May 3, 2007
Sen. Kirk Watson has a front row seat, but it’s not to watch the show. Watson’s in the show, and it looks like he’s having a good time.With less than a month left in his first legislative session as a state senator from Austin, Watson’s rookie record is probably pretty average: One of his bills has made it all the way to the desk of Gov. Rick Perry, who will decide whether to sign or veto it. Senate Bill 456 is not the stuff of political legend; it would clarify an obscure point of state property tax law.Watson’s desk really is on the front row of the Senate, directly in front of the press table. Directly behind him is another freshman, Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston, a radio show talk host from a district as Republican and conservative as Watson’s is Democratic and liberal.Before a Senate session convened one day last week, Watson said in an interview that one of the biggest discoveries in his still-new role as senator is “the level of learning that you get to do. It is every single day that I come across something that I’m not even sure I’d ever thought about.”Another discovery for him, Watson said, was the depth of anger statewide over toll roads, not just in Central Texas. As vice chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, Watson gets a front row seat on that show, too.Most of the time, Watson said, partisanship keeps a low profile in the Senate. Critiques by others, from both parties, have made his bills better, he said: “I try to live by the motto that I don’t have a monopoly on good public policy.”That’s a two-way street.During the Senate session later that same day, Thursday, Patrick worked for passage of his bill to protect police officers and departments from civil court judgments if innocent bystanders are hurt during a hot pursuit. He told the Senate there would be two amendments from two former mayors — Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, and Watson — that he would accept.The amendments said pursuing officers must act within the law and departmental policies; both got Senate approval. Patrick told Watson, “I appreciate your help with this.” The Senate then approved Patrick’s bill after brief debate and sent it to the House.Watson’s desk position made him something of the official Senate greeter that same day when former members were honored with individual introductions and entries, an old-timers’ day for senators. Leading the way was former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby, followed by a couple of dozen former state senators. Watson smiled and clapped for each and shook hands as they walked by his desk, including his predecessor, Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin.Hobby, Barrientos and most of the other former senators were Democrats (and, mostly, white men), a reminder of how much the Senate has changed in the past 15 years. Today, out of 31 senators, just 11 are Democrats. Of those 11, only three are non-Hispanic white men, including Watson.Barrientos, who is retired from elected office, represented Austin for 22 years in the Senate (and spent 10 years before that in the House). He was a champion of liberal causes, particularly for education, the poor and civil rights. But he often seemed more comfortable giving one last, rousing floor speech before going down in defeat than engaging in hard-nosed negotiation and compromise.Before Barrientos, Austin’s senator for 11 years was Lloyd Doggett, a liberal trial lawyer and effective debater. Doggett, only 26 when he was elected to the Senate in 1973, was not a beloved figure among fellow senators, but he knew how to joust with the more conservative Democrats who made up most of the Senate then and he was successful at passing major legislation. Doggett later served on the Texas Supreme Court and has served as a U.S. representative since 1995.Like Doggett, Watson is a trial lawyer. Like Barrientos and Doggett, he is steeped in Travis County and Austin politics, having served as chairman of the local Democratic party and as mayor of the most liberal city in Texas.But unlike Doggett, 60, and Barrientos, 65, Watson, 49, is not a veteran of the anti-war, civil rights, consumer rights and student movements of the 1960s and early 1970s. And unlike Doggett, who grew up in Austin, and Barrientos, who grew up in Bastrop, Watson did not spend his childhood in Central Texas but in the Fort Worth area. Watson’s not even a University of Texas graduate, having earned his undergraduate and law degrees at Baylor University.But Watson has spent most of his adult life here, and one reason he enjoyed no real opposition to winning his Senate seat last year was his success in steering between business and environmental interests as mayor. That record, combined with a self-deprecating sense of humor draped over a litigator’s toughness, indicated that Watson could develop into a highly effective senator.And he appears to be off to a good start in the Senate, having won public thanks from a conservative Republican for help on a bill involving police work.