January 5, 2007
Twenty-four Texas House freshmen and five new state senators will be sworn in Tuesday when the 80th regular session of the Legislature opens for business. All of the first term House and Senate members will contribute to the lawmaking process in their own unique ways. Some had a tougher time getting here than others – a few were fortunate to coast to Austin with major obstacles in their paths. Most consultants might agree that the best candidates were the ones who had it the easiest – not because they didn’t get beat up while stocking their war chests for future campaigns – but simply because nobody thought they could beat them. After running unopposed in the Democratic primary and facing no Republican foe in the fall, incoming State Senator Kirk Watson wasn’t a candidate for any of the awards that were dished out for meritorious achievement on the campaign trail. But when it comes to Capitol Inside’s first Freshman Most Likely to Succeed in the Legislature award, Watson once again has no competition. Here’s why:The most telling gauges of Kirk Watson’s popularity and political strength in Austin are the number of opponents that he drew in the Democratic primary and the number of major party foes he faced in the general election in his first legislative race. In one of the world’s most politically-charged cities – where activists seem to outnumber musicians, computer industry employees and Texas Longhorn fans – the casual observer might expect a long parade of candidates from a deep pool of talent to line up for an opportunity to run for a state Senate seat that hadn’t been open in more than 20 years until now. That would seem all the more true considering the spectacular growth in high-income neighborhoods where lots of Republicans presumably live. The competition was intense for Senate vacancies in Houston suburbs, the Piney Woods and East Texas and a chunk of southeast Texas that hugs the Gulf Coast. But when word got out that Watson was planning a race for the Senate, the sea of potential Democratic candidates dried up in an instant and no Republicans with political ambitions felt like serving themselves up to be a sacrificial lamb. Watson – one of the most popular, charismatic, innovative and dedicated mayors that Austin or any other town has ever had – must have felt lonely in his quest to be a senator because he had the campaign trail all to himself. Not a single potential candidate from either major party thought they’d have a chance against Watson – and they were dead right about that. Watson’s resume didn’t begin and end with his service as mayor. One page wasn’t enough to list all of his accomplishments and career stops and highlights. He’d graduated tops in his class from Baylor University Law School after serving as the editor-in-chief of the law review. He’d been president of the Texas Young Lawyers Association and honored as the state’s most outstanding young lawyer. He’d been Ann Richards’ choice to chair the Texas Air Control Board after her election as governor – and he was second in command on the committee that coordinated the merger between that agency and the Texas Water Commission into an agency that’s now known as the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Watson found the time to beat cancer after being diagnosed with the diseases in the early 1990s – and that landed him seats on the board that oversee the Lance Armstrong Foundation and the American Cancer Society. As Austin’s mayor for four years during the late 1990s, Watson helped turn the city into another Silicon Valley. He ended a war between environmentalists and developers and won praise from both sides for the way that he did it. He was the centerpiece of articles in magazines like Forbes and Fortune as they deemed Austin the best place to live and to business in the country. He’d won every award imaginable for a public city official – and he’d been re-elected with 84 percent of the vote in 2000 when the only two challengers with significant name identification and the nerve to take him on at the polls were Leslie the homeless celebrity drag queen and another well-known cross-dresser. Leslie, by the way, placed second with just under eight percent. Watson’s magic carpet ride ended in a haze of partisan reality when – as one of the most celebrated members of the Democrats’ so-called dream ticket – he finished with only 41 percent of the vote in a race for attorney general won by current incumbent Greg Abbott. But Watson, who’d been pounded during the campaign over the money he’d made as a personal injury law and the cash he’d raised from fellow plaintiff bar members, decided he’d rather learn from the experience than sulk over it and began preparing a defense by signing on as the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce chairman. Watson’s local star hadn’t lost any of its original glimmer – and when veteran State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos appeared to be having a tough time deciding whether to seek another term in the upper chamber – rumors that the ex-mayor may run for the seat whether it was open or not appeared to help Barrientos finally determine that the time had come to pass the torch. Watson’s only opponent – Libertarian Robert “Rock” Howard – was no Leslie Cochran but still fared better in holding the Democratic Senate nominee to 80 percent of the general election vote. While Watson never served in the Texas House like his predecessor, he’s not expected to need much of an orientation period before he establishes himself as a key player in the Senate. He won’t have the time to match his potential if he runs for a statewide office like governor, lieutenant governor or maybe even attorney general again the next time those jobs are up for grabs in 2010. Watson shouldn’t have to worry that much about fundraising for a statewide race if that turns out to be his eventual plan. In the final six months of 2005 – a year out from the recent general election – Watson raised more money from contributors than any of the other four incoming freshmen state senators did for their entire campaigns.