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Senator Kirk Watson talks reopening the Texas economy and his impending retirement from politics

We sat down for a live virtual event with Watson, D-Austin, to discuss the path to reopen the Texas economy during the coronavirus pandemic and to look back at his time in the Senate.

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Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith sat down with state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, for a discussion on Watson’s recent naming to Gov. Greg Abbott's Strike Force to Open Texas—tasked with providing guidance to Abbott on reopening the state’s economy and local businesses—and his take on the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. We also looked back at Watson’s most memorable moments in the Texas Senate, what he wishes he had accomplished and what he hopes will be his legacy.

Programming note: Due to technical difficulties with our streaming service, we hosted Evan Smith and Sen. Watson via a Zoom call.

What can Texans expect to experience as the state begins to reopen the economy?

  • Watson said that the Strike Force is developing ideas for how the state can begin to strategically and responsibly resume economic activity, which will then be reviewed by medical professionals before being passed to Gov. Abbott for consideration.
  • Watson said that he foresees this being an ongoing process, with multiple waves of openings, for at least the next 45 to 60 days.

  • Watson said that while it is not yet wise for the state to reopen right away, due to the continued threat of the coronavirus, that starting the conversation now about what the process to reopen looks like is important to help Texans get back to work as soon as it is safe to do so.
  • Watson dismissed what he sees as a false choice between safeguarding public health and reopening the economy, saying, “I don’t understand why it is that things get labeled either/ is a far more complex conversation than that.” He added that in the midst of a pandemic, that public officials should be focused on coming together and finding solutions.
  • Watson emphasized that decisions to reopen the economy would include the input of medical professionals and health care experts. As the state prepares to reopen, Watson said that testing for the virus and tracing of community spread cases will be key to mitigating a possible second wave of cases.

What lessons can the state government and legislature learn from the pandemic and the state’s response?

  • “This pandemic, this public health crisis, has laid bare some of our failings and has shown some of the cracks in our [public] infrastructure that we cannot ignore,” Watson said. “[This] is more than an opportunity, it’s a responsibility for us to focus on [what it was] that we felt like we had the luxury to ignore before,” such as paid sick leave and access to health care for the uninsured.
  • Watson said he hopes the current public health crisis will initiate a new way of thinking about how state governance is run, including in terms of its budget priorities. “Our whole society has had a timeout. But when the game starts again, we can’t be running the same plays. We need a new playbook.” he said. “Our politics cannot be the same politics, we need to analyze everything through the prism of the new condition,” that has been brought on by the coronavirus outbreak.
  • Watson also said he hopes the coronavirus outbreak will lead to a more holistic focus on higher education. “I think we need to be focusing on whether institutions of higher education are the anchors in our communities for everything from economic workforce development,” Watson said.

Why did Watson choose to leave politics altogether, and what does he hope to accomplish in his new role?

  • When asked what drew him to the deanship at the University of Houston's Hobby School of Public Affairs, Watson said he was compelled by the idea of helping to build a policy school from the ground up in one of the country’s largest and most diverse cities. “I’m a big believer that you have a short term focus but with a long term vision,” Watson explained, “and my short term focus means...if an opportunity comes up [and it triggers something in me, I explore it.]”
  • While Watson’s new role is outside the formal world of policymaking, he said he doesn’t foresee himself being fully removed from the political sphere. “If my work at the Hobby School can inform [the work of my colleagues in the legislature], I’m there,” regardless of party affiliations. “I’ll do whatever my successor needs in terms of getting them up to speed on a variety of issues.”
  • While he didn’t rule out the possibility of returning to public office completely, Watson said that taking on the role of dean is, “what I want to be doing right now.” He added that, “I don’t see myself running [for office again].”

What are among the highs and lows of Watson’s political career, as he sees it? Are Texas politics—and politicians—as polarized as it appears to be?

  • “I hope that part of the way people remember me is that I greatly enjoyed the relationships [that I built],” Watson said. He also pointed to his work to promote government transparency and the creation of the Dell Medical School as two of the greatest accomplishments of his career.
  • “I love being in the Senate,” Watson said, “[and] I came out of the last legislative session feeling happier than I’ve ever been and feeling like I have had a very high level of success.”
  • While Watson said that he’s at times been disappointed by the decline in robust discussion and collaboration amongst his colleagues — particularly on issues related to women’s health or public education — he prefers to focus on the positive aspects of his time in the Senate. “I come out of [this experience] believing [that the Texas legislature is a positive force for good] but [it] can be better,” Watson added, “it can be a force for even greater good.”
  • When asked what consistent lessons he has learned from his time in politics, Watson said, “Relationships matter...listening to people, being willing to listen to people even if they’re in a [different political party] than you are...being able to speak plainly to them so they know exactly where you stand...and [knowing] that what motivates people is hope...hope matters.”

What are Watson’s parting words to his constituents in Senate District 14?

Watson represents Senate District 14 and serves as the Senate’s president pro tempore. In February, he announced his resignation from his Senate seat, which he has held for over 13 years, effective at midnight on April 30. Watson is leaving office to become the first dean of the University of Houston's Hobby School of Public Affairs. Previously, Watson served as chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus and as mayor of Austin.

  • “One of the great joys of my time in the Senate has been getting to represent Bastrop County and getting to know that county.” Watson said. He said that, over the years, he has developed a very intimate relationship with Bastrop county residents and that the next Senator will need to cultivate a similar relationship in order to successfully represent the county.

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This event is presented by AT&T, Walmart, TEXAS 2036, Ascension Seton and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas. Media support is provided by KXAN and Community Impact.

Tribune events are also supported through contributions from our founding investors and members. Though donors and corporate sponsors underwrite Texas Tribune events, they play no role in determining the content, panelists or line of questioning.

Disclosure: The University of Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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