The Austin downtown skyline at sunrise, with the light reflecting off the water of Town Lake and the skyscrapers bordering it.

Tense Runoff Election Pits Old Austin Versus New

The housing crisis and the climate crisis have shaped mayoral and city council elections in Texas’ fast-growing capital city.


This year’s municipal elections in Austin are an apt case study of a generational and ideological conflict that has become central to urban politics in America’s largest and fastest-growing cities. In races across Austin, where the median home price is now north of $600,000, younger candidates calling for changes to the city’s notoriously restrictive zoning code to allow for more housing have faced off against older challengers more reluctant to change the “character” of established single-family neighborhoods.

A portrait of Kirk Watson in a blue dress shirt and suit jacket.
Kirk Watson was mayor of Austin from 1997 to 2001 and served 14 years as a state senator. Austin Community College / Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons License

The battle over housing overlaps with a simultaneous battle over environmentalism. On one side there is an older generation of environmentalists who cut their teeth fighting to protect Austin’s natural resources, most notably the city’s iconic Barton Springs, and are instinctively skeptical of new development, making them natural allies of neighborhood associations. On the other side is a younger generation of activists who see dense development as key to reducing sprawl and car dependence. The latter view tall, mixed-use developments as an unqualified environmental asset that makes it easier for people to get around by foot, bike, or public transit.

In the city’s November election, candidates who ran in support of allowing more apartments and other types of low-cost housing finished first in the races for mayor and five council seats. In four races, however, these candidates secured less than 50 percent of the vote, setting up runoffs on December 13. In two of these contests—the mayoral race and a race for a city council district that covers many of the most desirable neighborhoods in Central Austin—the older generation is still fighting to keep change at bay. 

The Council race—for District 9—is a quintessential battle between an older neighborhood preservationist and a younger urbanist. The mayor’s race between Kirk Watson and Celia Israel is not nearly as easy to categorize in ideological or generational terms, but the coalitions that have formed to support each candidate reflect two very different Austins.

Kirk Watson, who was already mayor of Austin from 1997 to 2001 and served 14 years as a state senator, is hardly an anti-growther. In fact, his record-smashing fundraising this year reflects the support he enjoys from the city’s real estate and business community. But Watson is also supported by the neighborhood activists and Boomer environmentalists who have fought tooth-and-nail against changes to the city’s land use regulations. How do we explain this apparent contradiction?

To Watson, the contradiction is central to his brand as a consensus-builder. He owes his political career to striking a compromise between conservationists and developers. On one hand, Watson pushed policies as mayor to discourage development in a large swath of West and Southwest Austin to protect Barton Springs. But he also promoted development downtown, wooed big corporations to Austin with tax incentives, oversaw the establishment of a shiny new airport, and supported the creation of a community based on smart growth principles on the site of the former airport in East Austin.

Watson’s balancing act back then proved wildly popular, at least among the small subset of Austinites who participated in city politics. He got 84 percent of the vote in his 2000 reelection, triumphing over three token opponents. When he decided the following year to quit mid-term to run for state attorney general, he was given a hero’s farewell at City Hall, with well-wishers packing council chambers and then-City Manager Jesus Garza gushing, “Your leadership enabled us to complete in four and a half years what we have tried to do for decades.”

In the mayor’s race Israel has cast herself as a progressive, underdog challenge to the “good ol’ boy” establishment represented by Watson.

At first glance, Celia Israel—a four-term outgoing state representative—does not seem to offer a stark generational or ideological contrast with Watson. At 59, she is on the border between Boomer and Gen X. Her record in the Legislature has largely been that of a mainstream Democrat—she is no AOC. In 2016, she declined to endorse an application for an affordable housing project in her district that had drawn opposition from surrounding homeowners in northwest Austin.

However, in the mayor’s race Israel has cast herself as a progressive, underdog challenge to the “good ol’ boy” establishment represented by Watson. In nearly every public remark, Israel, who grew up in El Paso and moved to Austin in the early ‘80s to attend UT, reminds her audience that she is the daughter of a truck driver and a teacher’s aide. She relates her own experience as a renter to those struggling with meteoric rent increases, although that narrative ran into some trouble when the Austin American-Statesman reported that she only began renting so she could move into the city limits to run for mayor; she also owns two houses.

Israel has been embraced by urbanists, housing advocates, and younger progressives as the candidate of change. Her campaign has centered on addressing the housing crisis by reducing zoning barriers to allow more and different types of housing. This is an election, she likes to say, about “who gets to live here.”

In the early stages of the campaign, many insiders, particularly of the older generation, dismissed Israel’s candidacy on the assumption that Watson was unbeatable. “This isn’t an election, this is a coronation,” one City Hall veteran told me in June. And Watson’s fundraising machine seemed to bear this prediction out.


But Watson and his allies have come to the startling realization that many of the things that made him near-invincible 20 years ago may have since become vulnerabilities. That was brought into sharp relief when the results of the general election came in and Watson finished in second place, collecting 35 percent of the vote compared to Israel—who’s lately proved a solid fundraiser herself— at 40 percent. The results painted a stark geographic divide, with Watson dominating in wealthy areas of West Austin and Israel winning handily across liberal Central Austin and racially diverse East Austin.

Throughout the campaign, Israel and her supporters have challenged Watson both over his record as mayor and his current platform.

The measures Watson took two decades ago as mayor to discourage development in affluent West Austin have been recast by some as environmental racism, especially given the gentrification and displacement that has occurred in the minority neighborhoods of Austin’s east side.

To many progressives and housing advocates, Watson only made matters worse when he released a housing plan this summer that proposed allowing each Council district to adopt its own zoning reforms. Backlash was fierce, with critics viewing his plan as a wink to West Austin neighborhoods suggesting they’d be able to wall themselves off from new housing. Israel decried it as a “return to redlining,” prompting Watson to update the plan with assurances that he also supported citywide housing reforms.

Celia Israel removes a red, white and blue VOTE facemask, wearing a serious expression.
Celia Israel has been embraced by urbanists, housing advocates, and younger progressives as the candidate of change. AP Photo/Eric Gay

Watson’s long-time advocacy for expanding I-35, the congested highway that splits Texas’ capital, was once an uncontroversial economic development and traffic relief proposal, but now the idea draws opposition from progressives and environmentalists who believe that expanding highways tends to just induce more driving in the midst of a climate crisis. Israel has hammered Watson for supporting the state’s current plan, which calls for adding two high-occupancy lanes on each side of the highway through Central Austin.

Finally, there is the simple issue of identity. Many progressives just aren’t interested in electing another older white man. Austin has only had one woman mayor, Carole Keeton, who served from 1977 to 83. And although it’s majority non-white, Austin has only had one non-white mayor: Gus Garcia, who served for two years after Watson left the position in 2001. Israel would be the first openly gay mayor in Austin’s history and the city’s first Latina mayor.

Watson still has a good chance of ultimately winning the runoff. Turnout for such elections is extremely low and older and whiter than the general electorate. In recent weeks, Watson has begun making appeals to conservative voters who likely supported third-place Republican candidate Jennifer Virden in November, describing himself as the candidate who is going to “shake up City Hall,” which he accuses of neglecting “basics” such as crime, homelessness, and traffic. Watson is not-so-subtly portraying himself as the candidate who will put a stop to what some view as the progressive excesses associated with city council, notably its 2019 decriminalization of homeless camping and its 2020 reallocation of funds from the police department to social services. A super PAC set up to support Watson has drawn major contributions from conservative billionaires such as oil tycoon Bryan Sheffield and local tech mogul Joe Liemandt.

Whether or not Watson pulls it off, the closeness of the race underscores that, as any longtime Austinite will tell you, this city is not what it used to be.

Editor’s Note: The Observer has corrected the partisan identification of a former Austin mayor.