In 24 years in office, Rep. Dukes went from ‘relentless’ to absent

March 07, 2018
Tamir Kalifa
State Rep. Dawnna Dukes speaks to members of the media after a hearing in Judge Brad Urrutia’s court last year. TAMIR KALIFA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN

A serious car wreck, felony corruption charges and pressure to resign from members of her own party were not enough to end the two-decade political career of state Rep. Dawnna Dukes.

But Dukes was eventually done in by growing discontent from her constituents, who voted resoundingly in Tuesday’s Democratic primary for new leadership in House District 46 amid concern that Dukes had lost her way after early success in the Texas House.

The defeat appears to put a bow on the political career of Dukes, a 12-term legislator who came into office at age 30 as the successor to her boss, state Rep. Wilhelmina Delco. A lifelong Austinite, Dukes advocated for children’s rights and pushed for affordable housing. She has served on the powerful House Appropriations Committee for nearly 15 years. She initiated a project to clean up Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and launched the African American Community Heritage Festival.

“It was important for her success that she was a native Austinite,” Delco said. “That was a big benefit to her as a state representative. I also thought she was an effective state representative.”

Dukes, 54, declined to comment Wednesday, saying she is tired and wanted to relax. This marks the second time Dukes’ career has seemingly come to a close; she had announced in September 2016 she would be stepping down the following year to cope with medical issues related to a 2013 car crash. But she reconsidered and cruised to victory in the general election that November.

From relentless to absent

The re-election was a bright spot, but it didn’t stop the erosion of Dukes’ political career, which seemed to coincide with the wreck.

Early in her career, Dukes earned her constituents’ loyalty by pushing for measures that benefit low-income communities and vulnerable children. She was behind a bill that became law requiring school districts to inform parents of uncertified instructors teaching in the classroom. She also advocated for increases in early childhood education funding and better pay for full-time teachers, counselors and school nurses.

“She was relentless in her pursuit of addressing problems relating to low- and moderate-income people, especially children, as evidenced by the work she did on the appropriations committee,” said retired state Rep. Elliott Naishtat, a fellow Austin Democrat. “She was a solid Democratic vote and seemed to get along with people on both sides of the aisle.”

As a black woman, Dukes was a pioneer, a strong tactician who could see the bigger picture, said longtime ally Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston. While foes labeled her a “Craddick D” for her support of former Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick, Coleman insists she never kowtowed to the Republican agenda.

“Dawnna is a serious policymaker, and that’s what I think people are missing,” Coleman said.

Dukes was injured in August 2013 in an Interstate 35 car crash that left her vehicle totaled by a tractor-trailer rig that had rear-ended her while she was stuck in traffic. Dukes was hospitalized for several hours and said the injuries to her spine and neck affected her ability to show up for work. She also said in 2015 she was “having failure of some of my internal organs,” but declined to discuss her injuries in any greater detail.

She was absent for most of the 2015 legislative session, missing 44 of 50 committee meetings and 84 percent of House votes. In the 2017 session, she was absent for roll call 65 percent of the time, and 36 percent of the time in the special session.

She showed up to a March committee hearing and asked rambling questions for nine minutes, then told her colleagues she was “full of morphine” after leaving the emergency room that day.

Her absences from the House , and her fitness to serve, were the topic of a Travis County Democratic Party meeting in June 2017 where some party members argued unsuccessfully to have a vote to pressure Dukes to resign .

Tuesday, Dukes picked up just 10 percent of the vote and finished a distant third among the three candidates who were believed to have had realistic paths to victory. Dukes will remain on the job through the end of the year before she’s replaced by the winner of the May 22 runoff between Jose “Chito” Vela and Sheryl Cole.

“I want to give Dawnna her due — in her strongest moments, she was a vocal voice for women’s health, she stood up for criminal justice reform, and she stood up for children and health and human services,” Cole said.

Criminal case was ‘devastating’

Dukes considers the criminal case the thing that finally sunk her political career.

She had to fend off a 15-count indictment in a criminal case that accused her of falsifying travel vouchers and paying her legislative staff for personal reasons. She faced up to 28 years in jail. The charges were dropped in October 2017 after prosecutors said they could not prove their case at trial. Dukes had previously rejected separate plea offers to avoid prosecution in exchange for her resignation.

“The criminal charges were devastating to her professionally and personally,” her lawyer, Matthew Shrum, said Wednesday. “She lost contracts. It devastated her financially in lost earnings and legal fees. That alone is enough to send someone into a tailspin. You add the fact what she was facing in jail was measured in decades. That took a toll on her as well. And since she thought that she was innocent from the beginning, there was a stress of, ‘Is there a conspiracy?’”

As her legal problems mounted, few of her colleagues stepped up to defend Dukes. But Coleman continued to back his longtime friend, politically endorsing her and contributing $5,000 to her re-election campaign.

Dukes’ primary defeat will play out in the Legislature through the loss of the institutional knowledge accumulated over 24 years, Coleman said. He believes Dukes was felled by vicious politics and was unfairly tainted by charges that were ultimately dropped.

“She fought for her reputation and she won,” he said.