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For High-Stakes Vote, Dukes Returns to House

Democratic lawmaker Dawnna Dukes of Austin has missed most of the session because of lingering injuries from a car accident. She made it back to the floor Tuesday for a crucial rules vote, helping block a Republican move to speed up several major bills.

State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin.

With a fast approaching midnight deadline and a long calendar, Texas House Republicans attempted an end-around on House rules Tuesday so they could consider bills out of order and get to high-profile legislation like campus carry, abortion and ethics reform. 

But the procedural change required a two-thirds majority vote of lawmakers present, and the bid fell short by just three votes thanks in part to the arrival of Rep. Dawnna Dukes.

The 51-year-old Austin Democrat entered the chamber in a neck brace after missing most of the session because of injuries suffered in a car accident, and cast one of her few votes in the 84th Legislature. According to online House journals updated through Sunday, Dukes has either been listed as absent, or absent for the majority of the votes, for nearly 50 days.

“Can’t explain the feeling that flushed through my veins having the opportunity to represent District 46,” Dukes later wrote on her personal Facebook page. 

Dukes, who was not available to speak on Wednesday because of medical appointments, has said she continues to suffer from neck and back pain after being injured in a car accident two years ago.

"I have been under the care of multiple medical specialist in an attempt to identify and resolve my deteriorating agility, chronic pain and rapidly increasing chronic fatigue. As a result, I have been using time to heal,” Dukes wrote on Facebook in late April after her absence was called out by a Republican strategist on Twitter

Early Thursday morning, Dukes posted on Facebook that she would undergo surgical reconstruction next month. She wrote that she told her daughter that "the doctor says I should walk the next day, but talking, swallowing and using my arms will take some time."

Dukes, who has not provided details of the car accident, citing pending litigation, has spent most of the session away from the Capitol, conducting meetings with her staffers using video messaging.

“I beg your patience and wish for you to know that I have always and will continue to be a fighter for you and me; even during this very personal and painful battle,” Dukes wrote on Facebook earlier this year. "I am fully in communication and interfacing with my staff to do the peoples business."

Dukes' prolonged absences appear unlikely to affect her hold on the district in central and northeast Austin. A 21-year House veteran and president of an Austin-based consulting firm, she hasn't faced a primary challenger since 2008, when she won with 61 percent of the vote. Her seat is securely blue. In general elections, she has won her district with at least 84 percent of the vote.

Critical votes, however, require lawmakers to be present on the House floor, and Tuesday proved such a day for Democrats.

“Yesterday’s House calendar was unfortunately stacked with a variety of bad proposals,” Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, who said she’s been in frequent contact with Dukes, said Wednesday. "Recognizing the importance of opposing these efforts, Rep. Dukes summoned her strength and ably represented her constituency.”

Dukes rushed from a doctor's appointment to the Capitol for the procedural vote. 

"I'm Getting out one doctor appt before surgeon appt," Dukes tweeted ahead of the vote.

After the vote, she wrote on Facebook that she enjoyed the day until her "energy dropped." 

Still, Matt Mackowiak, vice chairman of the Travis County Republican Party, said he doubted whether Dukes adequately represented her constituents from home this session. 

“Obviously anytime someone is in a car accident you want to be sensitive … but on the other hand, the job of being a state representative is serving at the Capitol during the legislative session,” Mackowiak said. “It is a short, intense time period and it is hard to make the case that you’ve done the job if you weren’t there.”

Mackowiak questioned whether Dukes should run for re-election — but Dukes has said she has no intention of stepping down.

“No, I am not retiring, absolutely not retiring,” Dukes wrote in late April on Facebook in all capital letters.

On Tuesday, she wrote on Facebook that she would "be back soon."

Ryan McCrimmon contributed to this report.

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