New Mayor and Council Take Office; No Coup Attempted

Peaceful transition of local power

Mayor Kirk Watson settles into the new-to-him council chambers (Photo by John Anderson)

Austin celebrated on Jan. 6 – not the 2021 attempt to seize control of the U.S. government, but the 2023 arrival of a new (sorta!) mayor and several members of City Council. Only one Council member, Leslie Pool, remains from the original 10-1 Council seated eight years ago, and the new faces on the dais – Mayor Kirk Watson and CMs José Velásquez, Ryan Alter, and Zohaib Qadri – all indicated in their remarks that while the service of outgoing Mayor Steve Adler and his Council was greatly needed and appreciated, the past in this case is not prologue, and it's time for Austin to do new things.

The City Hall inauguration began with the presentation of the colors (the federal, state, and city flags) by the city's color guard, just as one sees at football games, except that the city doesn't have its own military, so the bagpipers and drum corps come from the public safety departments. This ritual attended to, Adler – who had been accused the day before in a criminal complaint of improper electioneering on ATXN – brought Municipal Court Presiding Judge Sherry Statman up to administer the oaths, took his seat in the gallery at Council chambers, and just like that became an ex-mayor.

The current mayor, who is also a former mayor, let everyone else speak before he did, and also moved the only other action item on the agenda – electing the mayor pro tem – up ahead of the speechifying. Despite murmuring that outgoing MPT Alison Alter would, or should, retain the title so she could easily be differentiated from Ryan Alter in conversations on the dais, the honor instead now rests on the shoulders of reelected CM Paige Ellis for calendar year 2023, and will pass to Leslie Pool in 2024. (Later, when it came time to draw seat assignments, the two Alters hilariously got put next to each other.)

In the Before Times, the MPT was almost always the longest-serving CM, but City Hall has figured out ways to pass the title around and allow its faint but not invisible power to shape Council business. That meant Ellis got to talk first, and she had plenty of thanks to give to her staff, family, friends, voters, and partner Ed Espinosa, former head of Progress Texas and her de facto campaign manager, with whom she managed to plan a nice wedding while running for reelection. (She does not recommend you try this at home.) "Council Member Pool and I will work closely together over the next two years to uphold [Council] procedures and policies to best serve our community in a responsible and equitable manner. And to my new colleagues, welcome to the dais; I know that working together we can make our city the best it can be, but let's please try to avoid meetings that go until 4am."

Next went CM Natasha Harper-Madison (like Ellis, reelected in November without much trouble). "I'm so incredibly proud to continue to represent my hometown," she told the crowd. "Thank you for the continued opportunity to do so." She continued with a familiar response from Austinites, especially East Austinites, to the endless boom time. "Today, I will say we have all the problems of a global city and none of the advantages. We don't have comprehensive transit and enough housing. So let's work on that together."

Then came the newbies. Velásquez recalled receiving a community service award at Austin's prior council chambers "24, 26 years ago when I was a student at Austin High, from this mayor," pointing to Watson. "So it's ridiculously surreal to be up here serving my hometown." Ryan Alter, an aide to Watson in the Texas Senate, thanked all his friends and family for their above-and-beyond help to the first-time candidate, and his new colleagues "for reaching out throughout this process; I know that I'm going to learn from all of you," before saving his climactic plaudits for his mayoral mentor: "You put your faith in a young law student eager to make Austin a better place [and] gave me the opportunity to follow my passion." And Qadri thanked the entire city: "You took in a guy with a funny name who looks like me, [and] made me feel that I belong."

Then it was Watson's turn to quote Yogi Berra ("déjà vu all over again") and describe his return to mayoralty: "I have to tell you I am very clear-eyed about the world we live in and how profoundly different it is from anything we've experienced. It's not lost on me that today is Jan. 6. … My hope for us in Austin is that we will relentlessly pursue unity. But nothing about Austin is a given."

Echoing a main campaign message, "For a lot of our neighbors, this is an emergency," the mayor continued. "[They] can't find an affordable place to live or are at risk of being forced out of their home. It's an emergency for Austinites experiencing homelessness, [and] for Austinites who don't feel safe in their homes or neighborhoods, or don't have the trust they deserve to have in their police. It's an emergency for Austinites who spend hours and hours every day just getting to and from work and school."

Watson committed to approaching these people in crisis with care and appreciation and a positive yet pragmatic vision. "Can we solve every problem? Can we realize everyone's ideal? No. And no one should expect that. But they should expect that their realistic aspirations to be safe, to be healthy, to be respected, to have opportunity, to be happy, can and will be carried out. So let's give them what they want."

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Kirk Watson, José Velásquez, Ryan Alter, Zohaib Qadri, Alison Alter, Paige Ellis, Natasha Harper-Madison

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