Jose “Chito” Vela III, who is hoping to replace retiring state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, said Wednesday that she should step down immediately, rather than waiting until January and leaving her district without a representative for key parts of the next legislative session.
“The sooner she is out, the sooner someone can get in there and get on the floor and fight for Texas Democratic values,” said Vela, 42, an attorney and member of the Austin Planning Commission. “Every vote counts.”
Dukes, an Austin Democrat, announced in September that she will decline to be sworn in for a 12th term when the Legislature reconvenes Jan. 10. Dukes cited medical complications stemming from a 2013 car crash as the reason for her departure, but her announcement came soon after Texas Rangers completed an investigation into her alleged misuse of legislative staff and campaign money.
Dukes’ announcement came after a deadline to replace her on the Nov. 8 ballot. She won with 70.3 percent of the vote despite promising not to serve.
After Dukes steps down, state law instructs the governor to call a special election. Gov. Greg Abbott can schedule the election until as late as two months after her resignation from the heavily Democratic seat.
That would mean Dukes’ district — which includes parts of North Austin, East Austin, Pflugerville and Manor — wouldn’t have a voice for much of the negotiations over the state budget, and her replacement will miss key deadlines for filing and advancing legislation.
Dukes didn’t respond to an interview request but responded to Vela’s comments in a Facebook post.
“With all due respect Sir, uninformed & an incorrect assessment on timeline. Democrats know the factual dates. Unpleasant campaign tactic,” she wrote.
There are reasons Dukes might want to delay her resignation.
By allowing her current term to expire rather than resigning immediately, Dukes will make an extra $3,220 per year in retirement benefits from the state because serving any amount of time in January counts as a full year when calculating pension benefits.
Dukes will make $74,060 per year in retirement, a substantial bump from the $41,000 she’s making over two years in her current term.
Additionally, delaying her resignation might give Dukes an extra bargaining chip in attempting to cut a deal with prosecutors, who could require her to step down immediately or force her to put her promise to step down in writing. As of now, there is nothing stopping Dukes from reneging on her pledge to step down and getting sworn in on Jan. 10.
Dukes’ lawyer, Michael Heiskell of Fort Worth, has said previously that he is working to ensure she isn’t indicted and negotiating with prosecutors. Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg has said prosecutors will take Dukes’ planned resignation into account when handling the case, although it will not be “determinative.”
Gregg Cox, who leads the district attorney office’s Public Integrity Unit, said Wednesday that prosecutors are still reviewing the case.
Candidates are already lining up to replace her in a special election. Democrat Sheryl Cole, a former Austin mayor pro tem, said she is planning to run, and Travis County Democratic Party Chairman Vincent Harding said he is considering running.
Cole said Dukes has the right to complete her term.
“Dawnna was elected with over 70 percent of the vote and she has made her intentions clear, and the Texas Constitution allows her to serve until she can’t fulfill her duties,” Cole said. “I stand ready. I am going to run and I’m looking forward to it, but the rules are the rules.”
Republican Gabriel Nila and Libertarian Kevin Ludlow, who ran unsuccessfully against Dukes in November, have said they plan to run in the special election also.
Adam Reposa, an attorney and political provocateur, said he will run as an independent candidate.
There are no primaries in special elections. Instead, the top two finishers will compete in a runoff, unless one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote and wins outright.