Rep. Dawnna Dukes is the elephant in the corner of the Texas House, and she knows it.
Dukes’ presence in the House is a sensitive topic for her colleagues in the Travis County delegation because of the 12-term Democrat’s legal issues. Most of them said they have not had full conversations with Dukes since the session started Jan. 10.
Dukes is facing a grand jury indictment and a shadow campaign for her seat after she announced she was resigning, then abruptly changed her mind. She’s been demoted to a smaller office and hasn’t filed any bills so far this legislative session. She’s had multiple absences already this session, and a sick child caused her to miss the first House Appropriations Committee hearing.
Other Travis County lawmakers give careful answers when asked about Dukes’ situation. Celia Israel, Gina Hinojosa, Donna Howard and Eddie Rodriguez released a joint statement calling the timing of Dukes’ indictment “unfortunate.”
Howard said she has had quick hellos with Dukes so far, but the delegation has not had a chance to do anything together or figure out what Dukes’ intentions are during the legislative session.
“The fact that she chose not to [resign], I think, has created a certain amount of confusion,” Howard said. “Being under indictment does mean that she’s going to have to be paying attention to what she does to take care of her legal issues during a legislative session that really requires that we all be fully present.”
Among the six other Travis County representatives, Dukes said Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, has been “very kind” and “welcoming” since the 85th Legislative session started last month.
“He came over to me as soon as he saw me and hugged me a long time,” Dukes said. “He was very genuine, and it wasn’t just because he had to. He got up out of his seat and came over to where I was.”
When asked about the hug, Workman said, “I greeted her.”
Workman later told the Tribune through a spokesperson, “It is ultimately up to the people of House District 46 to determine the fate of their representation in the Texas House of Representatives."
Dukes is facing 28 years in jail and fines of up to $138,000 over abuse-of-office charges after a grand jury indicted her last month. Accused of falsifying travel vouchers and misusing staff, Dukes has pleaded not guilty. Under the state’s Election Code, even lawmakers who are convicted of crimes can keep their seat until they have exhausted all appeals.
Dukes said she is busy training her staff and studying appropriations and legislation that will reshape the state’s child welfare system.
While she has missed 11 days so far, Dukes wrote in a Feb. 13 Facebook post that senior members do other things at the start of session when the House agenda doesn’t include many major items. She said the downtime has allowed her team to unpack her new office and review budget and white papers on Child Protective Services.
Dukes is also watching a mounting campaign for her seat if she resigns or is forced to step down. Former Austin Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, Austin attorney Jose “Chito” Vela, Austin technology executive Nnamdi Orakwue, community organizer Greg Harrington and Manor ISD Board Trustee Ana Cortez are just some of those who have expressed interest in Dukes’ seat.
Democrats’ silence on Dukes’ legal troubles is “quite a bit” disturbing, said Andy Hogue, communications director for the Travis County Republican Party. He said the Travis County Democratic Party should issue a statement acknowledging Dukes’ indictment and making their expectations of elected officials clear.
“The worst of it all is her saying, ‘I’m going to resign on this day’... and then said, ‘I guess my voice was needed,' you know, ‘me, me, me,’ as if no one else can speak to the issues that she advocates ... to me that’s something worthy of censure,” Hogue said.
Vincent Harding, the Travis County Democratic Party chairman, said in an email statement he believes “in the rule of law and the legal process.”
“Our politics must be based on what is right and not who is right,” Harding said. “Thus, regardless of legislator, Democrat or Republican, I support all efforts this session that will improve the lives of people in Travis County and the State of Texas.”
For now, Dukes said said she plans to continue following the Texas Legislative Black Caucus’ and the Congressional Black Caucus’ philosophy: “We have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies. We only have permanent issues.”
“It’s the people of their district that need to be pleased, that they need to work hard for, not for someone else in that legislative body,” Dukes said. “It’s great to make friends and be friends, but your best friend needs to be your district.”
Read related Tribune coverage:
- A grand jury has indicted state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, on abuse-of-office charges, the Travis County District Attorney's office said Wednesday. She could face up to 28 years in jail and fines of up to $138,000.
- As a case against State Rep. Dawnna Dukes is scheduled to get a grand jury hearing on Tuesday, some of her constituents worry the case will distract her from fulfilling their needs.
- Four Austin Democrats pitched ideas for representing House District 46, even though state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, abruptly decided not to step down from her seat.