AUSTIN (KXAN) — The two candidates vying to represent Austinites as their mayor debated Thursday night in KXAN’s studio, discussing affordability, public safety and why their experience makes them poised to be the city’s next leader.
Celia Israel and Kirk Watson headed to a runoff after neither secured more than 50% of the vote during the Nov. 8 election. Israel received 39.99% of the vote (or 121,862 votes) while Watson had 34.95% of the vote (106,508 votes). Six total candidates were in the running.
Watson previously served as Austin’s mayor, as well as a state senator. He was most recently the dean of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston. The priorities he’s outlined for his campaign included addressing the cost of living, homelessness, public safety, systemic racism and transportation.
Israel most recently was a state representative, who found her passion for local government after Ann Richards chose her to be her volunteer coordinator in 1990. Housing and affordability are some of the cornerstones of her campaign, along with transportation, reproductive rights and public safety.
The Austin runoff election is Dec. 13. Early voting begins Thursday.
The following debate transcript has been lightly edited by removing repeated words and condensing questions.
Representative Israel, your plan aims to incentivize alternatives to single family homes, like fourplexes and multifamily housing. But how do you answer concerns of people who are worried about denser development changing the character of Austin neighborhoods?
Israel: It’s the singular reason why I’m running. Austin is in a crisis right now — much of it of its own making. We decided back in the ’80s to cut back dramatically on the number of fourplexes and duplexes. We did that intentionally. And now it’s coming home to roost. We knew that we were going to be growing. So we have to — we have to make sure that we are working diligently with the city and I know that Councilmember Paige Ellis is doing some good work for us.
In other words, if you’re going to be building a fourplex where it is appropriate, you shouldn’t be treating it as if it is a 300-unit apartment complex. It is taking too long and — and that length of time is cutting back on our ability to keep pace with the growth that we’ve been experiencing.
There is no doubt every mayor that has been before us — to present himself or herself over the last several generations — has said ‘We’re going to cut the red tape at City Hall.’ This is a unique opportunity because of the housing crisis that we are in. The median home price … is a challenge. My wife and I are going through this right now. … We are renting. We are between homes. We we got that note from the property management company that said ‘300 more dollars a month. Take it or leave it.’
I know what it’s like to get that — to get that shock of cold water to every family. So I say to those who are — who are concerned: I feel your pain. I understand. I’ve been here since 1982. And we’ve got to catch up to our housing supply to keep these costs down.
Previous councils have tried, and really they failed to reform the city’s outdated development code. Instead of a one size fits all city wide code, you’ve proposed that each district submit its own set of code regulations. So how will you prevent districts from choosing to shut out affordable housing altogether? Or new development?
Watson: Well, that’s not really what my plan was — is and was — and it’s been mischaracterized over time. What’s happened in Austin — and part of the frustration that we all feel with the inability to get things done at City Hall — is, as you pointed out, we had a one-size-fits-all. CodeNEXT was put over the whole city and it was all or nothing, and ultimately we ended up with nothing.
So what my plan does is it says ‘let’s ask the districts what they want to do in order to get us more housing,’ not to block off any housing. And in fact, if you go to my website, kirkwatson.com and read what the plan does, it even points out that there would have to be a baseline for every district. We have a blueprint for housing in this community and it’s based upon districts. What — how much it’s going to be, and then we looked at the neighborhoods and the districts for where it’s going to be.
This is done in my plan with an incentive, in addition, so that if a — if a district one of the districts is doing more or it’s doing it faster than, it will be incentivized and rewarded for doing that by having an increment of that tax stay there so that they can do things like help with rental assistance or just avoid displacement or parks or sidewalks or anything of that nature. What I’m attempting to do is get us past the deadlock so that we can get more housing and pay attention to the neighborhood.
Does your plan allow for neighborhoods to shut out affordable housing?
Watson: No, in fact, that’s — that has been said about the plan. But that’s because it’s been mischaracterized for political purposes. And that’s — I understand that. There is nothing in this plan that says you can’t do it. In fact, again, what I’m saying is that there’s a — there has to be a baseline across the city. Every district will have to do something and if the council votes, something that is citywide, that will apply to and there’s no — the districts themselves can’t say, ‘No, we’re not going to do that.’
Ms. Israel, we’ll allow you 30 seconds to respond to him
Israel: The facts are that that Kirk’s plan was characterized by my campaign as a redlining plan and it had the words ‘quota’ in it, and he had to adjust the language on his plan. And despite the changes that he made, after we issued our own housing and affordability plan, it is a recipe for status quo to make this extra layer of time, and it is more bureaucracy. It is more of the same. This is a city that has become inequitable. We’ve lost our percentage of African Americans and Latinos. And we need to — we need to get rid of this as an idea and move closer together in unity over these 10 districts.
Voters just passed the city’s largest affordable housing bond ever, but with inflation pushing up building costs, what would you prioritize?
Israel: We have some amazing innovative nonprofit organizations here in town who have changed their … mission and … their way of operating. They need a good partner with the city. I would say that the … opportunity to partner with a nonprofit who’s going to work to take our unhoused off the streets first and put them in a dignified place should get the priority, but it is — it’s a matter of the city being a good partner.
I have — I’m the only person … in this race who has the experience and knowing that … there is red tape, there are intricacies, there is a tremendous amount of bureaucracy in the land development code and we need to help everybody, especially those who are building affordable housing projects. It takes entirely too long. There’s no reason why a regular, thoughtful builder with a good reputation for building affordable housing projects, that it takes them two years just to get their site plan approved.
We’ve got to use this time and this crisis that affects all kinds of people to really change that culture within the city of Austin and move, and move urgently and quickly on these projects. I’m glad for the housing bond, but we need to — we need to move. We need to take advantage of this time and move quickly on projects that are going to help the least among us.
Watson: And that’s important because the question is about ‘what would you prioritize with the housing bonds that just passed?’ One of the things that I want to start answering that question with is, we — I would prioritize and I would make sure that the city prioritizes the transparency on how those bonds are spent. We have had a number of elections where there have been — there’s been more and more money placed into things like affordable housing that we want, but it hasn’t been transparent about where that money is going.
But one of the priorities I would have is — we found that we are getting some building going on for those that are at 80% or 60% of the mean income. And what we need is — we need it to go even deeper. We need it to be at 30 and 20%. So one of my priorities would be to work with the private industry. The private developers as they’re developing their projects, bring in that public money so that we would be able to together be able to buy down … those units. And so you end up with more of the deep, more deeply affordable housing that we’re missing out on, even when we’re incentivizing private developers by giving density bonuses and things of that nature. So my priority would be to leverage that money by working with private developers and getting in the 20 and 30% range, which we’re not getting and people are having to leave the city.
We want to get in a couple of affordability questions from some of our voters. This one comes from Deborah Martin out of southwest Austin. Tonight she writes ‘Citizens are being taxed out of their own homes and renters don’t realize that their increases to rent are due to property tax increases as well. What will you do to decrease property taxes and city spending?’
Watson: Well, my experience — and one of the frustrations, again, of the public — is that we’re not using our budgeting process in a way that actually impacts the cost of living. We have a cost of living emergency, and so at the city, we ought to focus on the fundamentals that we can control. Part of the budgeting process ought to be — and what I’ve laid out as a plan is — instead of every year going up to the cap that the state allows us to do, which is three and a half percent, instead of doing that every year — if we start with the budget being at what is called the ‘no new revenue’ amount. In other words, we drop the rate so that the city receives the same amount of revenue that it would receive in the previous year.
Then we may want to add things. There may be things that we want to put in the budget, but it would require that there be a justification for moving that direction as opposed to starting off with giving a tax increase and then trying to come in and cut it as part of the budget process.
Another thing that I would do is I would immediately convene the leadership of all the various overlapping jurisdictions and have us ask the question, ‘Where are we duplicating services? Where are we paying twice or three times for the same thing?’ Or ‘Where can we do things where we get a bigger bang for the buck by one of the jurisdictions picking it up and letting the other one use that their revenue for something else?’
Mark Winters from west Austin writes ‘Many Austin residents are being forced to move out of their apartments due to rising rent. What plans do you have to alleviate that condition to help Austin renters?’
Israel: It’s when you see cranes everywhere in downtown Austin. … It’s strange to say, but we are not building homes at the rate in which we should be building homes. All kinds of homes for all kinds of people. My wife and I are renting right now. We are between homes. And we got that note from the property management company that said ‘300 more dollars a month. Take it or leave it,’ last summer. It was a shock of ice water to our family.
When I see a pickup truck loaded full of personal belongings flying down 35, I know that that’s someone that’s not happy about moving. They’re in trauma. They’re having a difficult moment.
And this is — this is a factor of a city that has gotten accustomed to taking way too long to build these projects. And I have the the experience that it takes … to help our renters and to help our homeowners. I’m an owner and a renter right now, and this is an opportunity for us to, with homes hovering around 500 — The median home prices being at around $500,000 with the rents going up dramatically. The city, as I said, in the 1980s dramatically cut back on the number of fourplexes and duplexes. We did it to ourselves. This is not a new problem. It’s only more painful now because of the crisis that we experienced in the midst of the pandemic.
Do you have a specific plan to tackle this?
Israel: My housing plan at celiaforaustin.com is very thorough and is very bold and very creative. For example, just the other day — and in the New York Times — every American city is struggling with this. … I want to look back on my time as mayor and say … ‘We took our own property,’ a storage facility at Austin Energy for example. AISD is in the process of looking at what was … a school. A commercial building that was built in the 70s has an opportunity for — to be row houses and … put a pocket park on there.
Voters approved funding for Project Connect with the goal of better and more equitable mobility, but the cost estimates and the timelines have grown. Representative Israel, how are you going to address cost overruns and delays in your two years as mayor?
Israel: I love this topic. I love this topic for a variety of reasons. I grew up on the bus. I’m from El Paso, Texas, and my dad was a truck driver and mom never got a driver’s license. So growing up on the bus is a way — it was a way of life for me.
I think that transit is equity. Transit is freedom. It was that way for me when I was growing up. It was that way for me when I took the bus, the un-air conditioned bus from Lake Austin Boulevard … as a University of Texas student into the campus. And I’m the only person in this race who has that lived experience.
I also want to — I want to make sure that every transit dollar that we spend on Project Connect is is spent wisely and thoughtfully, with the help of these people called transportation engineers. They are experts. Sometimes I have my own thoughts, but we need to listen to the experts at this moment in time. Every transportation dollar should be an equity dollar that brings us together. This is about, as we are changing our land code and doing more building in the heart of the city, we’ve got to be able to make sure that we are doing right by Project Connect and that investment that the voters are trusting us with.
How would you address cost overruns and delays?
Israel: My lived experience is is demonstrative of the fact that I can’t control CapMetro, but I will have a vote with the transit partnership and being someone … who understands … the equity aspects of it. I’m prepared to ask the difficult questions. It’s what I did as a member of the legislature — nine years of legislature. I knew I didn’t have the power to make things happen. But I had the power to ask the — ask the tenacious and tough question about those expenses and about those plans. And I kind of geek out on this topic. So that’s my — that’s my vision.
Senator Watson, we want your take on Project Connect. If elected, you’re going to have two years to move this project forward. What would you do in that time to make sure the project connects everyone who needs it?
Watson: What we need to do with Project Connect is recognize, first of all, that the public has said that’s what they want. They want a rail system. So we need to work so that we honor … what the public has said that they want to have. Let’s face it, Project Connect right now is a mess, and it needs to be addressed with immediacy. And it’s taking too long for us to get the answers that we need so that we can try to do what the public wants.
There are two variables that have to be addressed, and as mayor I would be — I would want to be on the ATP board which is the Austin Transit Partnership. It’s a partnership between the city and Capital Metro and work on these two variables. The first variable is the asset. What is it we’re going to build now that the price has gone up the way it has — with inflation and the cost of land? What are we actually going to build? What was part of those plans that we don’t need in order to meet the needs of the public? And things like the underground, the tunneling underground — what needs to be done there, and how much tunneling needs to be done, and how would it look underground?
The second is time. What is the length of time we’re going to use in order to build different parts? It may take — it is definitely going to take longer to finish out parts of Project Connect. So … without getting our hands dirty on that we’re not going to get fixed — be able to fix it.
Israel: This is not a time for us to back off of our commitment to what the voters … have assigned to us. We should have passed this referendum back in the year 2000 when Kirk was mayor, and we didn’t do it. We didn’t have the political will to do it then. And we finally came through in the year 2020 to do it.
Every great American city has a great transit system. We need to do Project Connect-plus. We need to do not only the lines that are proposed, but make those east west connections so that more people can say ‘yes’ to the bus. I’ve found over the course of my time, the people are not anti-transit. They’re anti-inefficiency, and I pledge to make sure that we have the best efficient system possible.
Watson: I’m sure she didn’t mean to imply that there was some reason it didn’t pass because of me because what happened was … we brought that forward. For the first time the city of Austin had an opportunity to vote, the Capital Metro service area had an opportunity to vote on whether or not we’re going to have rail, and unfortunately, it failed. The voters turned it down by less than 2,000 votes. It won in the city of Austin, but it failed in the Capital Metro service area … that was outside the city.
I wish it had passed at that point in time because it had been cheaper and we would be dealing with a rail system already. But the question was about what are we going to do with Project Connect? And what are we going to — how are we going to answer those questions? The public is frustrated because the city hall is not taking care of basics, and we need a sense of emergency and immediacy and get these things fixed. And I want to bring that to the mayor’s office and bring my experience and the ability to get things done.
Israel: The time for us to take care of this was in the year 2000, … when the real estate prices were a lot more reasonable. The Senator has shown when he wants things to happen, they happen and they didn’t happen in the year 2000.
Transforming I-35, of course, is key to Austin’s transportation future and will be a multibillion dollar investment. But the city really has limited control over it. So Senator Watson, what are your goals for the city’s contribution to this project?
Watson: Well, I’ve been working on I-35 and trying to get us the right result for quite a while now. In fact, it’s been one of those things that we’ve made real progress, but we still have a ways to go. And we need to continue to push TxDOT to make it a better outcome.
But let me give you an example. As recently as 2017, TxDOT’s proposal had — the upper decks were still in the proposal, and they were going to even add lanes to that, and I was able to push and get those out of that plan. What we have to do and what the city has to push for are a couple of things.
One, we have to make that road work better as a road; 80% of the traffic on that road through central Austin is generated in the Austin area. We need to make that road work better. And the plan that we’re trying to put into place has to do that.
The second thing is the road needs to become safer. And the plan that we’re trying to put into place has auxilary lanes that hopefully would be able to do that. Third, we need to make sure it’s better for transit and the ‘manage lanes’ that are being talked about would make it better for transit. And finally, that road needs to be lowered, the way it’s being talked about being lowered. It’s being able to unite east and west better and put us in a situation where we could cap it so that that ugly scar and ugly monument adds to our city instead of detracts.
As mayor, what would you prioritize and work towards in terms of I-35 and the projects?
Israel: I’ve been on the Transportation Committee in the House of Representatives. As I mentioned, I love this topic. I think that transportation is a great equalizer for so many families. … We do need to lower this — the interstate. We need to we need to bring east and west together. I’m not content with where TxDOT is. And we need high-capacity transit. We need dedicated transit on and off. The future of … transportation … is electric.
The future of transportation is multimodal and that plan is a recipe … for disaster in that it is replicating what we did in the Katy Freeway in Houston. Just because you put more lanes doesn’t mean that you’re making it better. We will be mowing down 100 businesses and homes and we will regret it. I don’t want to move forward with the plan until I’m confident that we are doing right by the taxpayers.
Mr. Watson is being disingenuous when he says that we should push TxDOT for a better outcome. On several occasions, he has said, I’m nearly quoting, ‘We need to leave that TxDOT plan alone.’ I’m not sure why he said that. And now he’s saying something differently.
Watson: What I have said is that the frustration we have in this town when it comes to transportation and not acting with immediacy and urgency. And what you just heard is someone that wants to continue to push things down the road, if you will. What I have said is we can’t go in as the City of Austin and just try to kill off what TxDOT is bringing forward. Instead, we need to work with TxDOT, as I have, to make changes in that road.
But if you’re frustrated with traffic, what you don’t want is another study or someone that wants to … take that time to act like Austin can tell the state exactly what it can do. Because she can’t do that. We need to continue to work with TxDOT to make the road better. But ultimately, TxDOT’s plan will end up being one of the things that we’re going to have to decide whether we want and I’ve been pushing to make sure that it has improvements. There hadn’t been any change in what I’ve been saying.
Israel: It was a direct change, Kirk. You said we need to leave that TxDOT plan alone. That begs the question, ‘why should we, the public, not have input?’ The TxDOT plan is not reflective of what the community wants? As mayor, I will stand up for what the community wants and they want more. They want better and they will get it as a Mayor Israel.
To prioritize responding to a rise in violent crime with fewer officers, Austin Police have taken longer to respond to certain non-emergency crimes. APD’s chief says the department needs more officers to fill the gaps created by retirements and resignations. So beyond pay, what would you do to address recruitment and retention?
Watson: One of the first things that we need to do is we need to get a contract with the police union. When we don’t have a contract and they’re operating without a contract, then those that we want to recruit, we have difficulty recruiting.
And the second part of that is, we need to be able to keep the people that we have on the force. In other words, retain those who are on the force. Because … if we retain them, we don’t have to recruit replacements. And again, getting a contract is going to be a key part of doing that because if the contract’s not in place, and they are going to lose benefits, then you’re going to see an exodus from the police department. And … we will continue to go down … with the number of police officers when we’re actually trying to increase the number of police officers.
We need to get to full staffing. It is inexcusable that people are put on hold for 911 calls. It is inexcusable that we’re not meeting the times that we ought to be meeting in terms of response times either for urgent, urgent work, something in progress or emergencies where it’s no longer in progress, or, as was asking the question, situations where we just don’t … the police aren’t going to be able to pay attention to that for some period of time. People in this town deserve to be safe, and they deserve to feel safe.
Israel: We do need to get that contract on and I want a fully-funded, fully-supported, well-paid, well-trained police force. It is not easy for me to talk about my personal story, but I think it’s important. When I was a little girl, my dad was a mean drunk and he would he would beat up my mom. And I called out the police several times to say ‘dad is hurting mom.’
I understand the trauma. I understand the urgency. I understand the pain that goes along with those moments regardless of zip code, regardless of status in life. When you call the police, you want the police to be there. … You want the best police force possible.
I am concerned about the staffing issues because we’re losing senior people who can help those younger … officers be better officers. We want officers who have a guardian mentality, not a warrior mentality.
How would you address recruitment and retention in the force?
Israel: Every profession is having a workforce crisis. Engineers, 911 call operators. We’ve got to make sure that our police do get the contract. I’m hoping that we will have a contract to reassure them ‘we need you here.’ And stay in Austin because you know the operations. So the next mayor is going to have a contract that they will use to reassure our police force. We — believe me, they want the best trained cops as well.
After the 2020 deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the death of Michael Ramos here in Austin, the city reallocated more than $150 million in police funding toward other public safety solutions. Now this, of course, brought backlash from the governor and from state lawmakers and the city actually had to reverse course. So two part question here for you. Well, was that the right decision? And what does police reform look like to you?
Israel: I am — I opposed — I opposed the bill on the House floor. That would have mandated what Austin … couldn’t do with its own budget. … It was a bad bill that was targeting only five — the top five cities. … The author of that legislation came from a city that was not in the top five that had an even worse crime rate than Austin, Texas. So we’ve got to make sure that we are looking at this … with a clear, clear lens and make sure that our police force is well funded and well supported.
Watson: Now police reform — let me start with this. We can have a just policing system that meets the Austin values and we can do that through recruitment, who we recruit, training and making sure that training is appropriate as part of the reforms that we do — supervision … and also by having a transparent system of effective accountability.
Now there are other things that can be done without creating a binary choice with funding our police and making sure that we’re fully staffed. For example, having the crime lab be independent — that’s a good decision. That is something that ought to be part of the reform and you can move that money and put that there so that you’re in a position that … it might not be going directly to the police department because you have it at being independent, but you’re getting a better result.
In addition to that, it’s appropriate for us to look at funding more … people that can can take care of situations that are more like a social worker, when you don’t need an emergency situation where you’re going to need somebody like a police officer with a gun. But it has to be done quickly and it has to be done more immediately. And we have to fully staff, our police. We have to meet — and it’s not a binary choice with having a just system
Just for the record tonight — was the city right to reverse its decision on police funding?
Watson: They were not right to take, to … so-called defund the police. If that’s your question, in terms of some of the reversals. They needed to reverse some of those because they had made a bad choice in some of the so-called defunding of the police.
This comment is from Austin fire association president Bob Nix: “Austin, in the past has been considered a good department in terms of paying benefits just not true anymore. I mean, we’re not even highest paid in Travis County.” How would you as mayor addressed pay and benefits for our firefighters?
Israel: We need a more thorough budgeting review system. It’s outrageous to me that we … ask the mayor and the council to look at the budget in a really close compressed timeframe. I want to see the general ledger. I want to see … where we can cut costs. I want to see where we can save. …
As a member of the legislature, … it’s tragic that we haven’t, for example, increased the rate of pay for state employees. So the … private sector is ahead of the curve … on pay and benefits and the public sector is lagging. So we need to make sure that we are urgently supporting our city employees who are doing the best they can and I don’t want them to if they’re good, I don’t want them to leave. I want them to stay here and I don’t want to lose their experience.
Watson: But let’s face it, City Hall is not doing a good job of focusing on fundamentals and one of the key fundamentals is public safety. By not focusing on those fundamentals, it’s putting a lot of things that we love about our city at risk. I will tell you, I’m very proud to have been endorsed in this race for mayor by the firefighters and by the EMS workers because they know I’ll put a priority on public safety and that’s the answer.
We were just talking about police and the need to fully staff police and how long it’s taking for us to fully staff police. Now we’re hearing that we’re losing. We’re losing firefighters. And I will tell you we’re not providing them the equipment they need. The same is true with our EMS workers.
Public safety has to become a priority … and the way you deal with that in the budget process is you put it as a priority. You look at what you’re going to fund with public safety first as one of the priorities. That’s a fundamental priority of meeting the needs of this city. That way, you don’t have to come in and try to pull here or try to pull there. You just fund what the basics and fundamentals are and what the priorities of the city are.
Austin voters approved the camping ban, but we’ve seen limited enforcement of it. That brings us to a viewer question from J.R. Long who lives in south Austin. He asks ‘Will you commit to enforcing the public camping ban and removing homeless from the streets, highway underpasses and open space lands?’
Watson: Another example of where the city’s not doing a good job of taking care of basics. Yes, I would enforce the camping ban. The public has told us they want us to enforce the camping ban. And the state has passed legislation mandating that we enforce the camping ban and what’s not happening is enough effort being put into being able to enforce the camping ban in a way that is humane.
We’re just having people move from one side of the street to another and not have any place for them to go. We’re not providing the kinds of services, including mental health services, that they’re going to need.
When I was mayor, we were first dealing with some of these issues. In fact, we created the first resource center for the homeless when I was mayor. We created the first women and children shelter and we created the — first in the state of Texas — downtown community court. And we created that so that when you enforce the camping ban, which we did when I was mayor, but when you enforce the camping ban and you had people that were just going to be put into jail for a Class C misdemeanor or something of that nature, you could get them to services better.
So yes, the direct answer to that question is, I would enforce the camping ban, but I would also move with immediacy to do a better job of dealing with the homeless overall.
Israel: Yes, I would support the — enforcing the camping ban. In the spring of this year, we had our first freeze. I put myself … into that space and went to the warming shelter and volunteered my time to hand out supplies to those who were going back to where they wanted to be. It was tragic. … It was — tore at your heart to see that these are individuals who had no family support … had several body blows in life. And didn’t have anywhere else to go. The last place they wanted to go was to that resource center that Kirk is so proud of. They went there. They recoiled from me when I asked them ‘Do you want to go to the ARCH (Austin Resource Center for the Homeless)? Do you want to go to the Salvation Army?’ They they felt more comfortable going to a camp in the back of a 7-Eleven. So this is a failure of the city. It’s a failure of many American cities. I would move forward with working with our nonprofit partners who are in a different space now than they were just six months ago. They are recalibrating Family Eldercare, Safe Place, Caritas, including Foundation Communities. They need a good partner with the city. And that includes helping them build things faster. … They have land, they have a vision. They’re doing capital campaigns. Sometimes they just need a city that’s going to move those darn electric poles and not take too long to do it.
Watson: The point is, the reason people don’t want to go to the resource center is because it’s not being utilized in the right way. It is a failure to take care of basics in this town right now. And it’s a failure to look at it with a sense of urgency, and instead letting it drag on and on and on. We need a resource — an emergency shelter like the resource center for the homeless was intended to be — and we need a variety of other things, so that we can enforce the camping ban and do it in a humane way.
The City of Austin has incentivized property owners to provide units for people experiencing homelessness. Do you support that model and how do you protect the people that live in those areas?
Israel: We need to look look at that very carefully. Many of those individuals who are — who find themselves … in that space, need medical care and attention and you can’t just treat them … like a sack of potatoes and say ‘here, you’re going to live here for a little while.’ It seems like it’s an idea that needs more review and analysis.
Before we go there … I’m a fan of us — What I don’t think we’ve done well is, rather than beat up on the city for where we are, the city does deserve to have a partner and that is with the county. In West Campus, for example, the city and the county are working together and in sync even though that’s not in the ETJ (Extra-Territorial Jurisdiction).
We need to make sure … that those unhoused individuals are treated in a dignified way, in an urgent way. And what I don’t see happening is the city and the county working in a more collaborative manner and that’s my vision as mayor.
So this debate is essentially a job interview for all the folks here in Austin watching. And in any job interview of course we’d ask you to sort of outline your accomplishments for us. What are you most proud of in your career in public service?
Watson: Well, I’m very proud of a number of things. When I was mayor of the city of Austin, we did things that people said we couldn’t achieve. There was a fight that went on between the environmentalists and developers at the time that people said would never stop. Not only were we able to stop that, we were able to preserve more land than in the history of the city of Austin.
When I was mayor, we were also able to preserve a water supply for the city of Austin for decades. In addition, there were three, maybe four … places you could live in downtown, and we were able to turn downtown into a very vibrant downtown with a lot more housing.
So we had a number of successes in the Senate. We were able to — I was able to pass legislation that address sexual assault on college campuses and protected young women on college campuses. I was also able to modernize the Public Information Act and the Open Meetings Act.
And then one of the things I’m the proudest of, is the fact that we were able to get the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas, following my 10 goals in 10 years that I laid out for the community, and the community embraced. And we got a modern 21st Century safety net and teaching hospital and I was able to secure money to redo the Austin State Hospital. A little over $370 million to deal with brain health care.
Israel: I was on the University of Texas campus today meeting voters and I have had a lot of moments in my in my career where young people in particular have come up to me and said, ‘It matters to me that you are a strong woman, a strong Latina, a proud and out member of the LGBT community.’ It is — it means something. Representation does mean something, and once elected, I would be the first Latina mayor of any major American city.
I don’t want people to vote for me because I’m Latina because I’m a member of the LGBT community or because I’m a woman, but I want them to know that I come from a working class background. That I understand. I’m proudest of the fact that I am just Celia and I’m doing my best to serve the state that I love. And now I’m leaning in on the city that molded me in 1982.
My voice has been important on the House floor to stand up for immigrants, to stand up for women who were losing their bodily autonomy, to stand up for trans kids who are being told ‘you can’t play basketball, kid.’ These are these are really difficult political times … where the marginalized are feeling on the margins, and I come to appreciate the fact that my voice matters. And by … being a good member of the House of Representatives, … I am doing the work that needs to be done and still serving my constituents very well.
The relationship between state and city leaders can get antagonistic. Just last session, Texas state lawmakers overruled our city policies on the police budget and public camping. So how do we as a city balance our values and interests but avoid spending time and resources fighting battles we’re likely to lose here at the Capitol.
Israel: There’s no doubt that Austin is being treated … like a political piñata, instead of the beautiful city that it is. My approach … is to not have fights on Twitter. That’s the last place we should be airing out issues and discussions. I am — I have a reputation in the Capitol … as a good member. Open door, open mind –working with my colleagues across the aisle and having that legislative experience will be helpful to me.
It is a matter of reaching out, picking up the phone and talking to people and talking through a situation we’re going to have a lot of differences, or we’re gonna have a lot that we can work on as the legislature is looking at a $57 billion surplus. I have hopes and dreams and they will hear from me and … from our council and from our leadership at the city but it will not be contentious. It will be what are we going to get done together.
Watson: Now the good news is, I’ve done this before. When I was mayor the first time, we were also being bashed, in fact we refer to the legislation as ‘Austin-bashing legislation.’ And one of the things we did to try to strengthen the relationship with the state was we had a party, as they came in for one of the legislative sessions, that we actually called the ‘Austin Bash,’ because we were trying to strengthen … that bond between the two.
I know how we can do this and if you look at my record in the Texas Senate, you will see that I have the kind of relationships that will make a difference. I want to be clear: I will stand up for Austin’s values and everybody at that Capitol knows I will stand up for Austin’s values because I’ve done it with them on the Senate floor. But they also know that I won’t pick unnecessary fights and create unnecessary enemies.
Instead, as I’ve said before, I will not be wearing T-shirts that create problems or … tweeting at the governor or doing those kinds of things because I will want to work with them on the things that we can work on. If you look at my legislative record, you will see that I’ve got the record that shows I had the relationships and that’s important. I ask that you make that comparison.
The candidate trailing behind you both in November’s election, was a self-proclaimed conservative, Jennifer Virden. Now, she got nearly 20% of the votes — the support of nearly one in five Austin voters. So obviously, you’re both Democrats. What plans would you like to share that would appeal to that segment of voters here in Austin, that conservative vote?
Watson: I want to be the mayor that has a broad and deep base. And I think the way you do that is, what I’ve said a couple of times — you focus on the fundamentals. You make sure that we’re taking care of the basics, and you do it with a sense of urgency and immediacy. You focus on the things we’ve talked about: public safety, and making sure that public safety is fully funded, and we’re fully staffed within the police department.
You do it by making sure that we move with immediacy to take care of those who are living homeless and enforce the camping ban. You do it by just doing the job well, and focusing on the basics, not moving beyond what we need in order to have Austin be the city that we want.
Because we’re at risk of losing things we love about this city, if we don’t move with that immediacy. And I bring the track record of being able to get big things done so that we can.
Israel: I appreciate Ms. Virden’s voice in this … run. I called her to congratulate her and and thanked her for her voice. She, like I, have the experience of being in the middle of that development services arena. And for those who who, whether you’re trying to build a carport or whether you’re trying to build a studio apartment in the back and the backlog or build a new home — I know how to build a house like Ms. Virden. So, I understand the frustrations that people have with the development services arena. … We need to do so much better and clean up that red tape. So I would say, ‘I’m your chick.’ I’m much more comfortable in boots and jeans … and working to help us build more kinds of housing, and that’s the kind of mayor that I want to be.
Whoever wins this election will have to jump back on the campaign trail pretty quickly because Austin voters approved moving the mayoral elections to line up with presidential elections. Here in Austin, we choose our mayor again, coming up in 2024. So what impact do you think that will have on your ability to accomplish all the goals that you laid out tonight?
Watson: Well, it’s not as much time obviously. So you have to move with a sense, as I’ve said, time and time again, — and I know I’m repeating myself — you have to move with a sense of immediacy and urgency. And that’s why I think it’s very important that we elect a mayor this time that has the experience and has proved that, on the big things that we need to get done, has proved the ability to get those things done.
And I ask that you compare those records because with only two years before you’re up for reelection again, things have to move very fast. You don’t have time to learn on the job. And I believe that I will bring the experience and I bring the skill set that has been demonstrated so that we can get a lot done in two years.
Israel: I’ve served in the House for nine years. I’m used to two year terms and being held accountable to the voters in two year cycles. … if you’re governing based on an election date, out of a sense of fear … I think you’re doing it the wrong way. We’ve got to look thoughtfully at our land, and our opportunities to do bold and creative housing opportunities, in particular.
Those things are going to take time, but the voters deserve to know what are we — what are you doing with our tax dollars? How are we moving forward and making an incremental change? And that involves being open and honest and transparent, to say, ‘Yes, I will be held accountable in two years’ and … I look forward to that opportunity and I’m not threatened by it at all. And I am excited to get started.
Kirk Watson closing statement
Well, first of all, let me thank Celia and the two of you for hosting this debate. And I want to say thank you to those who are watching and will watch when it’s run again, because I appreciate the fact that you’re interested in the race for mayor, you’re interested in your city. You know, I’m gonna repeat a couple of things. One is that we all know City Hall has not done a good job of taking care of the things we’ve talked about here tonight. Fundamental things: crime, traffic, affordability and cost of living and housing, how we deal with the homeless. And as I’ve said, I truly believe that it puts a lot of what we love about this city at risk. I love this city, and I love the people of this city. What I asked when I asked for your vote is that you compare the records because we need to have a mayor that can get things done and has proven that ability. Thank you.
Celia Israel closing statement
I am very proud of my record of service to this community on several boards and commissions and nine years in the legislature. I want to do bold and visionary and creative things. It does not make me comfortable to say that Kirk is somebody that I — although I have looked up to him and asked him for advice over the course of many years — he has seen fit to attack my integrity and … my reputation … as a good member of the legislature and as a small business person who’s trying to make a living. With the … six people running in this race I came out with 40% of the vote. I won in key neighborhoods like Hyde Park and French Place and … Allendale. There is no room in this race for the negativity that is being thrown my way. It is a sign that Kirk is — I suspect he’s got some polling that saying … that he was running behind. And I’m disappointed in him. And I think the voters deserve better.