More than 100 people filled an auditorium yesterday to hear from Democratic candidates running for the Texas House District 46 seat – a district that stretches from East Austin out to Manor and north to Pflugerville – to hear five candidates opposing 12-term state Rep. Dawnna Dukes of Austin.
Challengers include former Austin City Council Member Sheryl Cole, Manor ISD Trustee Ana Cortez, Phillip Emiabata, Nnamdi Orakwue and Jose "Chito" Vela.
Dukes has recently come under fire for failing to participate in House votes during this legislative session, and she pleaded not guilty late last month to charges that she abused her office after a Travis County jury indicted her in January.
Organizers didn't expect Dukes to show up at the Austin Community College Eastview campus, but she did.
“Why not come? I have a record to run on,” Dukes told KUT after the forum.
Despite the unexpected appearance, the forum began dryly. Candidates tackled questions about issues state lawmakers will discuss during their upcoming legislative session – including cities’ rights to raise property taxes.
But then the forum got interesting. Candidates opposing Dukes kept bringing up a need for change in the leadership – comments that provoked Dukes.
“I just want somebody new,” said Nnamdi Orakuwe, a software professional and candidate for HD 46. “[Someone who] has not been doing this for 20 years. Somebody with new ideas, with a fresh look at it.”
Dukes addressed this and other calls for someone “new.”
“I came here today out of courtesy,” she said. “But there’s been a lot of shade thrown, with references to change.”
As Dukes began defending herself, a few audience members began shouting. One called on her to do her job.
“You can just shut up for a little while because it’s more courteous for you to listen than to scream out from the audience,” Dukes responded.
But, when it came time to take audience questions, Dukes’ voting record came up.
“You have been absent from most of the last two legislative regular sessions. You broke a public promise to the district. You are facing a multi-count indictment," said Daniel Segura-Kelly, a Democratic precinct chairman in District 46. Kelly, along with other party members, have called on Dukes to resign.
Dukes cut Kelly off.
“The commentary you just laid out was not true,” she said. “People will say a lot of things when it comes down to campaigning when they would like to have the seat.”
One audience member said Dukes was being treated unfairly. Vincent Harding, chairman of the Travis County Democratic Party, said the party has considered passing a resolution calling on Dukes to resign – but nothing has come of it.
“In my opinion, it should not be the party picking and choosing favorites,” he said. “But it should be the people of that district."
Dukes said her two-decade tenure in the Texas House speaks for itself.
“In the Legislature, in Congress, and in Texas in the House, seniority is where the power lies,” she said.
The primary election for Texas House District 46 is scheduled for March.
Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly referred to Austin Community College's Eastview campus as Eastfield. It also suggested Jose "Chito" Vela ran against Dawnna Dukes in 2016. Dukes was uncontested.