'I'm considering it seriously': Former state Senator Kirk Watson says he might run again for Austin mayor in 2022

Ryan Autullo
Austin American-Statesman
Former state Sen. Kirk Watson, who was Austin's mayor from 1997 to 2001, said Monday that he is considering again running to be the city's mayor in the 2022 election.

Former state Sen. Kirk Watson says he's considering running for mayor of Austin during the November 2022 election.

Watson, a Democrat, was Austin's mayor from 1997 to 2001 and continues to live in the city. He confirmed his interest in the position Monday in a text message to the American-Statesman. Watson said he'll take as much time as needed before he makes a decision.

"The number of people reaching out to me and asking me to run for mayor has been extraordinary and very exciting," Watson said. "So, yes, I'm considering it seriously. That includes talking to people, doing some research and considering what I want to be doing right now."

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Watson's popularity from his time as mayor and in the Legislature would seem to make him a formidable contender, one with the potential to scare away others who are thinking about launching a campaign. He represented Austin in the Texas Senate from 2007 until he resigned in 2020 to become the first dean of the University of Houston’s new Hobby School of Public Affairs. Watson stayed in that role for one school year before stepping down in May.

To this point, the mayoral race has two declared candidates: Realtor Jennifer Virden, a former Austin City Council candidate in District 10, and Erica Nix, who in her campaign treasurer appointment lists her job as a body positivity ambassador.

Current Mayor Steve Adler is required to step down after the completion of his second term unless he collects petitions from 5% of registered voters to run for a third term. Adler has said he will not do that.

The winner of the 2022 mayoral race will serve only two years — not the usual four — after Austin voters decided in November to change the city's election schedule. The adjustment will align mayoral races with presidential elections, a move aimed at promoting stronger voter turnout.  Whoever is elected mayor in 2022 would then have the opportunity to run for reelection in 2024 for a four-year term.

State Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, has also expressed interest in running for mayor and has made phone calls to supporters, according to multiple political insiders. Israel's term in the House is up at the end of 2022. She confirmed her interest in the mayor's office on Monday.

"I have engaged in a range of conversations with community leaders frustrated with never-ending culture wars and neglect of real issues," Israel wrote in an email. "How do we hold on to the communities we’re losing? How do we do right by students, parents and teachers when we can’t require masks? I’m hearing over and over again we need a new perspective. For now, the talks continue, but I’m encouraged by the spirit of our community to meet the moment."

City Council Member Kathie Tovo said Monday she also might enter the mayor's race.

"I am seriously considering a possible run for mayor," she said.

The deadline for candidates to file is in August 2022.

Mark Littlefield, a local political consultant who assists in campaigns for Democratic candidates, said it would be difficult for anyone to beat Watson.

"It doesn't mean that Watson's unbeatable or that it's his for the taking — it just makes it a whole lot harder for everyone else," Littlefield said. "It's not easy to raise the money needed to run for mayor unless you're independently wealthy. Watson would probably suck up a lot of the money that's in the room that other people would need in order to do their campaign."

Watson's Senate campaign reported having $1.2 million on hand as of July, according to a filing with the Texas Ethics Commission. However, city rules prohibit him from spending that money in a mayoral race because of local fundraising limits.

According to the political website Ballotpedia, Watson raised $1.9 million in political contributions in 2018 when he won reelection in the Senate with 71% of the vote. In his previous Senate races, he raised $826,000, $996,000, $1.2 million, $912,000 and $1.5 million.

Watson raised $5.2 million in 2002 when he ran for Texas attorney general after leaving the mayor's office. He lost in the general election to Republican Greg Abbott.

Austin has changed quite a bit since Watson was mayor, going from 656,000 residents when he was in office in 2000 to roughly 1 million today. The City Council moved to district representation in 2015, a format in which the 10 members other than the mayor represent a geographic district in the city. Council members during Watson's time as mayor represented the entire city.

If he decides to run again, Watson will have to communicate a plan for addressing issues the city has struggled with, including unsheltered homelessness, police funding, housing affordability and land use.

Watson said the city's next mayor should be someone with a track record for making things happen.

"Austin is going to need leadership in the mayor's office with a proven ability to get things done and the demonstrated skill at bringing about transformational change," he said. "I'm pleased and happy that so many folks think I have those skills and are wanting to see me run for mayor. 

"I love this town, I've loved the great opportunity to serve it for many years, and I’ve loved the success of that service. I’ll take the appropriate time — and there's plenty of time — to think about this in a smart way. I'm going to be thoughtful about it."