Travis County Democratic Party chairman says he won’t seek re-election

3:24 p.m Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017 Politics
Travis County Democratic Party Chairman Vincent Harding gives a thumbs-up during a party at Scholz Garten held by Our City, Our Safety, Our Choice in opposition to Proposition 1 on May 7, 2016. Proposition 1 was defeated. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN STATESMAN

The chairman of the Travis County Democratic Party announced Thursday he will not seek re-election as the party braces for a potentially raucous primary challenge for indicted Austin state Rep. Dawnna Dukes’ seat.

Vincent Harding said in an email to party members that he was unsure what his future plans would be, but leading the party that dominates Austin and Travis County politics was not in the cards.

“I am forever grateful that I had the tremendous honor to serve as chair. I met so many amazing people along the journey that supported and encouraged our team,” Harding wrote in the message.

He told the American-Statesman on Thursday that recent family health woes contributed to his decision. He said he would remain in his position until his two-year term ends in June 2018.

Longtime party activist Rick Cofer already has filed the paperwork with the Texas Ethics Commission to run for the spot.

“Our party must work from the bottom up, not from the top down and empower every progressive to contribute their talent so Democrats win elections up and down the ballot,” Cofer said in a statement.

His campaign will roll out a slate of prominent supporters at its official launch on Friday, including Austin’s former mayor and current state Sen. Kirk Watson, four of the five state House Democrats who represent Travis County, District Attorney Margaret Moore, Sheriff Sally Hernandez and several Austin City Council members.

The Democratic Party dominates politics in Travis County, controlling all of the countywide elected offices. While the City Council is technically nonpartisan, it only has one conservative member. In the 2016 presidential election, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won 68 percent of the vote in Travis County.

INTERACTIVE: View a timeline of the Dawnna Dukes case

But the party has been roiled by controversy over the behavior of Dukes, who was indicted in January on corruption charges.

Harding thwarted an effort in June to pressure Dukes to resign, when he blocked precinct chairs in Dukes’ East Austin district from presenting a resolution that would have put to a vote whether the party should continue to support the lawmaker, who is in her 12th term.

Harding told the Statesman at the time he wasn’t defending Dukes, but wanted to avoid setting precedent by having the party ask an elected official to resign. He noted that Democrats stood by former District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg after she pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated in 2013.

The corruption charges against Dukes followed a series of Statesman stories that exposed questionable spending by her campaign; text messages that showed Dukes arranging to use state funds to pay a staffer to run errands; and that she maintained an active social calendar while missing almost the entire 2015 legislative session because of health problems.

Meanwhile, the Austin school district earlier this year canceled a contract that had paid Dukes’ firm $1 million to help improve minority recruitment, and documents filed by prosecutors this month claim Dukes missed more than half of the 2017 session, failed to turn over a cellphone and had spent more than $50,000 on an online psychic.

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