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Texas Elections 2018

In final campaign stretch, many in Travis County ask: Where is Texas Rep. Dawnna Dukes?

After the embattled Austin Democrat overcame criminal charges late last year, many observers thought she was poised for a comeback. Then the Dawnna Dukes campaign virtually disappeared.

The chair of State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, sits empty during the opening hour of the House Appropriations Committee meeting on Feb. 15, 2017.

Texas Elections 2018

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In November, after clearing her name of the criminal charges that had hung over her for nearly a year, a defiant state Rep. Dawnna Dukes was ready to go public.

Dukes, a 12-term Democrat from Austin, found herself in a precarious position. At least eight challengers from her own party expressed interest in running for her House seat while she was under indictment. In a state where most legislative races last only a few months, two of Dukes’ opponents spent more than a year fundraising and campaigning against her.

So after months of avoiding the press, Dukes agreed to be interviewed onstage at the Austin Club, just a few blocks from the Texas Capitol, where she explained why she was finally willing to talk.

“It’s an opportunity to tell the real story,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to present the truth as the facts are.”

Over the hour-long interview, Dukes told the audience she’d been victimized by a racially motivated criminal investigation aimed at ruining her name in the court of public opinion. She’d been betrayed by members of her own Travis County delegation and unfairly hounded by reporters.

But now, with the backing of several high-ranking Democrats in the Texas House, she was going to host a fundraiser and get back into the race. Her health had improved, she said, and she was ready to serve her district once more.

She sounded like a battered veteran ready to make a comeback.

“I have fought back,” she said. “I have on my high heels.”

But three months later, the fundraising never materialized. Dukes made few efforts to court local Democratic activists, and some of her allies began to distance themselves from her. Now, with less than a week before Democratic primary, Dukes seems to have vanished.

No-show at local events

The long line of candidates for Texas House District 46 first began to form in September 2016, when Dukes, then under criminal investigation, announced she would resign in the new year, citing health reasons. She nonetheless coasted to re-election in November.

Then, at the start of the legislative session in January, Dukes stunned Austin when she announced she would not step down after all.

“A number of people said, ‘I voted for her last November because she said she was resigning, ‘cause I didn’t want the Republican,’” said David Albert, a professor of government at Austin Community College involved in local Democratic circles. “They were very upset when she turned around and didn’t resign because basically their vote was stolen on a false pretense.”

Days later, prosecutors indicted Dukes on 13 felony and two misdemeanor charges for allegedly abusing public office, claiming Dukes had tampered with a government record by falsifying travel vouchers to cover expenses she was not entitled to.

Then, in October, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore’s office dropped all the charges after claiming a key witness in the case had changed his story. Moore admitted most of the charges “should not have been pursued.”

Dukes agreed to pay $1,340 to reimburse a legislative staffer who’d taken care of Dukes’ daughter — inappropriately, according to prosecutors. Dukes also agreed to pay $500 for an outstanding fine owed to the Texas Ethics Commission and return $5,230 to her campaign account.

The case was over, but in Dukes’ eyes, the damage was done. Prosecutors had leaked to the public that Dukes spent more than $50,000 on an online psychic, though that fact did not appear to have any relevance to the criminal charges. At another point, prosecutors invited speculation when they asked Dukes to submit to drug and alcohol tests.

By the time Dukes could turn her attention back to the 2018 primary race, five Democrats had lined up to challenge her.

Two of them — Sheryl Cole, a former Austin City council member, and Chito Vela, an immigration attorney and activist — have raced ahead of the incumbent in fundraising and endorsement collecting.

One reason, many of their supporters say, is that they’ve simply shown up, while Dukes stopped appearing at most public events since her November interview. Her absences have been so frequent that rival campaigns are said to keep a running spreadsheet to record information about every Dukes no-show.

“I am Sheryl Cole, I’m running for House District 46, and I show up,” Cole said at a candidate forum hosted this month by the East Travis County Democrats. It was an obvious jab at the absent Dukes (who later wrote on her Facebook page that she missed the event because a desk had fallen on her, requiring medical attention).

Dukes could not be reached for comment on this story. Her campaign consultant, Colin Strother, stopped responding to phone calls from The Texas Tribune after a reporter asked to interview Dukes. When a reporter knocked on the door at the East Austin address advertised on Facebook as Dukes’ campaign headquarters during business hours on consecutive weekdays, no one answered.

But in a brief phone call earlier this month, Strother disputed the idea that Dukes had withdrawn from the race.

“We’re doing normal stuff,” Strother said. “On the phone, we’re reminding people to go vote, kind of boilerplate-type stuff.”

Few endorsements

As the primary entered its final weeks, Dukes failed to attract endorsements from major local players. Most of House District 46’s local Democratic Party precinct chairs, volunteers who play an important role in identifying and registering voters, have said they do not support her re-election campaign.

“There’s the lack of attendance and then also not feeling like there has been an open-door policy with her office,” said Daniel Segura-Kelly, a Democratic activist and precinct chair in Dukes’ district. “The continued communication doesn’t exist.”

Dukes has skipped a local campaigning ritual: making the rounds of the district to court local Democratic clubs that can help get out the vote.

Dukes never responded to invitations from the Northeast Travis County Democrats, club President Saundra Ragona said. (The club endorsed Vela.) She didn’t fill out a questionnaire required for endorsement from the Black Austin Democrats, club President Craig Moore said. (The group endorsed Cole.) Dukes also failed to return basic candidate paperwork to the Austin Young Democrats, club President Kolby Duhon said. (They endorsed Vela.)

Even when Dukes did show up, she often ruffled feathers. She angered many in the room at the Austin Area AFL-CIO Central Labor Council, participants said, by arriving two hours late to the endorsement meeting. The union group ultimately chose to support Cole.

Most recently, Dukes declined to show up to a candidate meeting at the Austin Chronicle, the largest local publication that endorses candidates. The Chronicle picked Vela, noting that Dukes “appears unfazed by the corruption scandal that plagued her time in office last year, and her poor Capitol attendance during the Legislative session.”

In Dukes’ absence, it’s Cole v. Vela

Dukes’ challengers are quick to criticize her for her attendance. In April 2017, in the legislative session’s waning days, a Texas Tribune analysis found Dukes had been the most-absent member of the 150-person chamber. The Austin Democrat has said she missed many votes after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and myasthenia gravis.

In Dukes’ absence, her opponents have for the most part focused their campaigns against each other. Vela has accused Cole of being an establishment candidate who would not push hard enough for a progressive agenda; Cole bills herself as a more inclusive candidate who has advocated for a more diverse group of Austinites.

Cole, who has the backing of state Sen. Kirk Watson, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, sat down with The Texas Tribune on Saturday after delivering a brief speech at a march hosted by local labor groups.

Asked if she agreed with the establishment label, Cole said she was “not beholden to anyone” and that her progressive credentials were not up for debate.

“An establishment candidate who leads and passes ban-the-box” — an Austin ordinance that prevents employers from asking job applicants about criminal history — “the first marriage equality bill in the state, deals with every officer-involved shooting within the last 10 years and ensures their proper settlement, and cameras on [police] cars, and changes in the grievance system — that’s one hell of an establishment candidate,” she said. “You can print that.”

Vela, who previously worked at the Texas Capitol for state Rep. Solomon Ortiz, is attempting to run to the left of Cole.

“This is a very liberal district, potentially the most liberal House seat in the state, and I want to make sure whoever holds this seat uses that to their advantage and is a real champion, a real fighter,” he said in a recent interview. His supporters say he would bring the energy of a firebrand to a Legislature where Democrats are greatly outnumbered.

“I just don’t want to waste the seat on a Democrat that is just going to vote the right way but is not really going to be a leader,” Vela said.

Cole’s campaign has raised $133,000 since the start of last year, the most recent filings with the Texas Ethics Commission show. Vela raised $51,000 over the same period, including a $13,000 loan.

Dukes’ campaign, meanwhile, is massively in debt, which she has attributed to legal fees that resulted from her extended criminal case. Her campaign has taken out loans worth roughly $830,000, campaign finance reports show. In 2017 and 2018, she raised just $2,250. 

Three other candidates — Ana Cortez, Casey McKinney and Warren Baker — are also running in the primary, though their campaigns are mostly self-funded. Given the crowded field, it’s likely that no candidate will receive 50 percent of the vote, which would lead to a May runoff between the top two finishers. Dukes’ entrenched support network in her district, where she has a 24-year legacy, could land her a runoff spot despite her lack of recent face time with the grassroots. 

“All things being equal, the incumbent advantage is pretty strong,” said Jim Henson, a political scientist with the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “But I think it’s a pretty risky bet, frankly, even with Dawnna Dukes’ advantages, in an election in which we’re seeing Democrats relatively mobilized, and in which the incumbent has some significant liabilities.”

Dukes supporters interviewed by the Tribune declined to comment on her apparent lack of campaigning. But State Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat and longtime friend at the Capitol, said every lawmaker wants to be able to leave the Legislature on his or her own terms, including Dukes.

“It’s a very tough decision to make to leave, just because you’ve been doing it so long, it’s the thing you know,” he said. “It starts to define you if you got elected at 30 and now you’re in your 50s. It really does.”

Disclosure: Austin Community College, the University of Texas at Austin and Margaret Moore have been financial supporters 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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