January 26, 2007
If a wellspring of urgency or impatience bubbles deep within, his manner does not reveal it.Great expectations follow Kirk Watson simply because he is Kirk Watson, widely perceived as part of the Democratic Party’s government-in-waiting, one of those who will vie for statewide office if and when the political winds shift.For now, he’s Austin’s first new state senator in more than two decades, settling into a junior member’s office down a long, underground hallway beyond the Senate mail room. “I couldn’t be happier than to be where I am,” he says. “I’ve been excited every day.”Watson coasted into office with no serious opposition, as if the city’s political waters parted to deliver him his due after 22-year Senate veteran Gonzalo Barrientos decided to relinquish his stranglehold on District 14.Watson, the 48-year-old attorney and popular former mayor, had the good fortune to lead Austin during the height of the tech boom. He was part of the Democratic dream ticket in 2002, running for attorney general in the party’s doomed effort to reclaim something, anything, from the Republicans.He’s affable, reasonably attractive, and has a loquacious presence refined by courtroom arguments and countless banquet speeches. But he’s not inclined to talk of higher office now. A cancer survivor—he beat testicular cancer more than 10 years ago—Watson insists he’s looking no further than the Senate floor.“One of the gifts of cancer is that I just don’t get focused on what happens long term,” he says. “I try to live my life with a short-term focus but a long-term vision.”Indeed, his cancer fight informs much of what Watson says he hopes to accomplish in his new post. “The only reason I’m here is early, effective health care,” he says. “Otherwise I’d be dead. One of the things I should be doing is making sure others don’t lose their opportunities just because they don’t have access to health care. That’s a key for me.”Though he has no bills in the hopper yet, Watson says they’re coming, on health care, education, and transportation. A freshman can’t be too presumptuous, but “I think it’s appropriate, freshman or not, to ask ‘Are we thinking big enough in Texas?’”Big’s good, but politics is local, and Austin has its own tricky issues—development fights, protecting the Edwards Aquifer, and of late, a growing restiveness over new toll roads that seem to be encircling the city. Watson knows the turf and its traps. “I’ve been representing this area in one way or another for a decade,” he says. “I have found this to be a very thoughtful community.”And he’s got his eye on the toll roads. “The policy has been a ‘Don’t ask, just tell’ policy, and we’ve gotta fix that,” he says.