June 12, 2008
Second only to Nueces County delegates tossing out beach balls for activists to smack around the Austin Convention Center, the most surprising sideshow at the Texas Democratic Party’s convention may have been true-blue believers lining up to chat with the guy in charge.
The fellow shaking hands and signing programs and badges during breaks wasn’t the party chairman, Boyd Richie. Nor was it Bob Slagle, the Sherman lawyer who’s steered numerous Democratic confabs.
Nope, the guy in demand was Kirk Watson, the Travis County state senator and former Austin mayor.
Watson gave off enough of a thrilled-to-be-here vibe to make me think he’ll soon try to lead Texas in a more consequential role than convention chairman.
He guided thousands of delegates through two potentially nasty blowups while also lofting some one-liners.
Scott Cobb of Austin was among delegates seeking a floor debate and a vote on ending the selection of delegates for presidential candidates at primary-night caucuses. In March, many of the caucuses were disorganized, disorderly and hard for voters to attend. Cobb’s proposal to base delegates only on voting at the polls was tabled by the convention; Cobb said Watson could have allowed discussion before that happened.
“Overall, he did a great job,” Cobb said, crediting Watson with bringing a relatively youthful blast of energy and humor to the gavel-wielding role.
In another tense moment, state Rep. Terri Hodge of Dallas charged advocates for Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive presidential nominee, with inappropriately huddling privately to finalize his Texas delegates to the party’s August national convention in Denver. Watson said her concern would be investigated; the party took no action, finding nothing untoward afoot.
Austin delegate Christine Berkland didn’t like what she saw, writing later: “Something just kind of smelled bad. Perhaps it was my first close-up and personal brush with politics as usual.”
Watson stressed to me later that he let people objecting to the recommended delegates have time to air gripes before the choices were ratified.
Rough spots aside — every convention chief has them — my hunch is that Watson will run for governor or lieutenant governor as soon as 2010.
Not that he’ll have an easy time of it.
In 2002, Watson got clocked by Republican Greg Abbott for attorney general, a result driven, in part, by the high-dollar air war between GOP Gov. Rick Perry and challenger Tony Sanchez of Laredo. Perry beat Sanchez, who outspent him, by 800,000 votes. Abbott bested Watson by 700,000 votes.
Watson knows that no Democrat has won statewide since 1994 — and that ruling Republicans are intent on keeping Democrats down.
Yet he’s financially positioned for liftoff. Through December, he had nearly $1.2 million in his political kitty, placing him eighth among state officeholders in cash on hand (third among Democrats, behind longtime Sens. John Whitmire and Rodney Ellis, both of Houston).
Post-convention, Watson told me only that he’s not sure he’ll seek re-election in 2010, saying: “It’s fun to have the (statewide) speculation out there, but I consider it far too early.”
If Watson leaps, he could land on a Democratic ticket with Houston Mayor Bill White, the former state party chairman expected to run for governor, though some see him as more inclined to go for the U.S. Senate if, say, Kay Bailey Hutchison runs for governor.
Maybe Watson and White will visit one another to brainstorm. It would be a spectacle if both lawyers set sights on the state’s top job.