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Austin's Mayor Oversees a Completely Changed City

In the 30 years since Kirk Watson's previous stint as mayor, Austin has gained 400,000 more residents. Watson's changed, too.

Kirk Watson tours construction of McKalla Station in Austin
Kirk Watson tours a rail station under construction. He hopes to ensure that Austin's growth does more to benefit long-term residents. (Photo courtesy of the city of Austin)
Editor's Note: This article appears in Governing's Spring 2024 magazine. You can subscribe here.

The first time Kirk Watson became mayor of Austin in 1997, the place felt more like a quirky college town than a global hot spot. Even then, it was changing fast as tech companies rushed in, seeing the city’s culture and cool vibes as a draw for recruiting talent. By the time Watson left office in 2001, Austin had become a case study in luring what urbanist Richard Florida would soon call the “creative class.” Watson hit the road, coaching city leaders elsewhere on how to copy Austin’s formula for economic growth.

Now, Watson is back at Austin City Hall for a second tour as mayor. The creative-class strategy worked: Tech titans like Apple, Samsung and Tesla are expanding, bringing thousands of high-paying jobs. But it might have worked too well. Austin is now America’s 10th-largest city and has big-city problems to contend with: stifling traffic, expensive housing and a homelessness crisis. These were all issues Watson worked on the last time he was mayor. Now, he says, they’ve “gone to scale.”

Governance within Austin’s council-manager system has also changed. Previously, Watson served alongside six councilmembers who were elected at-large, like the mayor. Now, there are 10 councilmembers and they each represent individual districts. The result, Watson says, is that “you have more opinion, just more people you have to address.” He thinks this is a good thing: “Having a diversity of experiences and diversity of points of view should, and mostly does, result in better public policy because it sometimes demands a broader perspective.”

Watson believes that he, too, has changed. From 2007 to 2020, he served as a Democrat in the overwhelmingly Republican Texas Senate. He nevertheless found ways to get big things done, such as launching a medical school at the University of Texas. Watson says he’s more patient now at 65 than he was at 40. That helps him navigate today’s polarized politics. “I use the word ‘empathy’ far more at this age than I did at that age,” Watson says. “Our politics seems to wipe out empathy, and at the local level, we can’t do that. We need to be making practical decisions. I can’t just label you and quit listening to you because I think I know everything.”

Watson set out to thaw his liberal city’s frosty relations with conservative state leaders. Last year, he secured $65 million in state funding to expand homeless shelter capacity. He also collaborated with GOP Gov. Greg Abbott to use state troopers to address a shortage of local police officers, but when communities of color accused the troopers of racial profiling and aggressive tactics, Watson scuttled the agreement.

Owing to a quirk in the election calendar, the mayor has just a two-year term this time around, so Watson is moving quickly to prove himself to voters. To address a housing shortage, he worked with the City Council to allow more units to be built in residential neighborhoods. To address a child-care shortage, they’ve made child-care facilities exempt from property taxes. Steven Pedigo, a professor and urban expert at the University of Texas, says the intense focus on checkbook issues represents the flip side of Watson’s creative-class push a generation ago. “His philosophy on the growth engine has changed,” Pedigo says. 

Watson agrees. One of the mayor’s biggest priorities is creating an academy to prepare local workers for the coming wave of infrastructure projects. If the tech boom created a lot of jobs for newcomers, Watson says now is the time to focus on gains for longtime residents. “I want us to continue creating those W2s, but that’s not the end of the game,” he says. “It’s how do we get those W2s into the hands of Austinites?”
Christopher Swope was GOVERNING's executive editor.
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