In 1997, when Kirk Watson was running for mayor, Austin was in the drunken throes of enjoying a decade-long spell of unprecedented, economic growth. Unemployment was on the downswing. Corporate relocations and expansions were on the upswing. Venture capitol and new business creation was rising to an all-time high. Office buildings, apartment complexes, new home subdivisions, retail centers, along with all the roads to support them, were sprouting up all over the city. As a consequence, the city populace had become polarized in their feelings about growth and had split into two political camps. There were the developers who welcomed Austin's transition to a large, thriving metropolis much like the mega-cities of Dallas or Houston, and there were the environmentalists who didn't want Austin to be a city at all, but wanted to go back to the hip college town that was the Austin they knew in the 1970s.
At the core, Watson's successful campaign message laid a new middle ground, shifting the debate away from whether or not Austin would accept being a large city, toward what kind of large city Austin would become. Most reasonable people accepted that turning back the clock to the 1970s and sending two hundred thousand hippies-turned-microchip-makers back to wherever they came from was impossible. They also realized that if Austin's incredible growth was not better controlled and managed, it would destroy the very things they loved about Austin in the first place. During his campaign, Watson often said "we can't kill the goose that laid the golden egg." Watson was the right messenger at the right time. His forward thinking call for unity and managed growth helped start to break down the antagonistic, black or white line between environmentalists and developers.
However, despite his skill as a politician and his good intentions, Watson soon became involved in a complex land-swap deal in which he found himself having to choose between a group of anti-growth Austinites who had helped win him the election and the preservation of a piece of land key to the survival of an endangered species. In choosing to vote with his supporters (who didn't want to see a bird species become extinct but also didn't want increased development in their neighborhood) Watson learned that there is often no possible compromise in matters of urban development that can serve all sides. Sometimes one side simply loses. However, by using mediation techniques, Watson and the city helped make the situation easier for all of the parties concerned.
On the 1997 Austin, Texas campaign trail, mayoral candidate Ronney Reynolds consistently referred to mayoral candidate Kirk Watson as a "personal injury trial lawyer" because based on the polling, Ronney Reynolds knew that 74% of voters had a natural disdain for all trial lawyers.
Every time Reynolds attempted this jab in a public setting, Watson would respond with a solid left hook by referring to himself as "not just a personal injury trial lawyer, but a pint-sized, personal injury trial lawyer." Grandiose in vision and humor, but definitely small in stature, Watson's instincts told him that the voting public naturally embraces people with the capacity to poke fun at their own shortcomings.
It turned out that Kirk Watson's gut instincts were stronger than Ronney Reynolds's public opinion polling, and on June 21, 1997, the pint-sized personal injury trial lawyer from Saginaw, Texas, was sworn in as the new mayor of Austin. Of course it didn't hurt that Watson raised more money through political contributions than any local candidate in Austin's history, and that he had the backing of every environmental group in central Texas, virtually every neighborhood group across the city, and a good showing among local business leaders. Watson had won the election, but he was soon to realize how much more difficult governance is than campaigning.
For years, Austin developers and environmentalists had been pitched in trench-style warfare against one another to determine Austin's fate in the new millennium. The developer camp would fight any projects, any ideas, or any political candidates that emerged from the environmentalist camp. Similarly, the environmentalist camp would fight any projects, any ideas or any political candidates that emerged from the developer camp. The value or the merit of the idea or the quality of any candidate's leadership was far, far less important than which camp they belonged to within the realm of Austin's municipal politics. Like the national political landscape of democrats and republicans, Austin had a two-party system of developers and environmentalists. It was the fight that mattered most, but neither group had been able dominate the fight so far. Consequently, when Watson became mayor in 1997, nothing of any major significance on a civic level had risen above the conflict and been accomplished for a very long time.
Watson won in large measure because the people of the city believed that he was the best hope for breaking such this long-running stalemate. Watson had certainly campaigned on his ability to do so. In other words, he had campaigned - and won - at least to some extent because he had promoted himself as a mediator between the two different camps.
Like most political campaigns, Watson's campaign was chock full of promises. Watson would not raise taxes, but he would grow the tax-base to enhance city services through annexation and new downtown development. Watson pledged to bring the police department to full staffing levels. There would be 3,000 new residential living units built in the urban core over a five-year period. Watson promised to solve Austin's mobility problems by synchronizing the city's traffic lights. He committed his administration to limiting growth in the Hill Country west of Austin, and to directing more growth to the impoverished east side of town where the city needed more economic development. He promised to support new bonds to buy land for open space and parks. He would end what he called Austin's "politics of blocking" where on any given issue one side's only goal was to block the other side, regardless of the merit of the issue.
Watson's central goal was to bring peace to the local political landscape, ending the decades of conflict between the developers and environmentalists. To do this, he encouraged people to get beyond the need for absolute perfection when trying to seize new opportunities. In Watson's mind, the demand for 'perfection or nothing' had caused too much local fighting and had led to a whole lot of nothing. The pint-sized trial lawyer had a ten-gallon agenda. He would promote racial harmony, social equity, and if all that wasn't enough for your vote, his TV ads also promised to "give Austin neighborhoods a stronger voice about new development plans in their neighborhoods."
But even as candidate Watson was in the final days of licking stamps and handing out fliers to win an election - helped in large part by a group of citizens living along Highway 2222 know colloquially as the Hill People or as CONA, an acronym for Coalition of Neighborhoods along Highway 2222 - the seeds for an early and serious conflict that Watson would face were already being sown. City employee Junie Plummer - happily oblivious to the political storms brewing outside her 14th floor office on Town Lake - was wrapping up another full day at the city by putting the final touches on another beautiful real estate deal for the city of Austin. In what Junie considered an almost poetic transaction, she would help the city reach several major policy goals and get rid of a few old thorns at the same time.
The land at the center of this deal was called 'Park West." The city owned it and Junie was selling it on behalf of the city to a real-estate firm out of Houston called Cypress Realty. Cypress Realty had won a competitive bid process and intended to build apartments, office buildings and some retail on the land. Junie knew that the demand for apartments and offices around the Park West site was very high. It was one of the most desirable areas of the city in which to live. Park West was 92 acres with all necessary utilities and great access to highway 2222. Park West had no endangered species issue. And a firm called Cypress Realty was proposing to buy Park West for a whopping $3.5 million dollars. That amounted to a sale at over $38,000 per acre. This was considerably more than the $1,500 per acre that the city had paid for the land only four years earlier. Junie had plans for the $3.5 million from the sale of Park West. She would combine it with $1 million from a federal government grant, and she would spend $4.5 million to buy another plot of land known as the Ivanhoe tract -- a pristine 942-acre piece of undeveloped land across the street from Park West. If the city didn't close on Ivanhoe by August 11th, less than two months away, the owners were…