Vela Kicks Off

Immigration lawyer formally adds name to foggy HD 46 race

“My shoes are laced up, I’ve got my clipboard, and I’m running for office,” said José "Chito" Vela Thursday night, answering an exhortation by President Barack Obama in his Chicago farewell speech. Vela held his kickoff at Tres Amigos for the House District 46 seat now held by Dawnna Dukes – and joked, “Whatever happened, I wasn’t going to cancel the party!”

José "Chito" Vela (Photo by Michael King)

Among the half-dozen candidates who say they’ll challenge Dukes for the HD 46 seat – Vela, former Austin Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, Republican Gabriel Nila, Libertarian Kevin Ludlow, businessman Nnamdi Orakwue, and DWI attorney Adam Reposa – Vela strongly portrayed himself as “the progressive Democrat” in the race. Before an audience of supporters packed into the restaurant’s banquet room, Vela described the district as “unique, incredibly diverse, and deeply Democratic,” and said that its voters want “a champion, a strong progressive fighter who will advocate for the beliefs and the values that the district supports.”

The district’s Democratic voters, Vela said, not only want “a Democratic firebrand, a Democratic standard bearer, the tip of the spear in fighting the radical Republican agenda … they would rally around that kind of state representative. That’s what they want, that’s what I want to give, and that’s why I’m running for this office.”

Vela acknowledged that it’s not at all clear exactly when or how the HD 46 seat will be contested, now that incumbent Dukes has reneged on her earlier pledge to resign following the opening of the current session of the 85th Legislature. The other shoe to drop may be an indictment: New District Attorney Margaret Moore is consulting with the Texas Rangers, charged with investigating allegations against Dukes of abuse of her office and misappropriation of funds. A decision on any indictment could come as early as next week – potentially triggering another decision for Dukes, and at least the possibility of a special election in advance of the 2018 expiration of her current term.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty, a lot of drama,” Vela told his supporters. “It kind of reminds me of a novela – you don’t know what the next thing is gonna be,” to laughter from the crowd. But Vela reiterated that he’s in the race to stay – “if it’s quick, we’ll jump in immediately, but if it’s not until the March 2018 primary … well, we’re patient.”

In a brief interview following his speech, Vela said that Dukes has “already broken her promise” to resign, and should she be indicted, “it would be even more difficult for her to represent the district.” He said that there would likely be several candidates; when asked specifically about Cole, he responded, “No disrespect to her, but I believe I would be better” for the district, as a grassroots advocate and “strong progressive firebrand.” His record of grassroots advocacy (as a legislative aide to former Corpus Christi Rep. Solomon Ortiz, an immigration attorney, and defender of workers’ rights) provides “an attitude, and a tenor and tone that’s a better fit for the district.”

Vela listed four legislative priorities: Medicaid expansion (“there are 800,000 Texans who are eligible who are not getting it”); local control (“we need to push back against the Republican limitations on self-governance for cities”); immigration (“I know the area well, and I know which bad bills we need to fight”); and transportation (he advocates “an option for an urban gas tax," to be used for broadly defined urban transportation needs).

Asked whether he thought any of those initiatives could show progress in a Republican-dominated Legislature firmly opposed to them, Vela responded: “I know we’re mostly in a defensive stance, and mostly fighting to kill bad bills. … But Democrats can’t engage voters without an affirmative agenda; we must explain to the public what we would do if we were in power. We must deliver a cohesive and coherent message of how Democrats would govern.”

Earlier this week, Cole held a press conference and reiterated her intention to run, although all the still-accumulating candidates will have to wait for the next actions in Dukes’ case – and the incumbent’s response – before they will know how to proceed. Cole and Vela, with considerable name recognition and Democratic Party bona fides, would likely be the strongest candidates in the heavily Democratic District 46. But so many candidates standing in the queue could make it more difficult for any one contender to gain significant headway.

For more on the HD 46 race, follow the Daily News and the Chronicle’s print edition.

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85th Legislature, HD46, Legislature 2017, Chito Vela, Dawnna Dukes

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