Rep. Dukes to Quit in January

With health issues, scandals looming, veteran to retire

Rep. Dawnna Dukes in 2011
Rep. Dawnna Dukes in 2011 (photo by John Anderson)

Add another election to the slate: After months of quiet speculation, Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Pflugerville, is stepping down in January, triggering a special election early next year.

Her announcement, which came Monday morning, is not a surprise in Austin's political circles, although the timing has caught a few people off guard. Dukes told capital insider news source Quorum Report "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."

Since first being elected to the Texas House in 1994, Dukes has been a pugnacious mainstay of the Travis County delegation. Representing House District 46 (which stretches from Central Austin to Manor and Pflugerville), she's been a strong negotiator for the Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee. In film circles, she was known for getting the Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program, known as the film incentive program, funded.

However, after a car accident in 2013, Dukes has been dealing with series of medical issues. While there was sympathy from the rest of the delegation, there were also concerns that she was not able to do her job due to injuries sustained, and frustration behind the scenes when she had to be basically absent during the 2015 legislative session.

There was a degree of surprise that she had filed again in 2016, and it wasn't just because of the injuries. In the past few months, she had been under investigation by the Texas Rangers over the legitimacy of pay raises for staff. That makes the timing of her departure more noteworthy, as Travis County Assistant District Attorney Gregg Cox told the Austin American-Statesman that the Rangers had handed their report over last week, and their findings are under review.

Her decision is what some Democrats have for months been calling a best case scenario: By staying on the ballot for the November election, she remains likely to beat Republican contender Gabriel Nila, thus keeping the seat blue. However, by announcing that she will leave in January, that will trigger a special election, so the seat can be filled early in the next session.

Unsurprisingly, Nila has issued a statement that, while wishing her a swift recovery, condemned the process she has triggered. He wrote, "If Representative Dukes intends to resign in January due to health reasons, there is no good reason for her to resign 100 days from now, after a general election, and needlessly disadvantage her successor and cause an expensive Special Election."

However, there is no clear successor to her seat, and the seemingly inevitable result will be multiple Democrats filing to succeed her. Former Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole has already issued a statement that after "an incredible outpouring of support and encouragement from community leaders and my family ... I am seriously considering running to House District 46." She's not the only name being floated. Attorney and former County Commissioner candidate James Nortey, longtime Democratic activist Amber Goodwin, former Travis County Democratic Party communications director Joe Deshotel, and current TCDP chair Vincent Harding have all been mentioned as potential contenders.

One name being mooted early on may already be out. Cole's fellow former Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez said he was contacted by people interested in him running, but he intends to back Cole should she run because "we must maintain a strong progressive voice from the African American community in the Travis County delegation."

(This story was updated to reflect Cox's statement to the Statesman.)

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Texas House of Representatives, Dawnna Dukes, Special Election, November 2016 Election

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