Israel and Watson will head to a December runoff in the race to elect Austin's next mayor
More than half of Austin voters could not agree on one candidate to be the city’s next mayor, so voters will return to the polls in a month to determine the winner.
Celia Israel had 40% of the vote and Kirk Watson had 35%, according to unofficial results. Because both are just shy of the more than 50% of votes needed to secure office, the two will face off in a runoff election Dec. 13.
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“We did it,” Israel said, as she huddled under umbrellas at an outdoor bar on the city’s East Side. “The good ‘ole boys raised over a million dollars against us, and we said, ‘Not today.'"
Supporters chanted her name: “Celia, Celia, Celia!” Many who spoke at the election night party emphasized the fact that, if elected, Celia would be the city’s first Latina and openly gay mayor.
“If somebody would have told me in the third cycle of the 10-1 councils there will be a queer, chingona Latina leading the race in Austin, Texas, I would have told you ‘Calm down, people,'” said Travis County Attorney Delia Garza.
Israel's lead throughout the night was also notable given that she raised much less money than her opponent. While Watson raised more than $1.3 million, Israel's campaign raised less than half that.
With that kind of gap in campaign funding, one might have expected Watson to sail into the mayor’s office. But as he trailed Israel in early voting numbers, the mood at his election party downtown was much more subdued.
Watson, a former state senator who served as Austin’s mayor in the late 1990s, said he always expected the race to go to a runoff.
“We have work to do, though, in order to maintain our home the way we want our home to be,” he said. "Let’s get to work, let’s finish this, and then the real work will come in making sure Austin is the place we continue to love.”
Voters will now have to wade through another month of campaign posturing. Both Watson and Israel ran on the promise to try and lower the cost of housing in the city, which rose at historic rates during the pandemic. Each candidate has characterized housing affordability as a crisis, and has talked about needing to build more housing to alleviate the costs.
At his election party Tuesday night, Watson stressed looking at how the city taxes its residents as a solution to housing affordability issues.
“I can’t control inflation, and I’m not going to be able to control supply chain or mortgage rates,” Watson told KUT. “But I can control things like stabilizing property taxes. I can be involved in how we deal with the electric utility rates.”
Israel's campaign has emphasized making it easier to build something other than a single-family home or large apartment complex in Austin. Currently, homes like duplexes or triplexes are difficult to build because of the city's land-use regulations.
While she didn't comment on her housing policy plans in her speech Tuesday night, in an interview with KUT, Israel said she wanted to adopt policies that could change the socioeconomic geography of Austin.
"We are leading with an urgency to say let's not be that city; we are a very economically-segregated city," she said. "It's not the progressive city that we want, but it can be the progressive city that we get."
It was clear from the results Tuesday night that the city, too, is split geographically when it comes to who they want to elect as mayor. Watson won a vast majority of voting precincts in downtown Austin and west of MoPac, while much of Israel's support came from the central city and East Austin.
The winner in the runoff election in December will serve a two-year term, not the typical four years. Last year, voters passed a proposition moving mayoral elections to the same year as presidential ones. As a result, Austin voters will choose a mayor again in 2024.