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Dukes Resignation Scrambles Austin State House Race

Charles Pierce/Codie Smith
State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin and Republican challenger Gabriel Nila.

Voters in state House District 46 face an unusual predicament this November — unless they want to flip Republican, most of those casting ballots in the reliably Democratic district will opt for an incumbent Democrat who's already said she won't serve.

That means a special election early next year is likely to decide who ultimately fills the seat representing Manor, Pflugerville and part of Austin.

In late September, 11-term Democratic Rep.Dawnna Dukesannounced her retirement, citing health issues related to a 2013 car accident and concerns over caring for her 9-year-old daughter. Her decision came as the Travis County district attorney's office investigates allegations that Dukes improperly used office staff and resources for personal tasks. 

Dukes' resignation came too late to take her name off the Nov. 8 ballot. Since the district is safely Democratic — Dukes won with 84 percent of the vote in 2014, while former state Sen. Wendy Davis picked up 78.4 percent against Gov. Greg Abbott — Dukes most likely will still beat Republican newcomer Gabriel Nila.

Her resignation takes effect Jan. 10 — opening day of the 2017 legislative session — so Abbott will need to call a special election in the spring to fill out her term.

Nila, a 44-year-old teacher of at-risk youths in the Austin area, is holding out hope that he can win outright if voters want to save the cost and inconvenience of another election. 

“We’re going to spend at least $200,000 on a special election just so we can tell everybody if [they] had voted for me or any of the other candidates to win, that $200,000 could’ve been used elsewhere," Nila said. 

Despite her popularity in the district, Dukes has been at the center of controversy. In February, the Tribune reported that the state auditor’s office was investigating her use of state workers for personal projects. Dukes missed much of the 2015 legislative session, citing health issues after an August 2013 car accident for her absences.

In April, the Texas Rangers joined the criminal probe into Dukes. The Rangers confirmed to the Tribune in late September that its investigation was complete and had been presented to the Travis County District Attorney's office.

Gregg Cox, director of the special prosecution division of the district attorney's office, said Monday: "That matter is still under review." 

Through a spokesman, Dukes did not return repeated requests for comment. However, her political strategist Bill Miller denied that Dukes was retiring to avoid possible indictment, as the Austin American-Statesman reported. 

“She quit because she is sick. That is the only deal,” Miller said.

When Dukes announced her resignation, Nila issued a statement wishing her a “full recovery” but expressing dismay that she was waiting until after the general election to step down.  

Nila is running on a platform focused on decriminalizing marijuana possession, increasing education funding, fighting gentrification in East Austin and expanding access to medicinal marijuana. This is his first bid for elected office, prompted because he didn’t think the district was well represented by Dukes.

“[Dukes] was concentrating in one area, which was East Austin, and ... she was nowhere to be found in Manor or Pflugerville. It was always my belief that if we’re going to have proper representation, then the representative should be able to be out there,” said Nila. “We made the commitment to go ahead and make sure that we are there and that we accurately represent the community as a whole.” 

If Abbott has to call a special election, Nila said he’ll keep pursuing the post, adding that “the people who have mentioned [wanting Dukes’ seat] could’ve filed back last year and run against Ms. Dukes.” That includes former Austin Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, a longtime resident of East Austin, who said following Duke’s resignation that she might run for the vacant seat.  

In an interview with the Tribune Monday, Cole said she would enter the race if Abbott calls a special election, adding that she's received "a lot of encouragement" from the community and local activists. 

"I would love the honor of serving the people of District 46. I talked to a lot of people in the district and the community at large and received a lot of encouragement," Cole said. "We need to recognize that this district does not need to go without representation for an extended period of time."

Both Dukes and Nila ran unopposed in the March primaries. Other candidates for House District 46 this November include Libertarian Party candidate Kevin Ludlow — who ran against Dukes in 2014 — and Green Party candidate Adam Michael Greely.

Alex Samuels is a newsletters fellow for The Texas Tribune and a journalism senior at The University of Texas at Austin. Alex has worked for USA Today College since her sophomore year and has been a collegiate correspondent and their first-ever breaking news correspondent. She also worked as an editorial intern for the Daily Dot where she covered politics, race, and social issues.
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