Phillips: Will an African-American hold on to Dawnna Dukes’ district?

Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore owes state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, an apology.

Moore dragged her feet in dropping all charges against Dukes when her case against the state legislator began unraveling — but not before taking some cheap shots. Since being indicted in January, Dukes had been looking at a prison term of up to 28 years for felony and misdemeanor charges of official abuse of her office.

As key evidence against Dukes evaporated, Moore’s office orchestrated the release of embarrassing information about Dukes that had little — if anything — to do with Dukes’ criminal case. Her office grabbed headlines in September by filing a court document stating that Dukes paid an online psychic more than $51,000 from December 2014 to January 2016.

HOW WE GOT HERE: Prosecutors drop all remaining charges against Rep. Dawnna Dukes.

That was preceded by a plea deal Moore offered Dukes that required Dukes to resign from the office she’s held for 11 terms and submit to a drug and alcohol assessment — though Moore provided no credible evidence to substantiate the implication that Dukes had a drug or alcohol problem.

The fallout over Moore’s unprofessional handling of the case has widened a racial rift in the Travis County Democratic Party over the District 46 House seat, which is up for election in 2018. More disastrous for Democrats are the looming political consequences from a botched prosecution that began under former District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg and ended with Moore dropping all 15 counts against Dukes last month.

Dukes now faces a primary challenge from four Democrats, setting up a heated contest that threatens a longstanding alliance between black and Latino Democrats and strains relations between two of the party’s most loyal constituencies, African-Americans and white progressives.

African-Americans understandably want to hold on to the seat, which in modern times 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.

POLITICS: Dawnna Dukes lashes out at Statesman, state Reps. Howard and Israel.

For Austin’s black community, there is much tradition associated with District 46, which encompasses east-central Austin, with its dozens of African-American churches and historically black Huston-Tillotson University. Though gentrification and social trends have drawn whites and Latinos to the district, it still is considered the epicenter of black political power in Austin.

Because of such dynamics, District 46 carries greater importance to blacks across Austin, who see the seat – and the person in it – as representing African-Americans wherever they live in the city.

But African-Americans make up only about 22 percent of District 46 residents. As such, they have relied on a coalition of white progressive and Latino voters to maintain control of the elected position. That has worked as Latinos and whites have recognized the value of having a delegation that represents Austin’s racial diversity and respects the history of the district. They typically have backed the candidate supported by African-American leaders.

But those alliances are being tested – and deeply strained – by political factors that Dukes helped set in motion with her chronic absenteeism from the Legislature for the past two sessions and her refusal to step down this term after pledging she would. Judging from yard signs in Dukes’ district, many residents want Dukes out.

Weighted down by her legal battles and poor performance, Dukes is far from an ideal candidate. Instead of handing off the political baton as others before her have done, she is staying in the race. Even if she doesn’t win, she might well play the role of spoiler, forcing African-Americans to choose between her and another formidable candidate, former Austin City Council Member Sheryl Cole.

RELATED: The implosion of the Dawnna Dukes corruption case, explained.

Three other candidates have confirmed they plan to run next year against Dukes. They include Nnamdi Orakwue, an African-American who founded tech startup Cocolevio, and attorney Jose “Chito” Vela III and Manor school district Trustee Ana Cortez, both Latino.

Vela’s candidacy has gained traction among some white progressives in the district who align with the left wing of the party. But it has raised the ire of some African-Americans, who bristle privately that his campaign is targeting the only black seat in the Travis County delegation.

At a time when African-Americans should be united behind one candidate, the black leadership appears split.

Dukes lists high-profile local black leaders among her supporters, including Delco, Democratic Precinct 1 Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion and Precinct 1 Constable Danny Thomas. On her Facebook page, she lists endorsements from Sens. Royce West, D-Dallas and Borris Miles, D-Houston; state Reps. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, and Helen Giddings, D-Dallas, among others.

Cole also counts prominent black leaders in her endorsements, including Exalton Delco (spouse of Wilhelmina Delco), Travis County District Clerk Velva Price, Austin NAACP President Nelson Linder and past president of Black Austin Democrats Gerard Washington.

All those dynamics make for a primary slugfest. Moore should apologize, but African-American leaders should unify behind a candidate – and one who can win.

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