Austin state senator leaving Texas Legislature for job at University of Houston

A desk in the southeast corner of the Texas Senate Chamber, for more than a decade, has had a nickname: the Liberty Corner. 

"And I've had a couple of very nice texts this morning, Liberty Corner is not going to be the same without me in it,” said State Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin).

Watson is ending his time in his seat. It became official when he signed his resignation letter sent Tuesday to the Governor.

"It’s been a unique and really wonderful opportunity to get to play the role I played both as Mayor and as State Senator,” said Watson.

Watson is taking a new job as the founding dean of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston.

"The only reason why I would leave is if there were a very significant unique and compelling platform for continued public service and I see this as that sort of thing,” said Watson.

RELATED: Senator Kirk Watson steps down, taking over as dean at University of Houston

Watson arrived at the Texas State Capitol in 2006, but it was his time as mayor of Austin during the tech boom from 1997 to 2001 that the political spotlight found him. In a way, the current skyline is here because of a Watson initiative called Smart Growth. Consider what he said in 1998 about expanding the civic center:

"One of the things we have to do in this community is we have to find the ways to bring money and tax dollars into the community without doing damage to our environment,” said Watson in a 1998 interview with KTBC reporter Mike Rosen.

Watson's plan as Mayor involved balancing environmental concerns with development needs, a difficult idea that helped revitalize downtown.

"We brought forward policies that ultimately caused that defacto two-party system to fall away,” said Watson.

He continued that philosophy in the state senate, and last year he was made president pro tem in the senate, a recognition of his efforts to find common ground despite political differences. 

"It’s how good faith principles lead good servants to the common good,” said Watson in January 2019 while accepting the nomination.

Watson held the Democratic Party line on big issues like abortion, Medicaid, and voter ID. Despite that, he scored several major legislative accomplishments include the creation of a medical school in Austin, education finance reform and tougher laws to prosecute sex crimes.

"There are some things I wish I had more success on,” said Watson.


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Watson said he has no political regrets, although he does admit there have been some ups and downs during his political career. There was a setback in 2002 when he lost his race for state attorney general. Another stumble came in 2008 after he was among the first to support Barack Obama for president. He gave a cringe-worthy interview on national TV. However, with each hit, Watson has always gotten up, which is why he laughed off Tuesday’s goodbye speech.

"We're very happy with what's next, I haven't seen where exactly where I’m going to be sitting,” said Watson.

Watson walked out of the Senate Chamber with his wife, promising to remain engaged on big political issues. He made it clear his farewell is really just a see ya later.

Watson is leaving with two years left of his term. Gov. Greg Abbott will have to call a special election to fill the remainder of that time. Austin City Councilman Greg Casar, according to a spokesperson, is giving strong consideration to running for the seat and many others are expected to be announced too.