House Hunting

Underdog Stella Roland Takes On Dawnna Dukes in the Fight for District 50

House District 50 includes the eastern and northeastern section of Travis County, from the county line to just west of I-35.
House District 50 includes the eastern and northeastern section of Travis County, from the county line to just west of I-35. (By Doug Potter)

Nobody expected the contest for District 50, a compact swath of eastern Travis County which Democrat Dawnna Dukes has represented for the past five years in the Texas House of Representatives, to become one of the year's more contentious electoral battles. For one thing, Dukes' challenger Stella Roland -- a political unknown who has never held elected office -- had raised virtually no money by the first filing deadline on Jan. 15. For another, Roland was challenging a popular, influential incumbent whose long political history had earned her powerful, wealthy friends. But to the surprise of many, Roland -- referred to in most press reports as simply an "ex-Dell employee" and the immediate past president of the LBJ High School PTA -- turned out to be a political firebrand with a seemingly endless litany of accusations up her sleeve. Primary among those was the contention that Dukes, in her six years in office, had become a do-nothing legislator who owed her political success to big-money supporters and her father Ben Dukes Sr.'s reputation.

Dukes' campaign responded in kind, calling Roland a "pawn" of Gary Bradley and West Austin developers who wanted a piece of East Austin in their pockets (a claim which Roland adamantly denies). Roland countered that Dukes was using her position to benefit her pocketbook, not her constituents, exercising her influence to win a parking contract at the new airport for her father's company. And Dukes supporters hit back with the claim that Roland's campaign was just a front to advance the fortunes of Capitol lobbyist Cal Varner, who had lacked a strong legislative ally in East Austin ever since Wilhemina Delco retired from the District 50 seat. Very quickly, this David-vs.-Goliath contest -- one of the most visibly lopsided of this year's primary season, which concludes March 14 -- started to get more interesting by the day.

Whom you support in the District 50 race depends largely upon whose story you believe. To hear Dawnna Dukes' supporters tell it, the race wasn't a race at all until Varner -- working on behalf of his client, developer Bradley -- decided to get even with Dukes for voting against House Bill 1704, the hotly debated "grandfather" legislation that allowed developers to build under the less stringent environmental regulations in place when their site plans for development were filed.

"Gary Bradley and Cal Varner got mad at me early in the [76th legislative] session and they decided that they were going to get me out of office," Dukes says. "Apparently, they expected me to vote against Austin on 1704. -- Prior to that vote, we had never been enemies. After that vote, they were no longer even cordial."

House District 50 includes the eastern and northeastern section of Travis County, from the county line to just west of I-35.
House District 50 includes the eastern and northeastern section of Travis County, from the county line to just west of I-35.

According to this theory, also shared by Dukes' political consultant, David Butts, Roland -- whether she knows it or not -- was recruited to settle a grudge against Dukes that started when the newly inaugurated representative began voting in 1995 against the interests of the business-friendly faction of East Austin's old guard. "This race is between Cal Varner, a lobbyist, and Dawnna Dukes, a representative," Butts contends.

Roland vehemently denies that she is in cahoots with Varner and Bradley, calling herself "a servant of the people," not a pawn of the power brokers. She says she decided to get into the race when "people in the community" encouraged her to run for office. "Gary Bradley and I have never talked; we have never met; and I have never taken a contribution from him," Roland says. "The first time I ever saw him was earlier this week, and that was when his picture was in the paper." Roland is, however, associated quite closely with Varner, who has contributed $500 to her campaign.

A Campaign of Contrasts

So far, Dukes -- who hasn't faced a challenger since winning the District 50 seat in 1994 -- has remained unscathed in the battle for the Democratic nomination. The popular legislator, who will enter her fourth term next January if she's re-elected, has received all the endorsements, from the major Democratic Party clubs to the Austin Board of Realtors and the Austin Police Association. She has amassed a formidable war chest -- $37,049 to Roland's $3,500, as of Jan. 15, the most recent filing deadline for which contribution records were available. And while many of Roland's supporters have considerable pull in East Austin politics, Dukes' money comes from a larger pool, including several powerful law firms; oil, gas, and utility PACs; and organized labor groups such as the AFL-CIO.

"I don't like fundraising; I never have," Dukes says. "But I have also been impressed in dealing with old supporters and seeing how readily they have been willing to help me."

The opponents differ in one other way, too: While Dukes' family has had a hand in East Austin politics for generations -- her father, Ben Dukes Sr., is a longtime political consultant and a powerful voice among Eastside politicos -- Roland's political background is limited to a single term as PTA president at LBJ High School, where she was known for her vocal criticisms of AISD policies and appointments on a couple of obscure state commissions, including the Texas Emancipation Juneteenth Commission, charged with creating a series of Juneteenth memorials around Texas, including one on the Capitol grounds.

Dukes, now 37, got her own start in politics before she was old enough to drive. As early as the third grade, Dukes recalls, her father had her "licking stamps and stapling yard signs" from their East Austin home. By sixth grade, Dukes had organized a neighborhood carnival for the March of Dimes; and by the time she was in her 20s, doing research for a criminal justice planning firm, she had been bitten by the political bug.

This is a grassroots organization, so we didn't seek any endorsements. The only endorsements that matter are the endorsements from the individuals who vote. <br>-- Stella Roland
"This is a grassroots organization, so we didn't seek any endorsements. The only endorsements that matter are the endorsements from the individuals who vote."
-- Stella Roland

After an unsuccessful run for school board vice-president in 1991 (Kathy Rider won), Dukes decided to run for the legislative seat being vacated by retiring rep Wilhemina Delco in 1994 because, she says, "There was a broader range of issues that I wanted to address than those I would be able to address as a member of the school board or City Council." She won handily, beating Republican Elton Singer in a district that has historically voted for every Democrat on the ballot. And after six years on the job, Dukes says she knows what it takes to push a bill to passage -- not just the procedural "bells and whistles," but "how to build those relationships" with other legislators.

"When I started, I was more concerned with studying the technical rules of getting a bill passed, which helped me immensely, but I learned that was not all there was," Dukes says. "My focus hasn't changed -- only the method I use to be effective has changed. My commitment to my core issues has not changed."

For her part, Roland views Dukes' long political résumé as an argument for change. The 45-year-old Baptist, who boasts the support of several black East Austin ministers, has worked hard to position herself as the candidate of the people, and the ubiquity of her yard signs across central East Austin gives some credence to that claim. Still, as in any campaign, things may not be exactly as they seem: Some Dukes supporters contend that Roland's campaign workers are stealing Dukes' red-and-white signs from people's yards, giving Roland's campaign a false appearance of strong support in the district.

Roland says she's not worried about her lack of endorsements or, for that matter, funding. "This is a grassroots organization, so we didn't seek any endorsements," Roland says. "The only endorsements that matter are the endorsements from the individuals who vote." But Roland has the enthusiastic backing of some powerful East Austin names, including Varner, Austin Black Contractors president James Harper, youth advocate and former City Council candidate Thomas Henderson, and ex-Travis County constable Donald Nesby, all of whom have donated generously to her campaign.

"I try to get involved where I feel that there's a need to make a change, and I think the person who's currently in this office hasn't done anything for East Austin," says Harper, who is providing Roland with office space worth $1,250 a month. "East Austin has suffered enough. I don't think [Dukes] knows anybody in East Austin except her own family. -- We need someone that's involved and has concerns about the people of East Austin."

Gary Bradley and Cal Varner got mad at me early in the [76th legislative] session and they decided that they were going  to get me out of office. <br>-- Dawnna Dukes
"Gary Bradley and Cal Varner got mad at me early in the [76th legislative] session and they decided that they were going to get me out of office."
-- Dawnna Dukes

For Roland, those concerns include things like dropout prevention, quality child care, affordable health insurance, and equity in education -- all issues which, according to Roland, her opponent has neglected to address. "I hadn't heard her speak about any of those issues before; I don't think she was talking about any of those things," Roland says. "This campaign is about including folks in this district in decisions that affect them. They have not been included in a lot of these decisions up until now."

But Dukes finds her opponent's accusations more than a little mystifying. "Her criticism of me has been that I'm not black enough," Dukes says. "When she was at [a recent candidate screening], she said, 'What has she done for East Austin?' She didn't disagree with any of my votes, but she said I hadn't done enough for East Austin. It's like she thinks I'm a City Council member. -- Getting in there talking with her is kind of like playing tennis with somebody who doesn't know the rules."

Dukes consultant David Butts adds that, while he commends Roland for working East Austin voters on a grassroots level, he hasn't seen "any really compelling arguments as to why there needs to be a change." Instead, Butts says, Roland has been "saying the traditional things you say when you run against an incumbent. She hasn't really done much to distinguish herself from what Dawnna has already done in the Legislature."

Indeed, the two candidates' positions seem, if anything, too close to contrast on many issues pertinent to East Austin voters, including children's health insurance (Dukes worked to implement the Children's Health Insurance Program; Roland supports continued funding of CHIP at 200% of the poverty line); environmental issues (Dukes has become a prominent voice for environmental justice as a member of the House Environmental Regulation Committee; Roland's campaign literature says she supports "mandatory -- penalties for polluting industries" to force those industries to reduce emissions); and educational equity and reform (Roland supports early intervention and dropout prevention programs; Dukes sponsored legislation to inform parents when uncertified or improperly certified teachers are teaching their students).

Does Stella Roland's underdog strategy stand a chance against Dawnna Dukes' popularity and superior campaign funding? If so, it will be because Roland has mobilized an angry subgroup of historically underrepresented minorities in eastern Travis County -- the same contingent that swept Eric Mitchell into office back in 1994 -- and convinces them to vote for her in the March Democratic primary.

And that, Roland's supporters admit, will be a battle in itself, given that voter turnout in East Austin -- which peaked at about 31% of registered voters in the gubernatorial election year of 1998 -- is typically among the lowest of Travis County's five House districts (only Glen Maxey's South Austin district, with the highest concentration of Hispanic voters in Austin, has a lower average turnout.)

"You have two groups here" in East Austin, says Roland supporter Harper. "One group is sitting around waiting to collect their retirement checks, and the other is trying to do something about the problems here. -- People in East Austin sit back and wait for everybody to give us something and we don't get off our asses and do what we need to do about it."

Still, Harper is optimistic about Roland's prospects -- mainly, he says, because he's seen "a lot of support" in the community for her campaign. Roland "is going to do well," Harper says. "The incumbent's more scared than anything else, because she knows she hasn't done anything in office. -- She hasn't had to do anything. If you're the only person in the game, you don't have to work for it."

Butts counters that, no matter how much money Dukes' opponent is willing to spend, history is on his candidate's side. "She's been doing quite well, and I believe she will continue to do so," Butts says. "Even if they give [Roland] $100,000, Dawnna's still going to beat her." end story

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Stella Roland, Dawnna Dukes, Cal Varner, Gary Bradley, David Butts, James Harper, Donald Nesby, Thomas Henderson, Eric Mitchell, District 50, Texas House of Representatives, Ben Dukes, Sr., Wilhemina Delco, Texas Emancipation Juneteenth Commission, HB 170

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