Dawnna Dukes is no ordinary civil rights heroine. She’s like a superhero in civilian dress, glossy and well-coiffed, a material girl with a material girl’s concerns until it comes time to kick a little ass. In her daily life she’s a state representative from a minority district of the Texas capital city who for much of the last quarter-century has had a successful legislative career until she became the subject of a series of critical stories in the press and was charged by the D.A. with official misconduct. She comes from a once politically-powerful African-American family with a background in accommodation and in civil rights, old-school American Negroes in a black-dominated slice of Texas that no longer exists. Rep. Dukes recently showed up two hours late for her arraignment in district court and if you have a nonconformist streak you may like that even if you don’t like her. Knowing a few aspects of her life and career are helpful in judging her public persona: She has trouble reading a clock, or a calendar, and trouble finding a babysitter. She’s been extremely popular in her district and less popular among her colleagues in the Travis County delegation to the House of Representatives. She knows her hometown better than most, including knowing the racial dynamic in a capital city that has not been at all friendly to blacks but, crucially, whites think it has. With these givens—the clock and the babysitter, and the faux-liberal persona of the state capital in the context of the modern civil rights struggle—instead of lying down she has chosen to lock and load. Presumably we will learn more when the trial begins, in October.
In a recent podcast of the Texas Tribune, four white journalists contemplated Dukes’ arraignment. The discussion went from the charges she faces to her attendance during the just-ended legislative session. A comment, apparently made by Tribune executive editor Ross Ramsey was that “her record speaks for itself,” as if absenteeism, and her politics, which has sometimes involved alliances with Republicans, is somehow related to the criminal charges she faces. This is a frequently-cited connection that the prosecution will presumably try to work in, in her trial: because she’s arguably “missing in action” (recently named to Texas Monthly’s list of worst lawmakers) that somehow proves her guilt of the criminal charges. Interesting also is that the comment about her record speaking for itself was made by the Tribune which was the first publication to print charges of malfeasance against Dukes and which she is said to blame for starting the momentum toward a lynching—although the daily newspaper the American-Statesman, long viewed as suspect in the minority community, picked up the story and pursued it relentlessly and without much regard to the evidence. Ramsey, the Tribune’s executive editor, also mentioned that Dukes’ troubles have not led to any intervention by other legislators, “because there’s no upside,” which is an understatement and an idea that we’ll return to. In the meantime Rep. Dukes is keeping her powder dry but it seems likely that her trial will feature an attack as well as a defense. “They all do it” is a frequent refrain in official misconduct cases and may be a valid response here but is something Duke is mostly not suggesting. She says she’s not guilty. As regards the press, generally, it’s hard to imagine how the coverage could have been more biased.
Recently, new District Attorney Margaret Moore who is herself the daughter of a former member of the Texas House gave Rep. Dukes an ultimatum: She had until the end of business on August 1 to resign her office in return for the dropping of criminal charges. In addition Dukes would have to seek drug and alcohol counseling and pay $3000 “restitution.” As it happened I was having a late lunch with Dawnna Dukes the same day, in Round Rock, at a restaurant where the specialty was creole. We’d met a couple of hours earlier at the back door to the Capitol, the northern entrance, looking out on the University of Texas, where my first question as we walked to her car was, “Are you going to resign?” and she responded by pausing with her walker, reaching up with her good hand and tilting down her sunglasses, in order to roll her eyes at me, as if to say, “Are you kidding?”
On the drive to Round Rock her telephone lit up with email and messages from well-wishers, including legislators. This is her new phone, it should be noted, since her old iPhone will be evidence in court. At the restaurant, Margaret Moore’s deadline came and went without Dawnna even looking at her watch. Then again she never looks at her watch, probably because she doesn’t wear one. She did offer one bombshell over gumbo: Her defense team would include fellow Democratic legislator Rene Oliviera of Brownsville, who is said to be the best courtroom lawyer among some very able advocates in the House. Should be an interesting few days at the Travis County Courthouse—the only questions being why she was selected for prosecution and how the back scenes intrigue will play out. Cell phones and cell phone towers have adopted a particular prominence in recent years in criminology, and in espionage, almost as important as DNA and email, and Dukes’ iPhone which is probably the most important tool in her daily legislative work will be front and center in her trial as well. The representative is accused of claiming a reimbursement granted to House members in between legislative sessions that the D.A. will argue is only granted for work actually done in the Capitol, while her phone will show that she never left home. That’s the technological end of the case. Ideologically there’s race—the issue that the Texas capital city, try as it might, cannot seem to avoid despite the city’s self-promoted reputation as the liberal mecca.
The Texas House of Representatives, where the case arises, is a unique environment. Every two years, for five months it’s like lemmings migrating or, better, like zebras trying to cross a swollen river with crocodiles in the water, or, even better, like over-the-top First World War-era France, as the troops are trying to reach the next set of trenches, except the danger is the guy beside you not the enemy in front of you. The last analogy, World War I trenches, is probably best: Dukes has spent 24 years in the House, most of her adult life—elected at age 29—a black woman who has not only survived but thrived in the ultimate old white boys’ world. People thought that under criticism by the daily newspaper and the capital's old guard white liberal establishment she would fold up her tent and sneak away—and originally that was the plan, to quit. She was tired and harassed when the prior D.A. first offered a deal. Then Dukes’ backbone stiffened and she decided to slug it out. Guilt or innocence aside, you probably wouldn’t see much backing down from most self-respecting members of this House, Democrat or Republican. It’s a pretty tough crowd.
As the district attorney’s deadline was passing, Dukes was telling our waitress to box up the rest of her meal for take-out. The representative was not sweating nor biting her lip with indecision. As she gathered up her things it was a good moment to check her out, especially in light of prosecutors’ claims that she’s using drugs. I’m a RN by training, that doesn’t make me an expert on drug abuse but working in modern American healthcare you do learn a thing or two about opiates and those who use them. To me, Dukes didn’t particularly fit the profile, especially since, not to belabor the obvious, there’s been no evidence presented of abuse. Her sclera were bright and white—of course eye drops will do that for you, too—but her pupils were not contracted, which is a telltale sign of morphine use. Only a pee test would tell for sure and because she may well be taking pain medicine even that would not be definitive. But there was none of the affect you see with people who are taking too much, or taking what they should not: she was neither inappropriately giddy nor did she become morose, there was no word salad—no flight of ideas—she was not “tripping,” to use the vernacular. In our conversation about being black in the criminal justice system as I made an unfair personal comment about District Judge Julie Kocurek whom I believe symbolizes racism in the county courthouse, Dukes quickly corrected me: “You shouldn’t say that,” she said. She was tuned in and appropriate in the conversation, probably more so than me. She was slightly paranoid but then a lot of people are out to get her: including the daily newspaper, the district attorney and some of her colleagues in the House. She’s been wearing a bullseye publicly for the better part of two years.
Rep. Dukes has been under a lot of pressure certainly and what’s remarkable is how well she has stood up. She has been described as a criminal, basically, by the Texas Tribune and the Austin American-Statesman, called a discredit on the Legislature by Texas Monthly—and now the district attorney is trying to portray her as a junkie. You may say, well, morphine is dulling her senses to what kind of trouble she’s really in. Drug use is always possible, everywhere in society, but that didn’t seem to be the principal dynamic at work with the woman I met for lunch. What I saw—and you have to know the Texas House of Representatives, have been a member or watched the action often enough to understand how the system works—what she looked like to me was a House member who is being fucked with on her legislative program and is deciding how to defend what she wants and screw her opposition in the process. That afternoon she didn’t look like a victim at all. She looked more like a predator: a mid-sized cat—not a lion or a tiger—more a panther or a puma, not “red in tooth and claw,” or whatever the verse of poetry is, not yet, but like a feline maneuvering, waiting for an opportunity to sink her teeth into her opponent’s neck.
At lunch she was completely serious and almost clinical in her approach to her problems, a not-at-all-whiny view of the fortunes of power—not because she’s unconcerned but because she’s experienced and is not only going to fight but also try to obtain an advantage. That’s the House way. What did seem to irk her, to judge by our conversation, was that the people attacking her thought she would just roll over. The only concrete effects of her legal troubles that she admitted to were that the endless bad press has limited her ability to fundraise, a weakness that can be deadly for any politician. This is already a very expensive legal duel for her and certain to get more so. She also fears the D.A.’s comment about drugs will lead to Child Protective Services scrutiny. “I adopted my daughter!” she said, as her voice rose for the single time in our three hours together. CPS has been a target of the Legislature recently, due to money issues and bad stewardship, and a member of the Legislative Black Caucus mentioned to me that, in private discussions earlier in the year with CPS bigwigs, the member they most feared was Dukes, because of her “knowledge of the money and where the skeletons are buried.” Now Child Protective Services is in a position to turn the tables on the inquisitor. Dukes also said, elliptically, she is already under a drug testing regime, perhaps as an adoptive parent.
While I was still looking for signs of instability at lunch what I saw instead was a surgical scar across her neck, half-concealed by make-up, from a car crash late 2013 that Dukes says led to many of her absences. I worked for a couple of years on a neurosurgery unit where we took care of patients who had had spinal surgeries and her scar looked very much like one of those, what’s called an “anterior approach,” the front of the neck instead of the back, probably at C-3 or C-4. But that can’t be, because the press has intimated that the car crash was just an excuse for her absences or inattention, and most recently for drug abuse. She was also wearing an arm brace, which could be a prop, but what’s most interesting here is that Democrats and liberals in the press who all claim to “understand” healthcare and the opiate crisis, unlike heartless Republicans, are trying to bury her for the sequelae of a bad car wreck. Her explanation of the famous remark that recently got her into hot water, saying in a legislative meeting that she had just taken morphine and that her speech was suffering, seems straightforward and plausible: She was having a procedure on her arm, she explained, was given morphine—which is a wonderful drug by the way, and still very very very widely used in healthcare—and then was contacted by phone, by an aide, and told that she needed to return to the legislative meeting she was missing. She went back to the House and the rest is the stuff of media gossip and prosecutorial speculation. Columnist Ken Herman recently wrote about “asking Dukes about her drug use,” as if it has been definitively established she smokes crack. He grabbed her in a hallway of the Capitol, apparently, which is fair, and she refused an interview, which is her right—except she told him that the question was insulting, which it may or may not have been. There are questions about who she hangs out with in her spare time but I didn’t ask at lunch because, frankly, it’s none of my business. Previously, for the record, she was in a relationship for almost a decade with State Sen. Rodney Ellis (who has since left the Capitol to be a county commissioner in Houston) which made her one half of the most potent African-American power couple in the state. Now the relationship she discusses most is with her family. A Republican member who met with her privately, earlier in the legislative session, and who knows Dukes well, said he has seen no sign of dysfunction. Who knows? The surprise is that she isn’t shooting heroin—it’s one of the only accusations that hasn’t been made against her—considering everything else that’s been said. The really poor health habit that she clearly has is smoking cigarettes and, not knowing her well, it’s unclear if she’s smoking more but that’s probably a good bet. Can we move on now from Dawnna Dukes the alleged junkie?
The D.A.’s requirement that she undergo drug screening/treatment does indicate something however, a certain desperation on the part of prosecutors. Let me say at the outset that I’ve known new D.A. Margaret Moore for 40 years, since she was an assistant prosecutor in the office she now leads, and she doesn’t have a racist bone in her body. I know because I’m a Negro who looks for that particular anatomy in white public officials. The same can be said of her new head of special prosecutions, former district judge Don Clemmer who will presumably be putting together the case against Dawnna. Judge Clemmer was appointed to the Travis County District Court by Gov. Abbott, as a Republican, and served for almost a year and a half before taking over special prosecutions when Moore won the D.A.’s Office last year. In his short time on the bench Clemmer got rave reviews for fairness and hard work, and he was also viewed as colorblind: as one black defense attorney said, he would rather try a case before Don Clemmer than before any of the black Democratic judges in Travis County, who have reputations for slamming African-American defendants in order to please white voters. Both Clemmer and Moore are decent people, in other words. But having said that, Margaret Moore probably doesn’t have any more concern about seeing that Dawnna Dukes “gets help” for an alleged drug problem than Special Counsel Robert Mueller cares about Donald Trump’s need to stop tweeting-from-the-hip. Moore is there to put people behind bars. Which is fine, that’s her job: She did it as an assistant under longtime former D.A. Ronnie Earle, she did it as Travis County Attorney back in the day and she’s doing it now as the new D.A. The issue here is not Moore, or Judge Clemmer, personally, it’s “institutional racism,” which is a phrase you hear a lot in the capital city these days, meaning that whenever the system has to make a “mistake,” or make a sacrifice for the good of the wider community—that usually means minorities and the poor are going to get it in the neck. Yet local Caucasians still pat themselves on the back for being liberals.
This is the same district attorney’s office, after all, that has prosecuted blacks at far higher rates in Austin than in Houston or Dallas, which are not liberal meccas, and that has lied to African-Americans for decades about police shootings: using a trick, in the secrecy of the same grand jury room where Dawnna Dukes was charged, a ruse only recently revealed—never asking for indictments of bad cops while the procedure in every other kind of case, including Dukes’ own, has been for the D.A. to present a recommendation for a particular charge. So, it’s not like blacks have no reason to believe Margaret Moore, it’s that we have no reason to believe in the institution she heads. It’s institutional, built into the system through decades of discriminatory practices, although Moore didn’t help by going after Dukes on alleged drug abuse, to force a resignation and “save” everyone a trial, raising an issue that has nothing to do with the case, actually, but was portrayed as concern for Dawnna Dukes’s health. And, coincidentally tainting the jury pool. Previously, the D.A.’s Office is said to have tried to prevent Dukes from using social media, to talk about her own case, in order to insure that she got a fair trial, prosecutors said, another effort to "help" her. I don’t know if Dukes is using drugs or not but I do feel fairly certain that the probability of her illicit drug use is about as likely as the probability that anyone in the D.A.’s Office gives a shit. This is about a conviction. The D.A.’s protestations of concern for Dawnna’s health are like asking a man being lynched if the noose is too tight. But it’s also kind of understandable, in context. And mildly entertaining, if you’re not African-American and, specifically, if you’re not Dawnna Dukes.
The Travis County Courthouse and the Texas House of Representatives—neither locale is for the squeamish, you hit your adversaries early, often and preferably when they’re not looking. Dukes herself is no shrinking violet, presumably we’ll see a few of her moves at the trial, because this should be quite a contest, important for the community as well as for her personally: the people involved are all competent professionals, with elevated, tight games, and with the House and the courthouse as backgrounds to the action. It’ll be like the Moscow show trials of the 1930s—the crime is political and the potential punishment is a bullet in the back of the head. Race and racism, and legislative backstabbing, are the overriding motifs. The D.A.’s office will argue that Dukes’ former aides, who spoke against her, were motivated only by not liking what they saw in her office. The facts point to another dynamic, entirely. Normally in a criminal case it doesn’t matter why someone goes to police or prosecutors but this is a political prosecution, in every sense of the phrase, in two environments, the Texas Capitol and Travis County Courthouse where a lot of bad shit gets done, which leads inevitably to the question of selective prosecution. Why an African-American? The D.A. needs to answer that, for our sake and for her own.
In the meantime, people are trying to take advantage of Dukes’ perceived weakness. In her car, riding back to the Capitol, she played a phone message left by a high-ranking Democratic official asking Rep. Dukes to support a proposition that she had previously said she would not agree to, and threatening to attack her from the dais if she did not. The context was of course that Dawnna is already in trouble and can’t afford any more criticism, but apparently she can, because despite the threat she still did not do what was demanded of her. She didn’t play ball, in other words, which is what the Democratic establishment has been asking of her all along. She did however previously play ball, with the Republicans, working with former Speaker Tom Craddick, and some Democrats have never forgotten or forgiven. This doesn’t make her a martyr, or a victim, it makes her a practical politician, as is the district attorney: One of the former Speakers of the House with whom I chatted about the case said that the charges against Dukes would have never gotten this far if Margaret Moore not Rosemary Lehmberg had been in office when the Statesman’s stories first started to appear. But the case is Moore’s now, she went to the grand jury and she must accept responsibility for her actions in office just as Dukes is expected to take responsibility for hers.
One of Margaret Moore’s most important goals, which she has repeated publicly, is to get Republican-controlled state government to return funding to the D.A.’s Public Integrity Unit that was defunded because of complaints that the unit prosecuted R’s in preference to D’s. Moore can therefore hardly begin her tenure in office by dropping charges against a Democratic lawmaker. Still, good luck with that—getting refunded—said the second former Speaker of the House whom I talked to, who didn’t think it will ever happen, noting that the Travis County D.A.’s Public Integrity Unit left “a bad taste” in the mouths of many Republicans. Now it’s leaving a bad taste in the mouths of some black people. That’s why this is a no-win situation for the new district attorney, Moore is at risk just as is Dukes—simultaneously with her pursuit of the state representative the D.A. is also dealing with a revolt by blacks and Hispanics over disproportionate prosecution of minorities, a problem that Moore promised would be her top priority in office. Yet she is starting her tenure with a high-profile prosecution of an African-American legislator and she must now square pursuing Dawnna Dukes on possible bullshit charges—if they are bullshit, which appears likely—pushed by the ever-clueless and racially-motivated Austin American-Statesman. That’s why everyone from the courthouse crowd to the press to the Democratic establishment wanted Dukes to resign, not because she’s necessarily guilty or because of her alleged personal habits but because a lot of other people’s bare asses are feeling the wind. Another former Speaker of the House, talking off the record, or not for attribution, said that the way this would have worked in the old days is that Dukes would have been persuaded to resign, with charges dropped of course, and then she would have been given a sinecure job in state government to fatten up her pension. That was if it was the old days and if Democrats were still in charge of state government and if Dawnna were willing to take the fall for the “greater good” of the old guard Democratic establishment, which she is not. The debate over selective prosecution that is potentially so deadly for Democrats would never take place, much to everyone’s relief. Instead, race hangs over the Dukes case today as it does over much of “justice” in the capital city, with whites in power and in the press remaining happily in denial about gentrification, segregated schools, bad policing and, crucially, the role of the racially-backward, business-dominated daily newspaper in maintaining all of the above. What Moore and Dukes are both experiencing is the lingering effect of a criminal justice system and a political system in which, in this city, in the end—when push comes to proverbial shove—blacks are still supposed to bend over for white people.
If you walk through the Travis County Courthouse any day of the week, for example, and look in the courtrooms, the vast majority of defendants are still black, Hispanic or poor in a largely affluent and plurality-white town. What’s wrong with this picture? I peeked in on Julie Kocurek’s courtroom a few days ago because it’s usually Ground Zero for discriminatory prosecution and Maximum Julie was on the bench, busy as usual sending a Negro away, with a Hispanic woman in the wings waiting her turn at sentencing. Dukes’ sole luck is that she did not draw Kocurek’s court or end up facing any of the African-American judges, ex-prosecutors all and, combined, responsible for knocking a couple of percentage points off the black population of the city, by sending Negroes to Huntsville. Because nothing changes here: A recent study showed that black defendants are sentenced to twice as long stays in Travis County Jail as whites for the same offense. “They all do it,” is not a particularly effective defense in public integrity cases like Dukes’ but if, as a former speaker and a former lieutenant governor both told me, whatever Dukes has done (or has not done, keep in mind that she says is not guilty) pales in comparison to other legislative sinners, the question remains, why Dawnna? Race is a good bet. An opportunity has presented itself that no one could resist for the party to rid itself of a troublesome black woman. The other dynamic is of course that in Austin, liberal whites like their minorities grateful and subservient and Dukes has been neither. “Dawnna has not played well with others,” said a longtime political operative who is white and who is appalled at the treatment of the African-American state rep. He said that Dukes has always refused to kowtow to the “white elites” that run the city, a group he said is headed by Congressman Lloyd Doggett and State Senator Kirk Watson. “The Travis County Democratic party is not very democratic,” he added.
“If they do that to her,” one of the former Speakers of the House said, that is, convict Dukes, “there are two or three hundred former legislators who need to look at their hole card.” In other words, bringing to trial this black woman, when you consider the vast panoply of abuse and bad practices in the Texas Capitol—to quote the movie Apocalypse Now, is like handing out speeding tickets at the Indianapolis 500. The second former Speaker said the rule that the D.A. is using against Dukes, that she had to be in the Capitol to claim reimbursement—that’s not his understanding of the law. The handful of legislators and former legislators I spoke with disputed the D.A.’s understanding of the rule, which means that even if Margaret Moore is correct, and legislators are wrong, Dawnna Dukes is certainly not the only one to have incorrectly claimed the money. But she is the only one who has been charged. This will all be settled by a trial of course, by the jury and by Judge Brad Urrutia, who is new to the bench and like his predecessor Don Clemmer is said to be fair, but you can’t escape the feeling that the disproportionate prosecution of minorities that Margaret Moore wants to end is alive and well and will be taking place on October 12, in Travis County’s 450th District Court. The entire Democratic establishment is watching Judge Urrutia because there needs to be at least one guilty verdict: Margaret Moore only inherited the case but it’s her baby now and an ugly little thing it is. I ran into a member of the Black Caucus a couple of days ago, in a Capitol hallway, and this member pointed up at a fellow legislator’s office and said she knows the guy is paying himself back for travel from his campaign fund and still seeking reimbursement from the state. Which would be illegal. That was part of a five-minute conversation. The Texas Rangers couldn’t do better than 13 counts of Dukes’ use of a $61.50 per diem?
The first former Speaker added, talking about the most-widespread public claim against Dawnna, that she used her aide to take care of her daughter, which the public has been fixated on, “What she did was wrong but there are plenty [of legislators] who have done worse.” Why weren’t they charged? It’s a fair question. Race as an issue in prosecutions aside, you’re also struck what a small town this can be. Dukes claims kinship to Heman Sweatt, the first black admitted to the University of Texas School of Law and the civil rights pioneer after whom the main courthouse is named. Presumably he’s already spinning in his grave. Margaret Moore, as already noted, is the daughter of Tom Moore, a former representative from Waco and member of the House’s “Dirty Thirty” that fought for ethics reform in years past. Dukes’ first choice for her defense counsel was Mindy Montford, daughter of former State Senator John Montford (who later became chancellor of Texas Tech) but Mindy Montford was hired as First Assistant D.A. by Moore when she took office and is now a co-captain of the opposing team. The case will be tried in Don Clemmer’s old courtroom where he might have been presiding as judge, had he beaten Brad Urrutia in last year’s election, but Clemmer is now part of the prosecution instead. A member of the defense team is also a member of the House Democratic caucus: Rene Oliveira, whose law partner is the mother of Gina Hinojosa, who sits in front of Dukes in Travis County’s House delegation and whose father is state Democratic chairman. The interconnectedness goes all the way down to the detective in the case. The lone witness who testified before the grand jury that indicted Dukes is Texas Ranger Sgt. Richard Henderson whose name also appears on a list of prosecution witnesses in the upcoming securities fraud trial of Attorney General Ken Paxton. Lawyers and politicians are apparently not the only people who are well-connected: Sgt. Henderson has only been with DPS a little over eight years and spent barely six months with the Highway Patrol after leaving the academy, before promotion to Gov. Perry’s security detail, and a couple of years later became a Ranger—an opportunity that most state troopers never get a shot at, or only after a long, long time on the road.
The good sergeant may have a few high-placed friends himself, in what is described as the original old white boys’ club, the Texas Department of Public Safety. Which doesn’t mean he’s a bad investigator—he certainly knows the Capitol, which could be a good or a bad thing. The cause for concern is that Henderson is yet another part of a practically all-white system that constitutes a criminal justice apparatus that does not have a good reputation for unbiased treatment of Negroes. Dukes said that she made a complaint to the Rangers, by the way, before she was indicted, that the aides involved in “outing” her, also illegally entered her legislative email account after they left state employ and diverted her correspondence to others. If true, it sounds as if there is more at work here than their virtuous response to Dukes’ behavior. The Rangers investigated but thus far have declined to reveal the results—we may hear about that too in the trial, presumably Sgt. Henderson will shed some light from the witness stand. When the trial starts, look for a white guy with a white cowboy hat, standing in the hallway outside the courtroom, waiting his turn to testify, and that’ll likely be our man, because almost all the Rangers are white guys in cowboy hats. Also look a for a few black people there to support Rep. Dukes, but you probably don’t want to look for members of the Legislative Black Caucus. In the House, courage is high but not evenly distributed. Corruption accusations are viewed like the plague, contagious and often fatal.
The original pursuit of Dukes was conducted by then-D.A. Rosemary Lehmberg who was the last local public official to be accused of substance abuse and in that instance it was documented. Lehmberg was arrested for drunk driving, as you may recall, and then-Gov. Rick Perry was busted for trying to force her from office. Question: As one of Lehmberg’s former assistants asked recently, commenting on the Dukes case, what’s the difference between Gov. Perry giving an ultimatum to Lehmberg that she quit or he would defund her special prosecutions unit, and Margaret Moore telling Dukes to step down or face trial? A threat is a threat, the question isn’t if Moore had the legal right to issue the ultimatum—it is, instead, what is the ethical implication of telling an elected public official to quit or face the consequences, whatever those consequences may be? Why is it that what was so offensive to the sensibilities of Democrats about Perry’s threat is so acceptable in the case of Representative Dukes?
Interesting also is that Lehmberg faced relatively little blowback for her actions. She was arrested in flagrant violation—she threatened her jailers—she called for the sheriff to intervene to provide her special treatment and she had to be placed in restraint for acting out. With the exception of the governor, calls for her resignation were muted although Lehmberg—who was responsible for thousands of felony prosecutions—was in a far more sensitive position than is Dukes. But Rosemary Lehmberg is a white liberal and lesbian in a political environment, Austin, where being gay and white and liberal is a formidable combination while being a black straight female is not. The former lieutenant governor with whom I spoke said that double standards are not a conversation you really want to have at the Legislature: sending aides out to pick up dry cleaning or lunch or do other personal tasks for their employers, for example, is common, and something that prosecutors already know. But the press even more than the D.A. has been mindboggling in its use of two standards, one for whites and one for minorities.
Ross Ramsey of the Tribune has repeatedly attacked Dukes’ ethics but Ramsey himself worked for Texas’s last political boss, former lieutenant governor/comptroller Bob Bullock who did more evil in one afternoon than any dozen legislators, Dukes included, will do in their entire careers. To recap: Bullock routinely threatened to kill people who criticized him, as in, “I’ll shoot you,” literally, to those who opposed his wishes, and not as a joke either. Bullock kept the FBI and Travis County grand jury occupied for years on end and although he was never indicted he later admitted doing exactly what he was investigated for, using state airplanes for political and/or personal reasons. There’s a long story in Texas Monthly from a few years back in which Bullock’s former aides recount trying to convince him not to fly a state plane to Las Vegas, to party. More ominously the Dallas newspaper caught Bullock, as lieutenant governor and presiding officer of the Texas Senate, doing “quick counts” in which he misrepresented Senate votes (done by hand, with the lieutenant governor doing the tally, not by machine as in the House) to favor outcomes he wanted. But no one is critical of Bullock who is routinely described as a genius and who happened to be white guy and an old boy in the old boy atmosphere of the Texas Legislature. In many of the stories critical of Dukes the primary expert witness on ethics has been Randall “Buck” Wood, a local attorney/lobbyist and Democratic stalwart who was quoted extensively by the Statesman and Tribune on Dawnna’s lapses. Recently I spent a half an hour on the phone with Wood, in a kind of Kafkaesque experience, him pontificating over the course of thirty minutes about Dukes’ wrongdoing, unwilling to concede a single point, even as regards any similarity between the Perry/Lehmberg dynamic and Moore/Dukes. “I see absolutely nothing wrong with that,” he said of threats to indict Dawnna if she did not resign. But Buck Wood was Bob Bullock’s number two in the Comptroller’s Office before the big man became lieutenant governor and Wood is mentioned in the Texas Monthly piece as trying to dissuade Bullock from taking the state plane to Vegas after Bullock had already used state aircraft for a variety of inappropriate flights that cost the government tens of thousands of dollars, if not more. What was the consequence of Bullock’s wrongdoing? The State History Museum was named after him. Wood even gave the example, in our chat, that if Bullock had asked him to do something political, which would have been against the law for a state employee to do, and Wood refused, which Wood said he would have, “Bullock wouldn’t have liked it but he wouldn’t have said anything.” What bullshit: Bullock wouldn’t have said anything because he would have had Wood’s kneecaps broken. In his FBI file there’s even mention of Bullock buying a Mercedes with cash out of a briefcase. Bob Bullock, another former House member by the way, was a genius but he was also a criminal and Buck Wood, in his rush to judge Dawnna Dukes, also seems to have forgotten his own history. Wood himself was indicted for corruption by the feds, in the Brilab case that brought down former Speaker Billy Clayton. Wood was charged with serving as a go-between in a $5,000 backhander from a union to the speaker. Wood and Clayton beat the federal charges but it destroyed Clayton’s career and the acquittal hardly makes Wood an expert now on right and wrong in public life. Wood fought indictment but he can imagine no circumstances under which this black woman may have been unjustly charged. Well, that makes sense. But it’s actually the Austin daily newspaper, the American-Statesman, that has raised hypocrisy to new levels. Dawnna Dukes is just the latest example.
A black former state rep said that there are two centers of public power in Texas, both located in Austin, the Legislature and the University of Texas. The Legislature does what it does, is what it is—there are a lot of different constituencies involved, from across the state. UT is a more controllable dynamic, at least locally. The Austin campus has issues that the local newspaper has not even begun to approach and the avoidance of stories critical of UT has become more pronounced than the actual reporting—including the recent discovery of corruption in admissions, a continuing poor record of blacks in the student body and among faculty, and forgiven loans to faculty at the School of Law—all investigations by other media outlets, principally the Tribune, in the Statesman’s own backyard. What the newspaper has chosen to publish is revealing nonetheless: Two years ago, after a string of sexual assaults on the nation’s college campuses two African-American football players were arrested at UT for rape. The Statesman made the very most of the charges. The timing of the arrests may have been a coincidence but it certainly seemed like the rounding up of the usual suspects to make it appear the university police were doing something about what suddenly was a national issue. The first defendant was tried, involving what prosecutors described as the stronger case, and a not guilty verdict ensued—and the Travis County D.A. dropped charges against the second defendant. Nonetheless these players lives were fucked, and privately Statesman editor Debbie Hiott promised that her staff would review the arrests and the evidence and report on how charges came to be filed in the first place. We’re still waiting. In a recent email explaining what happened, or did not happen, her contention was that the story simply “failed to materialize” but it’s not that there was no evidence, it’s actually that the assigned writer said he never did the reporting. “That was a long time ago,” he explained to me in an email. Going after UT is of course a lot different from going after Dawnna Dukes.
Investigative reporting is like public integrity prosecutions—it’s very often not about whether the target is guilty, but how powerful he or she may be. Even as gentrification speeds up, the Statesman’s only reports are about the effects of zoning changes in white neighborhoods, while ignoring the companies involved in buying up land on the minority side of town. At the same time, Hiott has assigned as many as three or four reporters to tracking Duke’s movements and her minimal business relationships. Being too interested in real estate development and big money would be unhealthy for the American-Statesman’s bottom line, by pitting the newspaper against established, powerful business interests like the Chamber of Commerce. Also pertinent is that the Cox family that owns the newspaper is a major landholder in the city, principally downtown where the Statesman campus is located, but other tracts as well, and the trustee for those holdings is the same lawyer, Richard Suttle, who is lobbyist for many of the city’s largest developers and for the University of Texas. Suttle is a major bundler of contributions and is described at City Hall, only half-jokingly, as “the most powerful person in city government,” while his predecessor in the role of go-to development guy was his partner, a lawyer named David Armbrust who was Austin’s previous political kingmaker. Small world, again, and one best viewed, it seems, with a jaundiced eye. The newspaper may not be profitable but the Cox land is a potential goldmine and its value is tied to development which means Debbie Hiott's editorial leadership is compromised, oh, on just about all counts. The newspaper went after Dukes for nepotism, too, lest we forget, but let’s look at one of the city’s most important—arguably, most important—political figure, Congressman Lloyd Doggett. Doggett’s wife was appointed an assistant secretary in the Obama Administration’s Education Department. Doggett’s daughter, who is a primary care physician among many primary care physicians in this city, was made a professor in UT’s School of Nursing and a clinic director for the university. That’s all coincidence of course because among whites there’s only a meritocracy at work. The Congressman certainly never made a phone call and no one was ever aware of who the father/husband of the applicant was. Or, look at State Sen. Kirk Watson whose law firm is said to have received over $4 million in fees from the Travis County Central Health District that Watson works with as senator. Ours is a system, then, in which scrutiny is completely optional—the newspaper and D.A. both choose whom to pursue, and appear very often to base that choice upon skin color.
The former lieutenant governor said in our talk that the Cox family, owners the newspaper, “were two old Southern sisters”—actually only one survives—living principally in Atlanta, “who don’t care in the least about prejudice in Austin. You can put that in there,” he added, explicitly, noting there’s no blowback from Atlanta against Executive Editor Hiott based upon questionable calls in coverage, or lack of coverage, of minorities. He also made an observation about Texas Monthly’s recent inclusion of Dukes on the magazine’s list of Ten Worst Legislators. Take a minute and think, as he did, what member of the current legislature, based upon bad behavior, would you consider the most meriting of a position on the magazine’s Worst list? My thoughts go straight to Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick.
Unlike former Lt. Gov. Bullock who was generally evil in means not ends, I don’t know what Patrick’s methods are but his goals are straight out of the demagogue’s handbook: a kind of modern-day fascism, even as judged by the magazine’s own reporting. But Patrick was not on the list of Worst legislators and the former lieutenant governor with whom I spoke had a theory about that. “If Texas Monthly had named Patrick a worst,” the former lite governor explained, “Patrick would’ve sat down with a copy of the magazine and started flipping through the pages,” not looking at the articles, the ex-politician said, but looking at the advertisements, instead. Then Lt. Gov. Patrick would have picked up the telephone and started calling advertisers in an effort to shut down the Monthly’s business model. A former Speaker, hearing that scenario, thought for a moment and then chuckled, “You know, he probably would,” speaking of Patrick. But instead of challenging someone who might hit back, the magazine’s editors chose Dukes, whose effect on the State of Texas is considerably less noticeable than is Lt. Gov. Patrick’s but who is defenseless to the magazine’s attack. In fact in its citation of Dukes as a Worst member of the Legislature the Monthly’s political editor, R.G. Ratcliffe, specifically noted Dukes’ change of heart and refusal to resign (“Who can ever trust her again?”) as if it was a personal failing that she decided to seek a trial on a criminal charge. Isn’t that a constitutional right? Or does the right to trial only apply to white people? It sounded very much like Texas Monthly was regurgitating the Democratic Party line, and that begs the question why it has been so important to so many people that Dukes resign.
In any case in Austin now, black is the new white: If Dukes is convicted her replacement has already been chosen, another African-American woman, a lawyer named Sheryl Cole who was mayor pro tem and an unsuccessful candidate in the last mayoral election. Cole is a team player, “she plays ball,” you might even say. Most of the white institutions in the city are pushing her candidacy for Dukes’ seat because Cole has never given the city’s Caucasian leadership cause for fear. The newspaper has publicly called for her to replace Dukes which is a sign that, for blacks at least, Cole’s presence in the House of Representatives might not be in our best interests.
While on the City Council, Cole was adverse to any issue that would have labeled her as a “black officeholder” (her one claim to African-American fame is having helped obtain a settlement for survivors of an unarmed black “suspect” killed by police.) She was the last African-American City Council member selected at-large by whites as part of the Gentleman’s Agreement for choosing “acceptable” black candidates. And it’s hard to see now how her ethics are any better than anyone else’s. In the last 18 months she has received over $140,000 in payments from Travis County’s Central Health District, which has become the local Democratic Party's favorite slush fund/sugar titty, for unspecified, unbid, “lobbying” services, voted by members of the Central Health board of managers, some of whom she voted to appoint for while she was on the City Council. A small world, indeed.
There are two stories about the Texas House of Representatives that help in understanding the curious case of Dawnna Dukes, neither about her personally but both instructive in explaining her present circumstances. Back, back in the day, when Dawnna was a child and unaware of her destiny, three young white guys from West Texas were students in the same class at Texas Tech: Jim Rudd, Pete Laney and Tom Craddick, from Brownfield, Hale Center and Midland, respectively. All three ended up in the House, Rudd and Laney as Democrats, Craddick as leader of the tiny but growing Republican Party in the state. When Speaker Gib Lewis took a fall, courtesy of the Travis County D.A., Rudd and Laney opposed each other for the top slot with Craddick throwing the support of his membership to Laney. A decade later when Republicans became the majority Craddick took the speaker’s gavel from Laney in a fight. Dukes’ relationship to these events was passing, she tried to help Laney remain in power but it was an effort doomed to fail when Republicans reached the tipping point in the balance of power. What’s important here is how things turn out at the Legislature—fate plays a big role—people who might appear to be friends or allies or who were allies often end up on opposite sides. Something to keep in mind: Personality can be just as important as party. The second story regards a previous attempt at prosecution of an African-American member. His name was Ron Wilson and he drove a Lamborghini, which is not germane, and represented Houston as a Democrat which is.
Wilson, who also worked well with Speaker Craddick, was busted by his own leadership for a reimbursement issue. “Something Wilson had been warned about” was at issue, according to a Democrat who was involved. Rep. Wilson’s alleged deeds ended up on the desk of then-Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle who was preparing to indict when (according to a Texas Rangers’ intelligence file obtained by open records request) Earle was visited by former House member Craig Washington, who like Wilson is African-American. Washington had been a regular Texas Monthly best, also back in the day, a brilliant legislator in every way who after service in the House took over the legendary Barbara Jordan’s old Texas Senate seat and eventually her seat in Congress. But the key is his time in the House. He had been Ronnie Earle’s seatmate there, the Rangers noted, when Earle represented Travis County as a state rep, small world again. After Washington’s visit the D.A. dropped the case, per the Rangers, who don’t get involved much publicly, most of the time, but whose Company F—covering the Capitol—keeps a file on everyone, just in case, kind of like the KGB. The point is not that Wilson escaped a prosecution because he was black, which would be an unlikely event and was not what happened here, but because he was tight with a powerful politician who was tight with another powerful politician, the D.A. That’s how the system often works. Dukes lacks that kind of connectedness now.
The two misdemeanors charged include the issue of her use of staff for personal tasks. The felony charges against her all read the same: “Dawnna Mathilda Dukes, on or about October 30, 2013 and before the presentment of this indictment, in Travis County, Texas, did then and there, with the intent to defraud another, to wit: the State of Texas, knowingly make a false entry in a governmental record, and present and use said governmental record with knowledge of its falsity, by instructing her staff to add a false entry to her State of Texas Travel Voucher, and by signing and submitting said voucher to the State of Texas when she knew it contained the false entry, said false entry being that she traveled by personal car on October 5, 2013 to attend to legislative duties in the State Capitol in Austin, Texas.” There are thirteen of these, Counts I through XIII, identical in wording except the dates, a baker’s dozen of alleged felonies for a total the District Attorney describes as “greater than $750 but less than $2500,” and apparently closer to the $750 than to the $2500. There are a couple of details that stand out. One is that the D.A.’s Office guidelines are that prosecutors won’t even consider a fraud case, for example, that is worth less than $50,000—but somehow thirteen felonies have been pulled out of a figure that Dukes’ team indicates is $800 less change. Two is that it was absolutely crucial in the indictments to raise the specter of Dukes’ aides being “forced” to make a false entry even though it was Dukes who signed the voucher, because for the prosecutors the testimony of her aides will be necessary to sway the jury—as a member of the D.A.’s staff described it, the aides were offended at being told to make a false entry. For Dukes, the lesser charges may actually be the hardest to beat.
In the trial, both Dukes’ guileless ex-aides and their alleged repulsion at her lack of ethics will be on display but there’s good reason to believe they may be less innocent than they seem. Talking to the first former Speaker of the House, I mentioned that the aides apparently went to the press and he said, yes, but the real question is who approached the aides before they went to reporters? In other words, who prompted the leak? This is the House of Representatives and “guileless” or “without guile” are not phrases often heard, there’s usually a stratagem behind everything you see or don’t see. When I mentioned the first former Speaker’s take on the action to the second former Speaker, that someone may have prompted Dukes’ aides to go public, he said, “I think that’s probably right.” This is the House not a Boy Scout troop and there’s a lot going on, most of it behind the scenes, and what gets revealed gets revealed for a reason. Also, as both former Speakers said, much of what happens in the Legislature involves personalities, grievances and grudges—likes and dislikes—this is a very human institution. We’re used to thinking that a particular no vote by a legislator, for instance, is related to the needs of that member’s district, or even a lobbyist’s influence, but a commonly-mentioned dynamic that is often overlooked is that Representative A just doesn’t like Representative B’s face, or Representative A got screwed on a deal last legislative session or the session before and is returning the favor now. People may wait years for the opportunity for revenge. Asked what might be the circumstances for seeking revenge, the first former Speaker mentioned specifically playing with the other team, which is what Dukes did as a Craddick supporter. As to the issue of the possible motivations of her aides, and the possibility that they were coached, there’s evidence, purely circumstantial but particularly powerful, that points to other House members, specifically Democrats, and more specifically, members of her own delegation.
One of the former Speakers describing the two political parties in the state today said that the Republicans are like the once-dominant Texas Democrats used to be, a large party full of differing factions, the rightwing Freedom Caucus for example, the moderates, the old-style patricians like the Bushes, whoever. The Democrats on the other hand, he said, are much more cohesive and on message, as minority parties need to be and as Republicans used to be. Anyone breaking with the Democratic program or who is not toeing a party line in Texas is often held to account, as the Wall Street Journal also said recently. The Journal was describing what it called Texas’ propensity for political trials, examples being Gov. Perry, former Senator Kaye Bailey Hutchison and former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, all of whom are former House members and all of whom were busted by the Travis County Grand Jury, although the Journal was specifically referring to the upcoming trial of Attorney General Ken Paxton (“another dubious case against a politician who riled the status quo”) who is a former House member too and whose case is not in Travis County but did start here. That also describes Dukes’ career, she broke ranks for a time, which is especially offensive in Travis County which sees itself at odds with and victim of the rest of the Republican-controlled state. So, that’s two counts against her. There’s yet another reason to believe some of her colleagues may have been involved in her misfortune and that comes from the D.A.’s Office itself.
The head of the D.A’s Public Integrity Unit under Rosemary Lehmberg when it first took up its pursuit of Dawnna Dukes was a lawyer named Susan Oswalt, who was let go by Margaret Moore when Moore took over the office. It was Oswalt who helped develop the threat strategy that was first used against Dukes, resign or be indicted. In a speech to the Travis County Rotary Club before the Dukes case even unfolded, Oswalt made a presentation about legislators pursued by the D.A., using as an example Latino state rep Kino Flores who had just run afoul of the Public Integrity Unit. Oswalt told her audience that most of the indictments involving state legislators begin as complaints from other state legislators, in one way or another, for whatever reason—one representative ratting out another, for political or personal motives—which, surprise, is what the former Speakers said too. There’s long been a rumor that Flores, another Democrat who worked with the Craddick-led Republicans—“a Craddick D,” as they were called, like Ron Wilson and like Dukes—as he entered the grand jury room, to defend himself, saw a member of his own party leadership going out the other door after testifying. So, let's see: we have three minorities, two blacks and one Hispanic, each worked with the Republicans led by Tom Craddick, and all three have been pursued by the Travis County Grand Jury. The only other state legislator whom we know was investigated by the Travis County D.A. during the same era is Craddick himself, a probe that went nowhere but did tie up Craddock defending himself and force him to spend a lot of money on lawyers. The Travis County Grand Jury investigates only Republicans, and Democrats who have worked with Republicans. Sheryl Cole's $140,000 in unspecified "lobbying services" to the Travis County Central Health District is 150 times more than what Dukes is alleged to have cost the state but will never be investigated because Cole is a tame Negro, for Democratic purposes. Sen. Kirk Watson is a walking ethics violation, a legislator who practically has a "For Sale" sign on his forehead, but will never see the inside of the grand jury room because he's a good Democrat, too. In the cases of each of the black and Hispanic D's mentioned above it's important to note they were denounced by their own party, which does not happen to someone like Watson because he runs the local Democratic Party. If that analysis is correct, the pool of suspects this time around, with Dawnna Dukes, narrows pretty quickly.
The members of Dukes’ own delegation had the motive and the opportunity and have shown a hostility to her from the outset of her troubles including, but not limited to, supporting her opponents and not inviting her to delegation events. The attacks began when she was weak, after her car accident, which is a sign of the kind of timing you see at the Legislature: Dukes after her car crash was a more vulnerable opponent than Dukes before the crash. So, there are half a dozen suspects here, present and former members, but straight off we can eliminate Rep. Paul Workman who represents western Travis County because he’s a Republican and has little influence in the courthouse. So, too, Workman has been described in the press—unlike Dukes’ Democratic colleagues—as being sympathetic to her plight, in a gentlemanly, non-partisan way. We can also eliminate Gina Hinojosa who is new to the delegation and has been described as being “surprised” by her colleagues’ vehemence regarding the African-American legislator. Elliot Naishtat the longterm rep whom Hinojosa replaced this year did not have a great relationship with Dukes and has been critical of her privately since leaving office, but he’s out of the hunt now and wasn’t around for the most recent attacks. That leaves three members, good Democrats, all: Eddie Rodriguez, who represents southeast Travis County, Donna Howard who is rep for northwest Austin, and Celia Israel who represents an arcing swath of local population. On second thought, one other former representative might also seem to be a possibility.
Glen Maxey was a member of the delegation with Dukes and Maxey is now head of legislative affairs for the state Democratic Party. Maxey was the first openly gay Texas state rep which is, frankly, historic, and that makes him the very important leader of a major caucus in the Democratic Party and especially in Austin. One of Dukes’ few primary challengers in recent years was a gay attorney who claimed Dukes was out of touch with gay issues, an odd claim since she is credited with one of the most important speeches on the House floor against anti-LGBTQ legislation, and she is graded “A” by Equality Texas which tracks legislators in this regard. Still, the claim is floating out there in the ether, that Dukes has gotten on the wrong side of the gay caucus, which would be deadly for her career in Travis County and, specifically, that she’s out of favor with Maxey which could be even deadlier. In an email response to a query, former Rep. Maxey denied this. “Your premise is 100% wrong. I've never gone after Dawnna. She's no more on my ‘wrong side’ than any other person concerned about her representation of her district.” Which is a shot at her, “like anyone else concerned about her representation,” and can be viewed as dissatisfaction with her, nonethless. Upon further questioning he continued, “I have had absolutely ZERO conversations with anyone involved with Dukes issues. Nada. None. Zip. Anyone saying otherwise is making shit up. Dawnna and I have been friends when we served together. I spoke to her just recently at the Capitol. We have no ill will. So anyone suggesting otherwise is just a liar.” On the other hand Eddie Rodriguez who was Maxey’s aide before taking over Maxey’s seat was caught speaking in favor of Dukes’ opponent in the previously-mentioned primary, something that is just not supposed to be done. But as regards the more recent efforts to bust Dukes, Rodriguez seems, frankly, neither that bright nor that calculating.
There may be another dynamic entirely at work here, jealousy. I may not be able to spot drug use with 100% certainty but I do like to think I know something about women—not in my own life, where I remain lost in the wilderness—but in female-female interactions. Working for the last 20 years at a nurses station, with 90% women, I’ve gotten familiar with conflict among women, which is very rarely face to face but can still be just as brutal and bloody as men squaring off in the parking lot. The whole “Dukes Affair” looks a lot like women at work. Rep. Howard has clashed with minorities in the past (and is, coincidently, a nurse by training) but I’ve met her and—this is completely subjective—she doesn’t have the vibe to single out a black woman and go toe to toe, which would take major cojones from your average white chick. But, to quote detectives, Celia Israel looks good for it. And there are a couple of reasons for suspecting her.
One is that while all three (Rodriguez, Howard and Israel) were found in the room with the body, so to speak, Israel had access to the weapon. She’s been writing a series of columns on life at the Legislature for the American-Statesman and my request to see her email with the newspaper led to her response that she didn’t have any, with the sole exception of messages between herself and her editor about what she’s writing. What is the likelihood she’s never been asked by the Statesman or never exchanged email about the single most contentious issue in the local Democratic Party for most of the last two years? Or that she discarded important correspondence while keeping routine messages about turning in an article? Two is that the campaign manager for Sheryl Cole, who has been selected by white elites to succeed Dukes, is a former Israel assistant who is called “Celia’s guy” in the local party apparatus. (Continuing our “small world” analogy, Cole’s campaign treasurer is an Eastside lawyer-turned-pastor who was first hired as a law clerk and then as a prosecutor by Margaret Moore when she was County Attorney.) Three is that Rep. Israel's name is being openly used as a sponsor for Cole. Four is that Celia doesn’t deny any of the above.
One of the cool things about the Capitol if you’re looking for someone is you can always find him or her. Only the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker are out of reach, because of big offices or apartments or separate entrances. Everybody else walks the halls to get from Point A to Point B which may be committee rooms or the House/Senate floors or their own offices. So, one afternoon in the waning days of the most recent special session, I staked out a hallway that Celia Israel would have to pass through to reach her office and I was rewarded shortly thereafter with her appearance. She looked to be coming back from the House floor, with an aide at her side. In an exchange of messages after informing me that she had no email with the newspaper—she had not replied to a request for an interview. Time to track down the representative, personally.
At the outset, let me mention in a purely personal vein, I have a thing for Latinas, especially lawmakers. My last crush was Marissa Marquez of El Paso who represented District 77 for four terms but called it quits last year. There was just something about the way Marissa orated (“Mr. Speaker!”) and I got some of the same vibe from Celia, although she plays for the other team, personally, and politically as a gay leader, so I knew my interest would be, you know, unrequited. She’s an attractive woman—and a strong one—you could see that right off, in the same way Dawnna radiates a certain ability so does Celia. Frankly, Celia also looked like a predator, but it was harder for me to distinguish what kind. Luckily we had never met so when I rose from my bench in a hallway of the Capitol Extension to approach her she didn’t know to run. “I’m Lucius Lomax,” I said and we shook hands. Her aide didn’t look happy at the prospect of an unscripted interaction, but Celia smiled.
I went straight on the attack and said I believed she was responsible for the effort to take her colleague down. Rep. Israel didn’t respond directly, what she said instead was, “I’ve known Dawnna over the course of many years. I have a lot of respect for her as a representative.” She also said she had “concern for Dawnna’s family,” and I thought she was going to start on the drug abuse thing, which would have been tacky, so I cut her off and re-iterated that I thought she was involved in political bullying. You know what’s interesting? There was no denial, or even a non-denial denial. More to the point there was none of the vehemence of Glen Maxey’s retort. Rep. Israel said nothing more of substance, in fact, and we parted ways, although she and her aide did suddenly swing down a corridor, away from her digs, changing direction as if they were suddenly headed towards Donna Howard’s office. Because there is another possibility: that, like in an Agatha Christie mystery, they all did it. To some degree that has to be true. Because they’re all doing it even now. A crucial piece of evidence comes directly from the floor of the House of Representatives.
There’s a dynamic in the House that you don’t read about in the newspaper called “ghost-voting.” Ghost-voting or “buddy-voting” is a practice in which one representative votes for another. It used to be considered a bad practice, back in the day, if a rep was caught voting for another rep it was a big deal and would draw a lot of heat, especially from muckraking journalists. But today it’s accepted as normal and one representative can even sign a release granting voting rights to another member. The only time it’s not done is on really important bills or when the Speaker puts a “call on the House” and the Sergeant-at-Arms goes out to round up everyone because the Speaker wants to see everybody in his or her seat. Today, in ordinary circumstances though, said a former Speaker, you can stand in the House gallery and look down “and see 40% of the members present but 60% of them voting,” and that’s because the ones who are present are voting for those who are not. It’s completely legal. For instance Eddie Rodriguez is said to have gotten through UT law school, which he attended while serving in the Legislature, by having Rep. Naishtat, his seatmate at the time, vote for him in his absence.
The important point here is that no one has been voting for Dukes—which means, as a practical matter, her record of absences is not really that bad compared to others’ records of attendance which are really not that good. The practice in the Travis County delegation is said to have been that the freshman, in this instance Gina Hinojosa, would vote for or show present anyone in her delegation who was not present but she has not been doing that for Dukes, apparently under pressure from her colleagues. (Hinojosa herself has refused to answer why.) A member of the Black Caucus said that Rep. Dukes has asked members of the African-American group to vote for her in her absence or when she’s late but this black rep with whom I spoke said that African-American members have refused because Dukes, who sits alone behind Hinojosa, is too close to press seating and it would be noticed if a black lawmaker walked over and voted for her. “We’ve never stepped away from her,” though, said the member of the Black Caucus, speaking of support for Dukes, but no one can afford to be sucked into Dukes’ troubles. The result is, like the indictments, she’s being singled out. Dawnna Dukes is not entirely innocent here, however. Even her friends say that a certain aspect of her character makes Dawnna her own worst enemy. You’ve heard of CPT, or “Colored People’s Time”—also known as “M.S.T.,” Mexican Standard Time? That is the alleged propensity, a completely racist sterotype, uncalled-for and unfair, describing the colored peoples of the earth arriving five minutes later for all commitments than our white brothers and sisters—but in Dawnna’s case is completely true. Dawnna is so far beyond C.P.T. it’s hard even to describe. To call her chronically late or “not prompt” doesn’t begin to describe her relationship with a clock. That’s part of the reason the D.A.’s deadline to resign was so counter-intuitive. Mostly, Dawnna doesn’t do deadlines.
Through the years, and with a certain glee, I've watched Dukes’ inability to file campaign paperwork on time. It appeared to me, frankly, like a “behavior,” because it seemed unlikely anyone could be this clueless about filing time. Then, last year, as the Statesman was in the middle of its hatchet job, and feeling, like, nobody can be this bad—I made an appointment to meet her. I don’t drive and she agreed to pick me up in front of the downtown central library. We agreed to meet at 11 a.m., at the bus stop directly in front of the library doors. It was August 4th, hotter than hell, the sun was reaching its zenith and I was completely exposed on the sidewalk. By the time she was an hour late she’d already sent me three or four texts to tell me she was on her way. The babysitter was the issue again, and I have no real reason to believe it wasn’t true, she's a single mom—but like 12:15, 12:20, I just got on a bus and left, in order to get out of the heat. The upshot is that she’s in complete denial about timeliness. She has no idea that people see this as rudeness—that some might think, based upon her approach to time commitments, we are not important to her. Looking back, it seems to me now, the only way we met at the Capitol was that it was completely unscheduled. I texted her that I was in the Extension, stalking her colleagues to ask about her, and she called me to say she was pulling up to her parking space and we could go get lunch. If it had been a scheduled rendezvous I might be waiting still. In all respects, for me, however, Dawnna Dukes was worth the wait. Not everyone else may feel that way, though. Judge Urrutia is one. He comes from the defense bench and probably has wide experience with tardy defendants but he’s a judge now and he has made clear that a contempt citation already has her name on it, she only needs to delay the court one more time.
What got me interested in her again, you may ask, after that hour waiting in the sun? In the Austin History Center next door to the library there’s a small Dawnna Dukes file and included is an interview from a few years ago—question and answer, like you see on the inside back flap of magazines, her saying what she had to say without editorial commentary, Dawnna Dukes unfiltered, you might call it. This was before gentrification became an issue in the city and she was way, way ahead of that particular curve. “There are new businesses where old African-American businesses once stood on East Eleventh Street,” she told Austin Monthly. “I remember this pink building that housed a record store when I was about four years old. One day, my sitter walked me to the store, and inside, dancing wildly, was James Brown. He scared me. I could not believe my eyes.” I remember that store, too. Her next comments were particularly prophetic. “When I worked for a criminal justice planning firm, I conducted research in jails and prisons,” she said in the interview. “The data showed that by the sixth grade you could determine who was heading toward the criminal justice system. I felt the state could choose to educate or incarcerate,” she said.
“Politically, the best advice I received was from my predecessor, Wilhemina Delco,” she told the magazine, “who reminded me of the motto of the Congressional Black Caucus, ‘We have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just permanent issues.’” Recently, Delco was seen at a Sheryl Cole event. She told someone that it’s a shame what has happened to Dukes, the railroading—Ms. Delco has made clear she believes that Dukes has been unfairly targeted—but even if Dawnna is acquitted her career may still be over, or so said her former mentor. (Backing Cole now are also the two most important figures of White Austin leadership, Congressman Doggett and State Senator Watson.) Still, this was the woman I met for lunch, the Dawnna Dukes of the old interview: strong, proud, intelligent and fearless. It’s not just because she’s black but because she’s black and of a certain generation. I have about a decade on her but we were both raised in the civil rights era and the idea of rolling over for white people? It’s just not going to happen. But the one thing that everyone agrees on, friends and enemies alike? She needs to get a watch.
That’s not the reason she wasn’t concerned by the passing of the district attorney’s deadline, by the way, as we were having lunch—that she didn’t know the time or that “time slipped by” or something like that. Her new cell phone was on the table in the restaurant and it has a digital display, she was merely unconcerned, let’s put it that way. The point is she needs to get into the habit of timeliness. She appears occasionally to be unaware that clocks even exist, not because she’s a junkie, as the D.A.’s Office would have you believe, she’s always been that way, time is a dimension she mostly does not move in. That will be a dangerous liability in her coming trial.
That’s not the reason she wasn’t concerned by the passing of the district attorney’s deadline, by the way, as we were having lunch—that she didn’t know the time or that “time slipped by” or something like that. Her new cell phone was on the table in the restaurant and it has a digital display, she was merely unconcerned, let’s put it that way. The point is she needs to get into the habit of timeliness. She appears occasionally to be unaware that clocks even exist, not because she’s a junkie, as the D.A.’s Office would have you believe, she’s always been that way, time is a dimension she mostly does not move in. That will be a dangerous liability in her coming trial.
When Speaker Gib Lewis was on trial, for accepting free travel from lobbyists, and arrived two hours late to court, District Judge Bob Perkins was not amused. My friend Gilbert Soto was Perkins’ longtime bailiff and Gilbert—recounting the scene recently for me, in preparation for Dawnna’s appearance in Judge Urrutia’s court—said succinctly, “Perkins got tired of that shit.” When Speaker Lewis finally showed up, Judge Perkins told Gilbert, “I want him taken into custody.” That was kind of cool for Gilbert, right? Like how often do you get to arrest the Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives? No handcuffs or anything, no billy club needed, Lewis is white after all—no need to spray pepper or employ the old reliable Taser—Gib Lewis didn’t resist or run for the door or try to take the D.A. hostage either, but still an enjoyable day, all in all, for the bailiff if not for the Speaker. It’s something that Dukes might do well to keep in mind. She needs to be there when the bailiff says, “All rise.”
She also needs to win. In her car, as we sat outside the Texas Capitol, an institution where she has grown up, so to speak, the House that has been her home for the last two decades, more, that’s what she said she’s planning. She lowered her shades again and looked over.
“I am going to win,” she said.