It was a big deal two years ago when state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, then facing health problems, didn’t show up for much of the 2015 legislative session. It was a bigger deal Tuesday when the Austin Democrat, now facing legal problems, did show up for opening day of the 2017 session.
That was part of the opening-day intrigue as lawmakers gathered for the 85th biennial gathering of the absolute finest people from each of the state’s 150 House and 31 Senate districts.
First-day action also included the as-expected re-election of Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, as speaker and the weird-even-for-Texas sideshow of reps checking on a colleague with a new hole in his head.
Looming in the 139 days to come is a potential little problem with money for the state budget, the only bill that has to be approved. Remember those low gas prices we all so enjoyed? Turns out, as some folks warned, that actually wasn’t good for the state’s collective fiscal health.
So there’s that to deal with as we move beyond the festivities and swearing (the good kind) of an opening day when Dukes’ presence was unusually newsworthy.
Until a few days ago, Dukes, under investigation for misusing legislative staffers, planned to resign rather than show up for the 2017 session, citing lingering health problems from a 2013 wreck. Despite the resignation plans and pending criminal investigation, she coasted to re-election in November in the drawn-to-elect-a-Democrat 46th district.
But Dukes had an 11th-hour change of heart, she explained on Facebook about 12 hours prior to the opening gavel and in the back hall of the House on Tuesday during a break. She said her health allowed her return and her constituents demanded it. Dukes said she now knows “there is life after a major injury.”
“I just didn’t have any idea in a million years that I could be categorized as disabled,” she said, “and I think in a way you can get a little vain and not want to be seen where your body has changed.”
For the record, she didn’t want to talk about her legal problems other than to say she’s done nothing wrong.
Dukes showed up on the House floor about 10 minutes after the opening gavel, after the prayer and the Texas and U.S. pledges and the national anthem. House officials had been so sure she wasn’t going to show up that the new seating chart initially had names in every seat save for one that was listed as “District 46.”
Sometime between Sunday and Monday, Dukes’ name was put on the seat, a new one for her.
Conveniently for us busybody journalists, her new seat is right near the press table, one once occupied by Rep. Rick Perry, D-Haskell, when he first showed up in 1985. So, from the comfort of our seats, some of us at the press table stared at her as she raised her right hand and swore to “to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States and of this state. So help me God.”
The next time she swears to anything it could be in front of a jury — grand or otherwise. Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore told the American-Statesman Tuesday that prosecutors and Texas Rangers will ask a grand jury to indict Dukes on charges of abuse of official capacity and tampering with public records.
In a reminder of how time flies, Dukes is tied for seventh on the House seniority chart, having first showed up in 1995. Still atop the House seniority chart is Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, who’s been in the House since 1969. How long ago was 1969?
“A real innovation of the 61st Legislature was the passage of a minimum wage bill,” says a Texas Legislative Council wrap-up of that session, “setting a $1.25 pay floor effective on Feb. 1, 1970, to be increased to $1.40 the following year.”
The ongoing Dukes drama was about the only drama on an opening day devoid of the usual make-believe drama of recent years about whether Straus would be re-elected to lead the House. He’s Mr. Speaker again for a record-tying fifth session, this time unanimously and without a challenger. In previous races, Straus was opposed by Republicans who damn him as a dreaded moderate.
About the only the other drama in the House concerned Rep. Armando Martinez, D-Weslaco. Martinez is back for his seventh session, the first since being hit in the head by a celebratory bullet fired into the air back home. The shooter — thought to be a New Year’s Eve partyer — apparently was not totally up to speed on the whole what-goes-up-must-come-down thing.
Martinez, a licensed paramedic, is doing fine and was greeted by well-wishing colleagues. Martinez had this advice for people who shoot their guns into the air: “I think they shouldn’t shoot their guns into the air.”
Across the Rotunda, senators convened in their chamber, many with their minds in the bathroom.
Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the Senate’s presiding officer, has a long list of legislative priorities, all important, none more controversial than his attempt to keep transgender folks in the bathrooms of their birth gender.
Senators (and some lobbyists and others) gathered Monday night at the Four Seasons for the Senate Ladies Club pre-session dinner. The main course was roasted beef tenderloin in red wine sauce. (This is Texas. Did you expect an amusing assortment of artisanal craft farm-to-table kale?) It was topped off with “Chef Mandy’s Dessert Sampler,” including a mojito tart, chocolate mousse cake and raspberry cheesecake.
So we’re off and running for the 85th time under the pink granite dome. Things will happen we can’t imagine, things that will make us say: “Is that Martinez guy the only one with a hole in his head?”
See video with this column at mystatesman.com.