On a balmy day this week, both sides of 12th Street made political news.
On the street’s west side, incumbent state Rep. Dawnna Dukes – in a move that surprised some and upset others – raised her hand as she along with other Texas House members were sworn in at the Capitol.
Dukes was a goner, or so it seemed, until several days ago when the public learned the Austin Democrat had changed her mind about a decision to step down. In September, amid health problems and allegations of misconduct, Dukes said she would give up her post after 11 terms in office, allowing a special election this year to determine her successor. Now it seems District 46 again will be represented by Dukes.
On the same day Dukes was being sworn in, political news was breaking on the east end of 12th Street.
Former City Council Member Sheryl Cole chose Sam’s BBQ to declare her own promise for District 46. Standing before cameras in the cramped, well-known barbecue joint, Cole declared she would run for Dukes’ seat in the 2018 Democratic Primary – or before if Dukes gives up her seat voluntarily or unwillingly. Though there is no immediate threat of Dukes being forced from office, it could happen at some point in the future pending the outcome of her criminal case.
Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore said that her office will move forward with Dukes’ criminal case regarding alleged ethics violations and abuse of her state office. Moore said she would begin presenting evidence to a grand jury next week. All of that takes time. Until then, Dukes deserves the presumption of innocence.
In the meantime, there’s a face-off brewing between two of Austin’s high-profile African-American politicians in a contest that is straining loyalties and cultural norms.
Key African-American leaders supporting Cole mostly have been mum when asked whether Dukes should step down or stay in office — to avoid openly criticizing Dukes or alienating Cole. Under normal circumstances, the transfer of power is far less awkward with an incumbent African-American handing off the political baton to another African-American candidate waiting in the wings.
Such political transitions have their benefits in creating stability and solidarity. But the downside can mean keeping people in power beyond their effectiveness. Even so, the trade-off is viewed by many as vital to sustaining racial diversity in Austin and Travis County elected posts.
In modern times, District 46 has been represented by an African-American, going back to when voters elected former state Rep. Wilhelmina Delco in 1976 as the first African-American to represent Travis County in the Texas House of Representatives.
East-central Austin, with its numerous black churches and historically African-American Huston-Tillotson University, still is the epicenter of black political power despite shifting demographics. As such, it’s the heartbeat of District 46, whose demographic makeup has changed dramatically due to gentrification and social trends that have drawn whites and Latinos to the district while spreading African-Americans more broadly across Austin and into Williamson County. Just 22 percent of District 46 residents are black, according to data from the 2010 Census.
Instead of splitting votes among several candidates, many African-Americans prefer to rally around one candidate as a way of preserving historic gains regarding black political power. The goal is to maximize chances that city, county and state elected bodies will include at least one African-American.
In explaining her decision, Dukes said she decided to come back because she was re-elected in November with 70 percent of the vote despite not campaigning and because many constituents had urged her to continue serving. It’s worth noting that 35 percent of Travis County voters chose to vote a straight-party ticket for Democrats.
“Constituents, former members, present members were really encouraging me to change my mind, and they were using every argument possible,” she said.
Dukes, who had missed much of the 2015 legislative session because of ongoing complications from a 2013 car crash, said her medical issues have improved to the point that she is able to work effectively.
Certainly I’m glad her health is better and that she wants to use her experiences overcoming seizures, frailty and nerve damage to help others regain health and normalcy in their lives. But I’m not certain she is correctly reading the message voters sent in re-electing her by a large margin.
Voters might well have been saying they were re-electing Dukes in name only to accommodate a special election later this year in which another Democrat could be elected to represent deep blue District 46. And Cole — with a fundraising advantage and recognizable name — is seen as the frontrunner of six candidates who have lined up to run for the seat.
Cole’s message to supporters at Sam’s BBQ — “Got to represent” — was a shot across Dukes’ bow, conveying that Cole would run in the March 2018 Democratic Primary without Dukes’ blessing – or even with Dukes in the race.
“We hope that the people who are representing us recognize that it is not about them — it is about us,” Cole said.
For her part, Dukes has a supportive, prominent family, a young daughter who needs her guidance and many friends and associates and — despite her missteps — a list of accomplishments, including her very important work on protecting children in the state’s beleaguered Child Protective Services and foster care system. She has been a fierce advocate for Planned Parenthood and women’s health.
I can’t read tea leaves, but it seems clear that Dukes should be looking for an exit strategy soon or in 2018 if she wants to maintain the harmony and political unity necessary to preserve the racial diversity that District 46 brings to our state delegation from Travis County.