In the hustle and bustle of the Texas House of Representatives, it’s not easy for any single representative to stand out. Some manage to do it by grandstanding on every issue. Others gain fame by threatening fellow representatives on the house floor. And every once in a while, you’ll see one get attention for a good faith effort to pass good policy. But one Austin-area representative has found a different way to do it: Not showing up at all.
Dawnna Dukes was first elected to represent House District 46, covering East Austin, Pflugerville and Manor, at the Texas House of Representatives in 1994. At first, she was an example of a promising young representative, winning accolades from the Sierra Club, the Human Rights Campaign and the YWCA. But it isn't the 90's anymore. The Austin American-Statesman reported in 2015 that Rep. Dukes had missed more than 84 percent of the roll call votes during the 84th Legislative Session. She claims that her poor attendance is the direct result of chronic pain associated with a 2013 car accident. Going into the 2016 election, Dukes earned the Democratic nomination for her seat before announcing that she intended to step down after the election, which would trigger a special election. She even received endorsements in the general election based on the idea that another Democrat could be elected to represent her strongly blue seat from the special election. Dukes got re-elected, and then promptly reneged on her promise to step down.
Her record has not improved much since, with Dukes recorded as present at fewer than half of the record votes for the 85th Legislative Session. Her poor attendance has real-life ramifications. Already a small minority, House Democrats often struggle to form coalitions with moderate Republicans to vote down dangerous legislation. When Democratic Reps make a habit of not showing up, it seriously hinders their chances.
And that's just the start. She's been indicted on 13 felony counts of tampering with public records stemming from allegations that she inputted incorrect information on state travel forms to receive compensation she wasn't entitled to. In addition, she’s facing two misdemeanor counts of abuse of official capacity coming from allegations that she forced legislative staffers to run personal errands for her, with one staffer claiming that Dukes required her to serve as a live-in nanny at her house. She could face up to 28 years in prison if convicted on all charges.
With a field of strong candidates lined up to fill her seat, it's beyond me why anyone would continue to support Dukes. Sheryl Cole was the first African American woman elected to the Austin City Council Member and served as Mayor Pro Tem, a leadership position given to her by her city council colleagues. Jose "Chito" Vela is an immigration attorney who currently serves on the City of Austin Planning Commission and was previously a staffer at the state legislature. Other Democratic contenders include Ana Cortez, a Manor ISD Trustee, and Nnamdi Orakwue, CEO of a tech startup and former Chief of Staff for Dell Inc. Each of these candidates has experience relevant to the position, and, most importantly, shows the energy necessary to consistently show up to a grueling job.
"We have immediate unmet needs in House District 46 relating to education, affordability, and immigration," said Cole. "It is critical that we have a representative actively collaborate with every part of our diverse community on these key issues."
I couldn't agree more. Recently, the majority of the Democratic Party Precinct Chairs from Dukes’ district put forth a resolution calling on her to step down. If she fails to heed their call, the next opportunity to replace her will be during the 2018 midterms. While my sympathies are with Rep. Dukes for her injury, she has more than exhausted her chances with a laundry list of ethical and legal problems and a spotty attendance record that show her to be unfit for office.
Zachary Price is a sophomore government major from Austin.