State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, kicked off her bid for a 12th term in the Texas House at the Austin Club on Tuesday, hours after lobbing the explosive allegation that fellow Austin Democratic Reps. Donna Howard and Celia Israel were behind an effort to keep her from winning re-election.
Dukes asserted that Howard and Israel undermined her legislation behind the scenes and kept her colleagues from offering her the courtesy of voting for her when she was not at her desk.
“Donna Howard was the ringleader, and Celia Israel followed up,” Dukes told Texas Tribune co-founder and CEO Evan Smith at a public event.
Both Howard and Israel were taken aback by what they said were groundless accusations.
“I was shocked and didn’t know what to make of those comments,” Israel said. “She didn’t talk to me about them.”
Dukes also described the American-Statesman’s coverage of her, which preceded her indictment by the Travis County district attorney’s office on 13 felony corruption charges and two misdemeanor counts, as like that of a “rag magazine, pushing the DA to indict.”
“That was malicious,” Dukes said.
Dukes said that the Statesman never told her side of the story, and at some point she stopped responding to its inquiries.
The district attorney’s office last month dropped its corruption case against Dukes.
The Statesman wrote numerous stories about Dukes leading up to her indictment and since, and in all cases, asked for her response and included any on-the-record comments she provided. Dukes often declined to speak on the record.
In April 2016, the Statesman reported that Dukes had arranged to give a taxpayer-funded raise to an aide to cover gas money for driving Dukes’ daughter to and from school.
In May 2016, the Statesman reported that a former Dukes staffer had accused the legislator of filing requests for per diem payments for days that she never traveled to the Capitol and might not have worked at all.
In June 2016, a Statesman investigation found that Dukes had made numerous questionable expenditures from her campaign account over the years, including $13,000 in payments to family members, $30,000 on gas and $2,700 to a seamstress.
But the case against her collapsed amid conflicting statements by a key witness and botched analysis of evidence by the Texas Department of Public Safety. Last month, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore decided to drop the felony counts against Dukes, and drop the misdemeanor counts in exchange for Dukes agreeing to pay $1,840 in fines and restitution to the state and return $5,200 to her campaign account.
Dukes told Smith that she paid no restitution — her attorneys did.
“They’ve got a lot of money,” Dukes said. “I paid them $138,000.”
Race a factor?
Dukes said that race played a role in the media campaign against her, with “more stories than O.J.”
“The machine that works in this city uses the media to try people,” Dukes said.
After Dukes’ interview at the Austin Club downtown, Wilhelmina Delco, a pathbreaking African-American former state legislator from Austin, approached Dukes to give her a hug and congratulate her, saying she was “calm, cool and collected.”
An invitation to Tuesday’s campaign kickoff fundraiser listed endorsements from Delco, former state Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, all 17 Democratic members of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, plus state Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion and Constable Danny Thomas, and the four black Democratic members of Congress from Texas.
In her conversation with Smith, and in an interview with the Statesman immediately afterward, Dukes said that it had become clear to her this year that Howard and Israel were instrumental in an effort to undermine her tenure, much to the dismay, she said, of members of the House from outside Travis County, one of whom, she said, told her the behavior of her local delegation was “weird.”
Dukes said associates of Howard and Israel are supporting the campaign of former Austin City Council Member Sheryl Cole, one of several Democrats challenging her in the March primary.
In a statement, Howard, who is out of town, said, “I’m sorry that she feels that way. I was not working as any kind of a ringleader against her. I have stayed out of this race and I intend to continue to stay out of this race.”
Israel said Dukes’ accusation came from out of the blue and was untrue.
“So I don’t want to speak ill of my colleague, I try to respect everyone,” said Israel, noting that she and Dukes generally see eye-to-eye on issues.
“I would not gain anything by undermining a colleague,” Israel said.
Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, a longtime friend and ally of Dukes, said, “I don’t know who, what, how and why,” but that Austin politics is “vicious,” and Dukes is in a vulnerable position as the only black legislator from a place with a declining black population.
“I certainly think it would feel weird if I was the only black person in a delegation, and I was the odd person out,” said Coleman, who said he is donating $10,000 from his campaign to Dukes.
“I’ve got more done in the Legislature than most of the other members of the (Austin) delegation,” Dukes said. But this session, she said, “There was a concerted effort by members of the local delegation to keep my legislation from passing.”
Absent from work
Dukes said her fellow representatives wouldn’t vote on her behalf — a common practice generally allowed by House rules — when she was not at her desk, part of what she said was an effort orchestrated by her detractors made easier because she had no desk mate and her seat is directly in front of the press table.
“There was a concerted effort to make sure only one button wasn’t pushed,” Dukes said.
In the 2015 legislative session, a Statesman analysis of House records found that Dukes missed 84 percent of House votes and 44 of 50 committee meetings. She cited medical issues stemming from a 2013 car crash as the reason for her absences. In April, the Texas Tribune reported she had missed more votes than any member to that point in the 2017 regular session.
Dukes revealed Tuesday that among her medical maladies, she suffers from both multiple sclerosis and myasthenia gravis.
But, at the end of her interview Tuesday, Dukes said, “I am healthy enough to serve. I’m wearing my high heels.”