- By Andrea Ball American-Statesman Staff
The political career of Dawnna Dukes, who parlayed a key early endorsement into a two-decade tenure in the Texas House marked by loyalty from constituents and scrutiny from ethics regulators, is coming to an end.
Dukes, a Democrat in her 11th two-year term representing parts of East Austin and northeastern Travis County, will step down Jan. 10 to cope with medical issues related to injuries from a 2013 car crash, she said in a statement. Dukes missed almost all of the 2015 legislative session, citing the same medical problems.
Dukes has also been dogged in recent months by a criminal investigation into use of taxpayer resources for nongovernmental purposes. Her retirement announcement comes days after the Texas Rangers delivered the findings of their probe to the Travis County district attorney’s office, which is reviewing the file.
Dukes is allowing her current term to expire rather than resigning immediately, allowing her to make an extra $3,220 per year in retirement benefits from the state because serving any amount in January counts as a full year when calculating pension benefits. Dukes will make $74,060 per year in retirement, a substantial bump from the $41,000 she’s making over two years in her current term.
Dukes’ name will still appear on the Nov. 8 general election ballot. If she beats Republican Gabriel Nila in the heavily Democratic district, her seat will be vacant starting Jan. 10 until a special election that will probably be held in the spring, while the Legislature is in session.
Because there are no other Travis County races scheduled for the spring, the special election could cost taxpayers as much as $200,000, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said.
Nila on Monday called on Dukes to resign immediately.
“There is no good reason for her to resign 100 days from now. … The constituents of this district deserve to have new representation immediately, not months after the new biennial session begins,” Nila said in a statement. “For once, Dawnna Dukes should put the district and the taxpayers first and immediately resign.”
Through a spokesman, Dukes declined an interview request, but she told the Quorum Report political newsletter, which first reported the news of her retirement Monday morning, that stepping down was “a very difficult decision to make.”
“In light of my ongoing health issues and concerns, I find that I can no longer provide the active, effective leadership that is needed to continue my sworn duties,” Dukes said. “I must take the time to focus all of my energy to heal and continue to provide for my young daughter and extended family.”
A 22-year career
Dukes was 30 years old when she was essentially handpicked by then-state Rep. Wilhelmina Delco to succeed her in the seat representing the heart of Austin’s African-American community.
Delco was a longtime friend of Dukes’ father, politically connected businessman Ben Dukes Sr., and said at the time that Dukes was a “bright, energetic, very articulate person.”
Over the years, Dukes gained influence in the House by building seniority and working with Republicans after they took hold of state politics. She was one of a handful of Democrats who supported former Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick, a distinction that earned her a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee as well as the scorn of many in her own party.
Along the way, Dukes has outmaneuvered controversies.
In 2004, she was criticized for voting in favor of a toll road plan that financially benefited her sister Stacy Rhone, a public relations specialist.
In 2006, Dukes’ consulting business, D.M. Dukes & Associates, was sued for failing to pay property taxes. The company was sued again in 2007 for failing to make payments on a car note. She paid off those debts, and the lawsuits were dropped.
In 2008, the Texas Ethics Commission fined Dukes for failing to disclose the details of credit card payments listed in her campaign finance reports, as is required.
She also earned the loyalty of her constituents by being a vocal supporter for measures that benefited low-income communities and vulnerable children. She pushed a bill that became law requiring school districts to inform parents of uncertified instructors teaching in the classroom and was an advocate for increases in early childhood education funding and across-the-board pay raises for full-time teachers, counselors and school nurses.
She was behind rules creating tougher penalties for gang recruitment and activity, backed legislation to prevent teen dating violence and worked to expand affordable housing.
Her legislative work even extended to the movies: She created the Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program to lure production companies to film in Texas.
Dukes drew the attention of investigators earlier this year when she was accused of misusing her staff for nonstate work.
Michael French, an employee she fired shortly after he complained, said that Dukes was forcing her employees to work on state time on a pet project, the African American Community Heritage Festival. That event, launched 17 years ago and co-founded by Dukes, raised money for Huston-Tillotson University.
Dukes maintained that the directive was acceptable because the festival benefited the community.
“There is not an issue with employees working on community events that benefit the constituency,” Dukes told the American-Statesman at the time. “I take great pride in this event being well organized and being unblemished. For 17 years we have not had one problem.”
After looking into the issue, the state auditor’s office referred its concerns to the Travis County district attorney’s office, which opened an investigation. The Texas Rangers soon joined in.
During the probe, other allegations of wrongdoing came to light. A text message by Dukes obtained by the Statesman indicated that she was using state money to pay a legislative aide for gas needed to drive Dukes’ daughter to and from school and run other personal errands. The employee received a $268-per-month raise on Sept. 1, 2015, according to documents obtained through the Texas Public Information Act.
“Recall, I signed a (personnel form) with understanding that I was increasing your salary to compensate for gas. It is not as though (dropping off the daughter) makes you late to work and jeopardizes your job. What is going on? I truly do not function well with changes to expectations. Talk to me,” Dukes said in the text.
Texas law does not allow state money to be used for personal expenses. The staffer was living rent-free at Dukes’ Pflugerville home in exchange for personal chores, Dukes has said.
Dukes also faced problems with the Texas Ethics Commission this year for failing to file her personal financial statement for 2015. She resolved the issue by filing the document four months after it was due and paying a $500 fine.
In June, the Statesman published an analysis of 15 years’ worth of Dukes’ campaign expenditures, which included $30,000 on gas, $13,000 on family members and $2,700 to a seamstress.
The report raised numerous questions about the legislator’s spending habits. While state campaign spending rules give legislators wide latitude over how they use their money, Dukes’ expenditures stood out.
The Statesman also looked at Dukes’ activities during the 2015 legislative session, in which she missed 84 percent of House votes and 44 of 50 committee meetings.
The Democrat spent a significant amount of time during the session seeking medical treatment and pain management, as documented in her social media posts. She also had major surgery two months after the session ended.
But while her ailments kept her away from the Capitol, they did not appear to hinder her participation in other activities, such as social outings and a trip to East Texas, according to Dukes’ social media and campaign finance reports.