AUSTIN (KXAN) — On the same day as State Rep. Dawnna Dukes was sworn in for her 12th term, KXAN News learned the criminal case against her is also moving forward.
As state lawmakers filed into the Capitol for the first day of the 85th legislative session, in attendance was Rep. Dukes, D-Austin. She was one of the 150 House members sworn in on Tuesday afternoon, although she did show up a few minutes late.
For many, Dukes’ appearance on the House floor was unexpected because she said in September that she would resign her House District 46 seat on Jan. 10, 2017. She said before the November election that she was stepping down because of health issues relating to a car crash from 2013. She was basically absent from the 2015 legislative session, saying health issues from the accident caused her to miss days at work.
But, the weekend before the start of the session, Dukes notified the Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore that she won’t be stepping down from her seat.
Dukes is still facing an investigation into whether or not she used public resources for private purposes. Moore confirmed with KXAN News that the Texas Rangers will be presenting the case to a grand jury with her office on Tuesday, Jan. 17. Dukes has hired a Houston law firm to represent her in connection with the investigation. If the grand jury indicts Dukes, it would be on charges of tampering with government records and abuse of official capacity.
“I will be entering a plea of not guilty if something were to come forth,” said Dukes.
“It’s important to me and I think what’s important to this community, is that there should be the highest integrity by all of our elected officials,” Moore said about the importance of this case. “Anyone who abuses the public trust, I believe people want to see held accountable.”
After trying to reach Dukes all weekend, KXAN News caught up with Dukes after the swearing-in ceremony. When asked why she decided to retract her resignation, Dukes told KXAN’s Political Reporter Phil Prazan that she made her decision because her experience and qualifications make her the best person for the job. She said she had to listen to her constituents.
“I listened to the constituents who requested over and over and over again, since my announcement, that I would reconsider that I would come back,” said Dukes, who has served HD 46 since 1995. Dukes said she worked with her doctors to make sure she was healthy enough to make sure she would not be absent from the 2017 session.
When asked if she did anything wrong or misused state money, Dukes responded with a “no.” She did go on to say that one can “look at the statute, you can look at the laws, the rules, it answers for itself.”
Candidates Who Want Dukes’ Seat
There are currently five people who are vying for House District 46 and all appear to still be moving forward with their campaigns. Former Austin Mayor Pro-Tem Sheryl Cole held a news conference Tuesday afternoon to say that she’s still in the race, whether it will be in a special election or the Democratic primary for 2018.
“We have a saying in the black community: Got to represent,” said Cole. “So few of us actually get an opportunity to represent, at the level of power and influence that this race has opened up previously and now closed down.”
Responding to the criticism, Rep. Dukes said, “Every member up here will be challenged by an opponent at some point in time. This is great fodder for them to pick up and make some challenges and to have their press conferences.”
Chito Vela also sent out an advisory for his official campaign kickoff, which is scheduled for Thursday. In his message, he says, “East Austin needs a progressive voice that will fight for the interests of working class voters.”
Gabriel Nila, the only GOP candidate going for the seat, knew he had an uphill battle in a district that typically votes at least 80 percent Democrat. “Our concern, mine and several other people, is that she will do the exact same thing that she did in 2015—make a couple of appearances here and there, but not take care of the issues that need taking care of,” said Nila.
For now, Dukes will have her placard remain in the Capitol. “Even some of those opponents say, ‘Well, we’re concerned there won’t be someone here to cast a vote because the governor will have to appoint someone.’ We don’t have that problem anymore,” said Dukes.
For lesser known contender Nnamdi Orakwue, he says he’s also in the race for the long haul but believes Cole isn’t the answer either. “A fresh start in HD46 requires more than just passing the torch from one establishment politician (Dawnna Dukes) to a better one (Sheryl Cole),” said Orakwue in an emailed response to KXAN News. “Democrats in HD46 and in the state of Texas need new ideas and new strategies in these troubled political times.”
Constituents on Dukes’ Decision
“The things that she’s done for Austin, I think she’s a very excellent representative and I hope that people at least give her a chance to find out all the facts before they judge her,” Jacklyn Crenshaw, a long-time Manor resident said. Crenshaw thinks Duke’s 20 years of service to the people should be enough to let the investigation run its course.
“We grew up in the same East Austin at the same time, our own values are the same and that’s why I have no questions,” Danny Thompson, a long-time East Austin resident said.
Other constituents don’t see the same thing; they say it’s time for a change.
“We’re in a moment, where depending on your view of things, is a really rough moment going into this legislative session,” said Kevin Foster. “It’s a rough moment nationally and I think the distractions are a bad thing.” Foster believes distractions like Dukes’ accusations can impact the bigger picture of the political season. “The Democrats are already in a position of having to play defense of having to be really well organized really well disciplined in order to stay focused on what’s important.”