Viewpoints: It’s time for Rep. Dawnna Dukes to step down

Twice now, Rep. Dawnna Dukes has rejected offers by the Travis County District Attorney’s office to drop a corruption case against her in exchange for Dukes’ resignation. She first rejected then-DA Rosemary Lehmberg’s offer in September. On Tuesday, she did the same with DA Margaret Moore’s deal.

Dukes, who has denied any wrongdoing, now heads to court in October to face 13 felony and two misdemeanor charges alleging abuse of office. Texas Rangers investigators allege Dukes made 13 false entries on travel vouchers to obtain money for expenses she was not entitled to, and that she used public funds for her personal gain and converted campaign funds to personal use.

CONTINUING COVERAGE: Dawnna Dukes lets clock run out on DA’s offer to settle corruption case.

Accusations aside, for the good of constituents Dukes should have resigned. It’s still the right move.

The Austin Democrat, who was first elected to her current post in 1994, has the right to her day in court. Her constituents in District 46, however, deserve a legislator who is ready to represent their needs and can show up to get the job done.

Dukes, however, has a recent history of not always showing up.

Much like in 2015, Dukes was absent from the Capitol for much of the regular 85th Legislative Session, attending only 32 percent of scheduled meetings; up from 22 percent in 2015. She missed 54 percent of floor votes during the regular session and 84 percent in 2015.

With growth issues facing much of Dukes’ district – which includes East Austin, Pflugerville and Manor – constituents need a strong and present voice to communicate the increasing concerns about education, affordable housing and economic disparity facing most of Central Texas today.

Dukes has struggled with ongoing complications from a 2013 car crash that left her frail and with nerve damage. It would have made sense then for Dukes to focus on her recovery — but she chose to keep her seat. Not until a growing cloud of suspicion against her did Dukes publicly consider stepping down. Amid allegations of misconduct and growing criticism over her absenteeism, Dukes announced last September that she would resign if she was re-elected to a 13th term.

On Jan. 10, she took the oath of office for that 13th term. Days later, after her indictment, she wrote on Facebook: “People who are underserved deserve to have my voice in the House.”

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Dukes’ chronic absenteeism has left Texans and District 46 constituents hanging dry. They deserve better. A legislator must be present to effectively communicate – and debate if necessary — the needs of constituents and, as Dukes has pointed out, the underserved.

Dukes once did that well.

Though she never reached the status of her acclaimed predecessor, Wilhelmina Delco, Dukes showed promise as a young legislator. She was notable for standing up for women’s reproductive rights and issues important to people of color. She fought to improve the state’s broken Child Protective Services. In 2009, Dukes helped author a bill to create the Texas Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), low-cost health coverage for families who cannot afford to buy private health coverage but who earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid.

Today, however, Dukes — whenever present – creates more distractions than gets legislating done. Yet, in June, Dukes told reporters that there was “a very strong possibility” she would run again. Her participation in a District 46 Democratic candidate forum in July appears, at least for now, to suggest she’s made a decision.

With all the distractions surrounding her, Dukes has fewer Democrats in her corner. In May, Daniel Segura-Kelly, who is a precinct chair in District 46, told the American-Statesman that 16 of 22 precinct chairs want Dukes gone.

Candidates ready to roll their sleeves up and get to work began lining up last September after Dukes first announced a potential retirement.

Dukes’ District 46 seat has been represented by an African-American since 1976 — the only one in the Travis County delegation with that distinction. In clinging to power for no apparent reason than for her own gain, Dukes jeopardizes that tradition. If she runs again, she could play the spoiler for a strong, viable African-American candidate, such as Sheryl Cole, the former Austin mayor pro tem.

A formidable Democrat with a large and loyal base of supporters, Cole was respectful of Dukes’ initial retirement plans, but has made it clear since then she’s ready to challenge Dukes.

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Others who have added their names to the list of Democratic candidates are former Workers Defense Project board chair Jose “Chito” Vela, Manor ISD trustee Ana Cortez, tech startup entrepreneur Nnamdi Orakwue, and Pflugerville business owner Philip Emiabata.

During last months’ Democratic forum, Dukes said one reason she would run again is because “seniority is where the power lies.” She has a point. As one of the senior members of the House, Dukes can hold onto her seat on important committees like the House Committee on Appropriations.

But, having a seat at the table does no good if Dukes may or may not be there. Dukes has proven unreliable in showing up when it counts – which for a state representative, should be always.

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