Four Austin Democrats pitched ideas for how they would represent and improve House District 46, with some saying they’re ready for the possibility of a special election during the current legislative session — even though State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, has vowed to stay in office.

“Government is supposed to be about serving the people. ... I’m fired up and ready to go,” former Austin Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole said Tuesday to a crowd of roughly 40 people at a Central Texas Democratic Forum where potential candidates for Dukes' seat met Austin voters. The other candidates were Austin attorney Jose “Chito” Vela, Austin technology executive Nnamdi Orakwue and community organizer Greg Harrington.

The forum had been scheduled when everyone thought Gov. Greg Abbott might call a special election to replace Dukes, who had announced she was stepping down in September. But she abruptly changed her mind just days before the 85th Legislative Session and was sworn in Jan. 10 for her 12th term — only to be indicted by a Travis County grand jury eight days later on abuse of office charges. 

The uncertainty over Dukes' future is fueling the passions of those wanting to replace her.

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Vela, 42, told The Texas Tribune that he’s doubtful there will be a special election during the current session but that he remains hopeful. He said he plans to run for Dukes’ seat in 2018.

“So many surprising events have taken place that I can’t rule out the possibility of a sudden [plea] deal and special election. I don’t want to rule that out yet,” Vela said. “However, at some point there’s a kind of logic that kicks in. There’s no point in her stepping down because by the time the election happens [to fill her spot] the session is over.”

Dukes faces 13 counts of tampering with a governmental record, plus additional charges for abuse of official capacity by a public servant. 

Former staff members have accused Dukes of seeking reimbursement from the state for travel payments she was not entitled to. In February, the Tribune reported that the state auditor’s office was investigating her use of state workers for personal projects.

In a recent Facebook post, Dukes said she plans to plead not guilty on all charges.

If convicted, she could face up to 28 years in jail and fines of up to $138,000. However, under the state’s Election Code, Dukes is still able to hold her House seat.

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“She has to have been found guilty and exhausted appeals,” Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore said. “A conviction isn’t final until appeals are exhausted.”

This process could take years, according to Moore, meaning Dukes could most likely run for re-election in 2018.

During the forum, Dukes tweeted that she wasn’t aware the forum was taking place and that she hadn’t been invited.

“Interesting news to me,” Dukes tweeted Tuesday. “I haven’t been made aware that this event was taking place. Quite odd during session to hold forum.”

During Tuesday’s forum, Vela said that if there’s a special election during the current session, he hopes to focus on Medicaid expansion and transportation.

“It’s really just criminal that we leave so many people in the state without health care insurance,” Vela said. “I’m ready to rebuild the Democratic Party in the state of Texas.”

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • A grand jury indicted State Rep. Dawnna Dukes on Jan. 18.
  • As the case against Dukes was scheduled to go before a grand jury, some of her constituents worried the allegations will distract her from fulfilling her legislative duties.
  • Dukes confirmed to the Tribune that she would not be resigning, months after announcing plans to resign in January.
  • Emails from Dukes to her office staff showed how state employees worked on the African American Community Heritage Festival, a local event Dukes had organized for years. She insisted her staff's work was neither illegal nor improper.

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