fare to a wider variety of riders.

Watson's plan would allow him to maintain his reputation as an elected official who "get things done" – but only because he isn't proposing much in the first place. His proposals mention I-35 expansion, but not how he would engage with the state as Austin's leader; he mentions Project Con­nect, but not how he would respond to pressure from critics of the transit plan who call for a reduction to its scope.

The three concrete proposals he does include? He would establish a "transportation construction command center," tasked with coordinating local, regional, and state authorities responsible for managing the billions of dollars of transportation investment set to take place concurrently over the next decade. He would also create a "511" system that would give users of all transportation modes in Austin a number to call for updates on road and traffic conditions. And, leaving much to be desired for Austin's thousands of daily commuters who have to contend with traffic on the city's highways and local roads: prioritizing airport expansion. Every six months, Watson would convene "accountability sessions" to make sure projects are being carried out efficiently and equitably.

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November 2022 Elections, Kirk Watson, Celia Israel, AFSCME Local 1624

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