Watson defeats Israel in Austin mayoral runoff election

Photo of the skyline of Austin, Texas

Kirk Watson defeated Celia Israel in the December 13, 2022, nonpartisan general runoff election for mayor of Austin, Texas. Watson received 50.4% of the vote to Israel’s 49.6%.

According to KUT Public Media‘s Audrey McGlinchy, “Tuesday’s race was tight. Israel beat out Watson by just 17 votes among Travis County voters, which represent the vast majority of Austin. But in Williamson and Hays counties, where just a fraction of Austinites live, voters went overwhelmingly for Watson, ultimately helping him clinch the race. He won by the smallest margin in an Austin mayoral race since at least the late 1960s, according to election records.”

Israel and Watson, who have both served in the state legislature as Democrats, were the top-two vote-getters in the Nov. 8, 2022, general election. Israel received 40% of the vote and Watson received 35% of the vote. To win, a candidate must receive more than 50% of the vote. Incumbent Stephen Adler did not run for re-election.

Watson served in the Texas State Senate, representing District 14 as a Democrat, from 2007 to 2020. He served as the mayor of Austin from 1997 to 2001. Watson ran his record as mayor, saying, “I have a proven record of success in getting big things done for Austin and we’re in a point in time we’re no longer becoming a big city — we’re a big city and we need to do big things.” Watson’s campaign focused on housing affordability. Watson proposed changing the city’s development review process to make it faster to build more housing and temporarily halving development fees. Watson’s housing policy plan includes a plank to allow City Council members to propose district-specific housing policies: “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.” Watson has also campaigned on expanding childcare options and improving transportation.

Israel serves in the Texas House of Representatives, representing District 50 as a Democrat. She assumed office in 2014. Israel said, “I have a reputation for having an open door and open mind, and I have the experience and tenacious leadership to help us find common ground at every opportunity.” Israel made housing affordability a central focus of her campaign. Israel said the city should use its unutilized public space to build more housing: “Austin could be doing more with its public space. It owns 6,000 tracts of land. That could be teacher housing, 911 operator housing, police housing.” Israel also campaigned on providing rental relief to renters, reducing parking requirements and increasing density, and making it easier for people to build accessory dwelling units on their property. Israel’s campaign has also focused on transportation and mobility, including pushing to “create bus lanes, and build protected bike lanes and sidewalks so everyone has a safe, affordable, and pollution-free option of moving around Austin.”

Israel and Watson disagreed on how to spend a $250 million housing bond voters approved on November 8, 2022. Israel said the city should “partner with a nonprofit who’s going to work to take our unhoused off the streets first and put them in a dignified place.” Watson said, “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 we would be able to together be able to buy down those units.”

The winner of the 2022 election will serve a two-year term, instead of the traditional four. In 2021, Austin voters approved Proposition D, a measure aligning mayoral elections with presidential election years. Following the 2024 election, the mayor will serve a four-year term.

Austin has a Democratic mayor. As of December 2022, 64 mayors in the largest 100 cities by population are affiliated with the Democratic Party, 24 are affiliated with the Republican Party, four are independents, seven identify as nonpartisan or unaffiliated, and one mayor’s affiliation is unknown. While most mayoral elections in the 100 largest cities are nonpartisan, most officeholders are affiliated with a political party.

The city of Austin utilizes a council-manager system. In this form of municipal government, an elected city council—which includes the mayor and serves as the city’s primary legislative body—appoints a chief executive called a city manager to oversee day-to-day municipal operations and implement the council’s policy and legislative initiatives.