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RECAP: Austin mayoral candidates square off in KVUE debate

Early voting for the mayor runoff ends Friday, Dec. 9. Election day is Tuesday, Dec. 13

AUSTIN, Texas — On Monday, KVUE hosted a televised debate between Austin mayoral candidates Kirk Watson and Celia Israel. The debate was streamed on KVUE, KVUE.com, the KVUE app, KVUE's YouTube channel and KVUE+, moderated by KVUE's Managing Editor of Political Content Ashley Goudeau.

Both State Rep. Israel and former Austin mayor and State Sen. Watson received the most votes in the November election among their fellow candidates – Jennifer Virden, Phil Brual, Gary Spellman and Anthony Bradshaw – but neither received a majority, forcing a runoff. 

Early voting in the Austin runoff election started on Thursday, Dec. 1, and runs through Friday, Dec. 9. Election Day is Tuesday, Dec. 13. 

Credit: KVUE

Watson previously served as mayor of Austin from 1997 until 2001. In 2002, he ran for Texas attorney general and lost to Greg Abbott.

Watson spent 13 years in the Texas Senate, to which he was elected from 2007 to 2020 before he retired to become the first dean of the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs.

According to her campaign website, Celia Israel has been an Austinite since 1982. She graduated from the University of Texas and served former Gov. Ann Richards’ administration before becoming a Realtor. She later became a member of the Texas House of Representatives, where she has represented the Austin area since 2014.

You can watch the debate in full on KVUE's YouTube page, or below:

Here's a brief overlook on what the candidates had to say about Austin's most important topics:

Opening remarks

Goudeau: Realizing building out Project Connect will take years. What is one thing you could do in your first three months in office to make public transit more efficient?

Israel: "It means being a close and connected ally with the Austin Transit Partnership, which is the nonprofit that was created to watch those dollars. I completely understand that those who elected us and those who voted on this in 2020 want to make sure that it is done efficiently and effectively. So, it means frequent and constant attention with that group in particular. I was raised on the bus. I grew up on the bus here at the University of Texas. And as a young professional and the only person in this race with a lived experience around transit, and I and I'm anxious to get started and I'm very, very eager to make sure that Project Connect is a system that befits the 11th largest city in the country."

Goudeau: You have suggested creating building rules by council district, an idea that got some backlash from people who say districts would be able to code themselves out of low-income or affordable housing projects and mandates. Do you still think district-specific coding is a good idea for Austin?

Watson: "The reason people have said that is because it was gotten mischaracterized early on. The reason we went through all that millions of dollars in all that time is because city hall made it a one-size-fits-all sort of approach and made it an all-or-nothing outcome. It was Code Next or nothing and, so, even to the point of removing people's rights to protest until the courts told them you can't do that. So, what happened, it was an all-or-northing and we ended up with nothing. What I have suggested is that since we have single-member districts, one of the things we ought to do is, we should ask those districts, how do you see building more houses? There would be a baseline across the entire city. No one could opt out ... but we go to those districts that represent neighborhoods and communities of interest and say, how best do we get more housing in your district so that we can meet that baseline, that blueprint if you will, and get more housing on the ground?"  

Affordable housing bond spending

Goudeau: Last month, Austin voters approved the largest bond in the city history, $350 million to purchase land, build homes for low- and moderate-income Austinites and complete repairs to keep Austinites in their homes. If you're elected, what is your top priority for how to spend those dollars? 

Watson: "What I would look to do is, use some of that money as a top priority to go into partnerships with some of the private development that is going on. One of the things that's happening is that, even with incentives is, we're being able to get, quote, 'affordable housing' that hits the 80 to 100% of median family income but we're not getting it deeply affordable at 20% and 30%, and so people are having to leave. Part of the problem with that is, we need to be providing more money and partnership where you can leverage that money and get a return, that way we could have even more affordability and more of it."

Israel: "I would love to look at a public/private opportunity to say to that 1980s commercial building that has lived out its usefulness, they're building new commercial buildings and, because of the pandemic, we've learned how to work remotely. We have to be more thoughtful with these pieces of opportunity in the heart of the city. As I've said often, it's not equitable or just to me that we just push you out to the eastern edge of town and good luck. It's not equity that we ask the nurse to dress our wounds in the heart of the city and then go home to Bastrop. So, I would love to make sure we are putting focused energy on transformational opportunities, to say we're going to build row houses, we're going to put a child care center and a pocket park on it. That's going to be teacher housing or bus driver housing and it's in the heart of the city." 

Project Connect

Goudeau: As you both are well aware, the $7.1 billion offer voters approved to build out Project Connect is not going to be enough money to pull off the plan. Voters were told they would get two light rails, a downtown tunnel, several new bus routes, park-and-rides and funding for housing. Now, leaders are trying to figure out what has to be cut from the plan. What section of the project would you eliminate?

Watson: "I think, probably first, we should focus on the tunnels because they make up such a huge part of the cost. We need to focus on whether or not we need those tunnels and, if we do need them and there's no way to get around them from an engineering standpoint in order to achieve the goals we want to achieve, then we need to figure out what they are, skinny them down, make sure that we're not overspending. We have two things, two variables. One is the asset. We're going to have to look at what gets cut out of that. That would be the first thing I look at. The second is time. We need to tell the taxpayers within the first 90 days ... what we're going to do in terms of time."

Israel: "I'm excited about Project Connect. The timing that we're running across is that we are about to enter what is a standard 30% review. So the next mayor and council along with Capital Metro have got to figure out exactly where we stand with that 30% review. The tunnels are expensive, the real estate is expensive. I wish he had passed this in 2000 when the real estate wasn't as expensive, but the need still remains. So we have to make adjustments and, perhaps, it will take us longer to complete the vision but we owe it to our taxpayers to complete that vision and be good stewards of the dollars and the trust that they put in us. It's a matter of our environment and it's a matter of equity. To me, transit is freedom. Transit is an opportunity to say yes to that bus for a couple of days a week if nothing else." 

I-35 improvements

Goudeau: TxDOT is preparing to overhaul I-35 through Austin in an effort to add capacity and improve safety. While the mayor will have limited say on the project, what is your vision for 35? 

Israel: "My vision is that it is an equitable project and that means it is buried, it is capped. My vision is less stitches and a cap. Councilmember Vela has proposed a different version of it. As someone who has been on the Transportation Committee in the Texas House of Representatives, I have become comfortable with challenging TxDOT engineers on what they're doing. The current plan, which is mimicking the Katy Freeway, more lanes without promoting transit the technology that we need is a waste of money. So I want to move forward with it but we can't do it at the expense of the taxpayer dollar and squander it, especially when the TxDOT plan is not congruent with what the community has said they want. As the mayor, we owe it to those whose homes are going to get mowed down and businesses are going to get mowed down. We owe it to challenge those TxDOT engineers who are coming out with new versions of I-35. Knocking down a brand-new apartment complex that was built for affordable housing just two years ago, it's not well-thought-out, and I challenge TxDOT at this moment in time." 

Watson: "My vision has four parts to it. One is, it's a bad road, functioning as a bad road. Traffic, we all know the congestion on I-35, and about 80% of the commute of the cars that are on I-35 going through Central Austin originated in the Austin area. My vision is that we do the things that we need to do in order to make it operate better as a road. Things like managed lanes so that you'll be able to have cars moving easier, both on the current light-type lanes and the new lanes. Second, it needs to be better for transit. Again, that is something that managed lanes can help us with, because what the managed lanes will help us do is like on MoPac, where we have that managed lane, you can use Rapid Bus better. The third thing that I would say it needs to have is, we need to make it be something that is safer. We have to have greater safety. It is a deadly road. The final thing is that it needs to be something that benefits Austin by being better, looking better, having caps, that sort of thing, and we can do all of that, I think."

Austin's homeless camping ban

Goudeau: You both have committed to enforcing the homeless camping ban – while also recognizing you can't just start clearing out camps on your first day in office. So what is the first tangible thing that has to happen – I'm not talking having a meeting with stakeholders – what is the first action step that has to happen for you – to start enforcing the ban?

Watson: "Well, I think, ultimately, and we're going to have to have places where you can send people. So, the first tangible step needs to be for us to get out of the habit we've got at City Hall of all or nothing. You can camp anywhere you want to camp any time of day with no responsibility or permanent supportive housing, because we have to enforce the camping ban. So we're going to have to figure out where you can put some sanctioned campsites. We're going to have to put into place more non-congregate shelters where people that don't want to be congregated together have the ability to be in shelters. ... it's impossible to enforce a camping ban when you have not done the work necessary to have a place for people to go."

Israel: "This speaks to my policy on housing and affordability, Ashley. I want more kinds of housing, not just for that young software developer or that teacher or the nurse. I want housing for our unhoused neighbors who do not have a dignified place to be cared for. And sometimes they need a social worker, sometimes they need a health care professional. We have some amazing nonprofit partners here in Austin that are ready to have a partner with the city of Austin. And I know it might sound trite, but sometimes they're ready to build something that is a supportive housing, and the City of Austin won't tell them whether or not it's going to take two months or a year to move the damn light poles. This speaks to the fact that I have the experience at the development review process. I've helped my clients as they are building homes. And this speaks to the dysfunction around the permitting office, not just for all kinds of housing but also for the supportive housing that our nonprofit partners like Caritas and Family Eldercare want to build. They need a good partner with us. And I intend to be a good partner with them."

Austin police and 911 call center vacancies

Goudeau:  The Austin Police Department is struggling to keep officers and fill vacancies. Even with two cadet classes graduating last month, the department was still on pace to have 215 vacancies. Not only are there not enough police officers, there are not enough 911 call takers – forty-six 911 call taker vacancies and 20 police dispatcher vacancies. The city has funded the positions – so there's enough money to hire folks – just not enough people to do the job. How are you as mayor going to address this critical public safety need?

Israel: "The No. 1 responsibility of any city is to make sure that our residents feel safe, regardless of ZIP code, regardless of status in life. We've got to make sure that our HR department is moving swiftly and creatively ... I have a public safety plan ... and it calls for fully funding, fully compensating and having police with the appropriate amount of oversight to hold them accountable. I served on the police monitor board. And my family has had that experience of having to call 911, I understand the urgency. We have gaps in every part of the city – 911 call operators, development review, police officers. So it's got to be something that we move forward with urgently, but it's throughout the city."

Goudeau: "Do you think the positions need more money?"

Israel: "We're in the midst of negotiating a contract. So, part of this is getting the contract done so that, for those who want the reassurance that the city council is going to be a good partner with them, speaking of partnerships, so we've got to make sure that we do a contract that says to them we do value you, here's how much we value you. Our police force is well compensated. That will help. But one of my concerns is that we have police officers that are really senior that are leaving the force. I don't want them to leave. I want them to be that good coach for that one cop who just got out of training, to say, 'You are a guardian, not a warrior. Let me help you be a better cop.'"

Watson: "Public safety, this is another area where we're not taking care of basics. And we can talk about Fire, we can talk about EMS as well, and I'm pleased that I've been endorsed by the firefighters and the EMS association, but with regard to policing, there or two or three things that need to happen almost immediately. One is, we need to retain the police officers that we have there. And that may in fact require more money, because we're going to want to incentivize them to stay. Second, we need to do a better job in recruiting and being able to have cadet classes, and we're behind ... the City of Austin doesn't have the facilities that a city this size should have in order to be able to do the kind of training, and that makes a difference ... and that may cost some money as well. But we need to work with philanthropy and others see if we can't get better facilities so we can have larger and more cadet classes. And then the third thing I would say is, we must get a police contract. That is one of that may be the key factor in us being able to get more police officers." 

Goudea: The relationship between the Austin City Council, the community and the police department is fractured. So while there are calls to re-imagine policing, we have the response times are slower, the crime rate for certain offenses is increasing. How are you going to balance the safety needs of the city with improving the culture at APD and holding officers accountable for misconduct?

Watson: "Well, you have to have a plan that will do that, and we got ourselves into a problem in the city because we created a binary choice between being able to have police officers and have a just system of policing. We can have a just system of policing by doing a good job with how we recruit and who we recruit. Training that involves also the community being involved in that. Supervision is a key part of it and ultimately having a very transparent and effective system of accountability. But I want to say it again, that's not binary with having a police department that is fully staffed and that you show you appreciate so that you can address things like response times, getting to something which are higher than they ought to be. The crime rate, which we have seen grow year over year for some of the crime. So it's something you have to make a priority and avoid this false choice that City Hall seems to have made, that it's a win-or-lose proposition."

Israel: "I want them to have the best training possible. We've been retooling our training. I want them to not just watch a video and check a box. I want them to have the best training possible, and they want that, too. I learned years ago. I was on the first police police monitor board appointed by Mayor Garcia, and I learned up close and personal at that time. Cops want good cops. They want to be held accountable. A police officer who's having a bad day or a police officer who didn't know how to how to interact with the community in a community guardian way as opposed to a warrior way, will cause mistrust. So, an oversight process will help to build that trust so that someone knows if they had a bad interaction with a police officer, there's a way for me to report. That is still going to take some courage from the community, and I acknowledge that. But I want them to be able to say, 'We have we reported this police officer. We were heard.' And that police officer will be a better police officer because he or she was held accountable."

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