Embattled state Rep. Dawnna Dukes may have reneged on her plans to step down on Tuesday, but the candidates who stepped forward to replace her in a special election aren’t going away.
Democrats Sheryl Cole and Jose “Chito” Vela III both held campaign kick-off events this week, promising to run for House District 46 at the next opportunity, be it a special election or the 2018 primary against Dukes, who is facing a criminal investigation.
“If it happens tomorrow, then we’re running tomorrow. If it doesn’t happen until next year, then we’re patient, and we’re going to run next year,” Vela, an attorney and member of the Austin Planning Commission, said at his Thursday event at the Tres Amigos restaurant in Northeast Austin. “I’m patient. My supporters are patient. They’re animated, but they understand the situation.”
Dukes, Vela said, should step down immediately. “Given the pending indictment, given that she said she was going to leave and then she decided to stay, I just don’t see how she could effectively represent the people of the district,” he said.
At her Tuesday event at Sam’s BBQ in East Austin, Cole, an attorney and former Austin City Council member, declined to criticize Dukes but said she believes it is time for a “fresh start” in the district. Cole announced she has already raised $60,000 and secured the endorsement of many top Austin-area Democratic officeholders like Congressman Lloyd Doggett and state Sen. Kirk Watson.
State House seats dominated by voters from one party rarely change hands. Dukes, a Democrat, has held hers since 1995. When a safe seat opens up, the competition is often intense.
Dukes’ retirement reversal has created a strange situation, with candidates building campaigns, seeking supporters and soliciting donations without being able to tell voters when they will have a chance to vote for them. Given Dukes’ legal troubles, none appear ready to abandon hope that a special election will come to pass.
Facing a criminal investigation and saying she was too ill to serve, Dukes announced in September that she would step down when the Legislature reconvened in January, even if she was reelected in November.
She nonetheless won a 12th term with more than 70 percent of the vote. Then, days before lawmakers were sworn in Tuesday, Dukes decided to break her promise to step down and took the oath of office with the rest of her House colleagues.
Later Tuesday, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore announced that prosecutors and Texas Rangers investigators will begin grand jury proceedings that could result in Dukes being indicted for abuse of official capacity tampering with public records. Moore did not detail what incidents will be considered by the grand jury, but Dukes has been accused of misusing her legislative staff and campaign money.
On Tuesday, Dukes declined to discuss the pending case but said she has done nothing wrong.
Republican Gabriel Nila and Libertarian Kevin Ludlow, who ran against Dukes in November, have said they would run in a special election if she leaves office. Democrat Nnamdi Orakwue and independent Adam Reposa are also gearing up to run.