The Austin Chronicle

Lege Lines: Ignoring the Dawnna Dukes Problem

County Democratic Party Chair Vincent Harding doesn't want to talk about the beleaguered rep

By Richard Whittaker, June 9, 2017, News

Precinct chairs in state Rep. Dawnna Dukes' district are asking the embattled Pflugerville Democrat to live up to her word and resign from the Texas House immediately. Those same chairs now find themselves in a very public fight with Travis County Democratic Party Chair Vincent Hard­ing about whether to let that process play out.

Disagreements arose at the May 31 meeting of the Travis County Democratic Party County Executive Committee, when Pre­cinct 126 Chair Daniel Segura-Kelly proposed adding a resolution to the agenda that would thank Dukes for her service and request that she resign. Backed by the majority of the District 46 precinct chairs, the resolution cited Dukes' own September 2016 statement indicating that, due to injuries sustained in a 2013 car wreck, she "can no longer provide the active, effective leadership that is needed to continue my sworn duties." Dukes had originally said she would step down on Jan. 10 but decided, without informing her fellow lawmakers or the long list of potential replacement candidates, that she would stay, even though by this point she faced a slate of state charges alleging abuse of office. By pushing the non-binding resolution, Segura-Kelly said that he and the other precinct chairs were simply taking Dukes at her original word: "She went into the session and essentially proved to us that she is not up for the job."

The numbers don't lie: Aside from missing most of the session's days spent on the House floor, Dukes also skipped 10 of the 14 Appropriations hearings, and 10 of 13 hearings for the subcommittee on Article II of the budget. She made one of eight meetings for the House Committee on International Trade & Intergovernmental Affairs: on May 4, when Chair Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, convened for two full minutes. Dukes was similarly ineffectual passing legislation. She failed to pass any bills at all, and only two of the 23 bills she filed even made it out of committee; neither managed a second reading on the floor. For context, fellow Travis County Dem Donna Howard saw 13 bills she either authored or joint-authored pass. Celia Israel had 10. Eddie Rodri­guez had two. Even Rep. Gina Hinojosa, in her first session, managed to pass three bills.

Segura-Kelly said that the precinct chairs had given Dukes the duration of the session to prove she could do the job. He added that they were not swayed by the outstanding criminal charges, saying that asking for her to resign before she had her day in court would be "inappropriate. But her attendance record this session has been abysmal."

Problem was, Harding refused to hear the resolution.

The chair issued a statement on June 2 clarifying what he felt had happened, and why he took such a position. On May 21, he wrote, he had received a written request from Segura-Kelly to add the resolution to the May 31 CEC agenda. But Harding denied the request, noting that it did not include any resolution text. At the May 31 meeting, and lacking a parliamentarian to give alternate counsel, he cited precedent that precinct chairs cannot overrule the party chair on the inclusion (or lack thereof) of any agenda item. Furthermore, he accused the precinct chairs of springing the resolution on members.

Segura-Kelly has accused Harding of mischaracterizing the process. First, he said, the resolution could only be introduced at the May 31 CEC, and would only be eligible for a vote at the June meeting, which would allow plenty of time for discussion. Second, Segura-Kelly said he raised the issue with Harding on April 30 "and he told me on that call, 'I will never allow it; it's not going to happen.'" Moreover, he said it was Harding who told him that the resolution could only be added to the agenda if the chairs attended the meeting in person – which is what they did.

Dukes' precinct chairs are not the only Democratic activists dissatisfied enough to start discussing recorded policy stances. Segura-Kelly said he had caught word of similar initiatives from other Travis County precinct chairs outside of Dukes' district, as well as leadership from Liberal Austin Democrats and Austin Tejano Democrats. Dukes still has her supporters, who have taken to social media to defend her, and the backing of politically cautious groups like the Capital Tejano Democrats.

Harding seemed to further exacerbate the situation on May 31 when he told the Statesman: "I do not think it would be wise for the Democratic Party to ask an elected African-American official to resign." That comment came in a broader context – that calling for Dukes' exit could be seen by her supporters as holding her to a different standard. Harding noted that no similar resolution had been broached when former Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a white woman, was convicted of DWI in 2013 – to which Segura-Kelly reminded: "Rosemary had her legal issues, but she kept showing up for the job. If Representative Dukes had been showing up for her job, we wouldn't be having this conversation."

Even before the recent charges, Dukes' durability as an incumbent was a source of befuddlement to many observers. Long seen as being too cozy with the state's Repub­lican leadership, she has somehow avoided primary challenges since 2008. Behind the scenes, some Democratic activists have blamed party leadership for actively discouraging candidates from challenging her – for fear of risking losing her influential Appropriations seat, and sparking an ugly internal civil war.

Dukes has been silent on the issue, and did not respond to a request to go on the record with the Chronicle. Segura-Kelly said he has not heard from her – which places him on par with the Travis County Democratic delegation, who barely exchanged a word in public or private with Dukes all session. Even Harding declined to clarify whether he had talked with Dukes, telling the Chronicle it would be inappropriate for him to discuss private conversations with lawmakers.

Segura-Kelly said that he has reached out to Dukes' office in hopes that the precinct chairs can discuss their concerns in person. At the same time, he plans to bring the unheard resolution back for a future CEC meeting. He said, "We're just asking for the Travis County Democratic Party to do what's right."

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