Dukes Under Siege

District 46 race pits veteran incumbent vs. newcomer Thompson

Dawnna Dukes
Dawnna Dukes (Photo by John Anderson)

For nearly 13 years, Rep. Dawnna Dukes has been a fixture in East Austin Democratic politics. But now she faces angry Democratic criticism over her tactical support for House Speaker Tom Craddick and for failing to deliver real results to her district and a primary challenger in the form of attorney Brian Thompson. "If the narrative from the Dukes campaign is that, 'I did this for my district; I supported Craddick so I could get on the committees I need to be on to bring something home,' well, what has she done?" asks Thompson.

Dukes says she's not surprised that she faces a primary opponent, having heard rumors of a search for a candidate well before Thompson announced his candidacy. "There were a handful of people," she said, "most of them outside my district, looking for a challenger against me. So that's no secret." These unnamed opponents, she added in a conversation last week, argue "that an individual should vote their conscience or what they think is best for their district. But in reality, if you do that, then you get a primary challenger."

Thompson, who currently sits on the Austin Human Rights Commission, calls his campaign a response from a district that has seen little from Dukes, either in the form of investment shepherded its way or in essential programs protected. "I'd heard rumors that there was some anger in the community over her voting record," he said. "I'd also heard rumors about her general absenteeism, not just from the Capitol but the community itself."

Much of Thompson's most vocal early support originated from strongly anti-Craddick blogs like Burnt Orange Report. But BOR Editor Matt Glazer called the idea that Thompson's candidacy is a creation of the blogosphere "a silly notion. Anytime someone runs against a [longtime] incumbent, there has to be a lot of community support. HD 46 is no different."

Now both candidates are running as the "real" District 46 candidate, and criticism goes both ways. Thompson has been accused of being a newcomer and Dukes of fleeing to the suburbs. A native of Birmingham, Ala., first-generation college graduate Thompson came to Austin in 2002 to attend the University of Texas School of Law. In 2006, he moved to East Austin. Dukes notes that her family has lived in East Austin since the 1800s, though she now lives in Pflugerville. Referring to Thompson as "the one that's lived in the district 13 months," Dukes dismisses the issue. "I've lived in that district for 44 years and five months. End of subject." As for her move, she said, "The district is the district."

Brian Thompson
Brian Thompson

But the issue on which Thompson is targeting Dukes most strongly is her connection to Craddick and her failure to pass meaningful legislation. "It's not just her speaker vote," he said. "It's the fact that she failed to vote to fully fund [the Children's Health Insurance Program], that she voted against ethics reform time and time again, that's she's voted against environmental bills." On the CHIP vote, Dukes points out that as a member of Appropriations, she supported the budget compromise that came out of committee – a standard floor strategy. The pattern is repeated for her green voting record: While the Texas League of Conservation Voters gave her an "A" on their "2007 Legislative Scorecard," she lost points for votes against four environmental proposals – all of which were proposed floor amendments to the budget.

Craddick's shadow falls on more than just this one race. After the brutal 80th session, in which Craddick fought off an attempt to remove him, many Republicans and Democrats face criticism and challenges over their connection to a speaker described by Republican Byron Cook as "bullying." Dukes has been saddled with the term "Craddick D," partly due to her membership in the Democrats for Reform. Group spokesman Colin Strother says the group is simply a loose affiliation of 15 House members, committed to pursuing a progressive agenda, who signed off on a 16-point agenda to protect and extend vital services. "This doesn't have anything to do with Craddick and had some pretty ambitious and progressive goals," he said. The list was compiled, he said, because there had been no agenda set by the Democratic leadership.

But due to the support several of its members showed for Craddick during the unsuccessful challenge by Jim Pitts and later in the session, they have been tagged as Craddick Ds. Strother, who is also Dukes' campaign spokesman, called it "comparable to using a slur, whether it be a racial or sexual. It's a lowbrow way." Since no Democrat was running for speaker, he said, "The difference between Pitts and Craddick is different right-wingers blocking legislation." Still, several other members of the group have since distanced themselves; District 45's Patrick Rose went from seconding Craddick's speaker nomination at the opening of the last session to disavowing him on the floor by sine die.

Dukes describes her tactics, including her de facto support for Craddick, as essential to building working relationships and getting a strong voice in powerful committees, like the budget-building House Appropriations Committee on which she sits. This, she argues, is the only realistic way to fight back against even greater cuts in vital services like CHIP. Calling the selection of floor votes to use against her "cherry-picking," Dukes argued that this ignores the battles where regulation is derailed on procedural motions and the intricate deals struck in committee. "Even when the House was Democratic, it was still either conservative or liberal," she said. Taking radical postures may appeal to primary voters, but "if you marginalize yourself on the floor, so you don't have that majority of relationships, you're not going to pass anything." Even now, she says, she would not rule out backing Craddick as speaker again next session.

Thompson accepts that explaining the sometimes esoteric workings of the Lege will take a lot of block-walking. "We're going to get out on the ground and explain to voters who don't know the harm that having someone like Tom Craddick as speaker and having someone that supports Tom Craddick as speaker as representative does for this community," he said.

But for a rookie candidate running against a popular seven-term incumbent, Thompson's campaign has gained traction. At a group endorsement meeting at the AFL-CIO building on Jan. 18, he received official backing from six Austin-area Democratic groups, including the South and Southwest Austin Democrats and Austin Tejano Democrats. (See "Looking for 'Real' Democrats," p.28.) Dukes, on the other hand, has earned the support of the influential Austin Central Labor Council (AFL-CIO), an umbrella group of local unions. There has also been one surprise, out-of-town endorsement for Thompson: Democratic state Rep. Lon Burnam of Fort Worth, who called his support for Thompson "a clear statement that a vote for Tom Craddick is not only bad for your district, but it is also un-Democratic." Burnam is often a lone wolf on the House floor, and his stance in opposing "Craddick-crats" is simple. He believes that the deals that the Craddick Ds struck did not justify keeping Craddick and have borne poor results. "Just because they got incremental changes in the law doesn't mean they're really representing the people," he said. Dukes responded sardonically. "Lon Burn­am? Who? You never know what he's going to do."

Thus far, Dukes has out-raised and outspent Thompson. In the semiannual financial reports the Dukes campaign filed on Jan. 16, Dukes had $51,761 cash in hand, compared to Thompson's $11,272, which includes a $5,056 loan of his own money. (There's a separate controversy brewing over Dukes' insufficient accounting of campaign fund expenditures.) Thompson's biggest donation was $500; Dukes has received several large donations from industrial political action committees, including the Craddick-connected HillCo PAC. Dukes pointed out that many Democrats, including Valinda Bolton, took HillCo cash. But after the $25,000 it gave Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the next three biggest donations were $10,000 each to Dukes and her fellow Democrats for Reform Kino Flores and Kevin Bailey. All three face primary challenges – Bailey from Armando Walle, a former staff member for U.S. Rep. Gene Green, and Flores from educator Sandra Rodriguez. All three face the same accusation that Thompson levels against Dukes: "If you sell your soul to the devil," he said, "you need something to show for it."

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