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Dukes 'leases' state House seat

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY -- State House District 150 Rep. Winfred Dukes took political heat during and after the 2009 legislative session when he went to the well of the House and derided his fellow legislators for what he said were poorly timed tax breaks for special-interest groups.

Never one to back down from a fight, Dukes says he was right to take that stand a year ago, and he's still convinced the tax breaks given to the "politically connected" are among the chief reasons he and his colleagues in the Legislature are trying to find a billion dollars to cut from the state's ever-shrinking budget.

"Sometimes you just have to take a stand," Dukes, a Democrat who is serving his 14th year as representative of some 45,000 Dougherty and Baker County citizens, said in a recent conversation. "The budget is an exceptionally tough thing to balance, but it's frustrating when you consider that much of our problem is of the Legislature's own doing.

"In 2008, when we first got an idea that there were going to be problems with the economy, we passed a budget that included $249 million in tax breaks for special-interest groups. In 2009, with the recession in full bloom, we passed another $244 million in tax breaks for special interests and left some $509 to $510 million in breaks for 2010."

Dukes pauses to let the effect of his words sink in.

"That's a billion dollars right there," he says, his voice incredulous. "And that's money that, no matter what happens with the economy, we'll never be able to get back. So how could (legislators) try and pretend they didn't know where the money had gone?

"Look, we gave $50 million to private schools the same year that we voted to increase class sizes in public schools and furlough teachers. We handed out special tax breaks to individuals who were politically connected. So I went to the well and I called (Legislators) out on it."

A year later, with the state in even more dire financial straits and looking to make more major cuts, Dukes is still hearing about his critical oratory.

"I was angry," he said. "We were finding all this (tax break) money for all these people at a time when we're passing the largest property tax in the state's history on to landowners."

It's Dukes' willingness to take such stands on behalf of his constituents -- despite what detractors might make of it -- that has made him the area's longest-serving state representative. Since earning 64 percent of the vote over good friend and fellow contractor Hank Young in a 1996 race to fill the vacant seat of long-time Rep. John White, Dukes has claimed six more two-year terms without opposition.

"I think people respect the job I've done," he says. "The way I look at it, I'm only leasing this seat from the people of Dougherty and Baker counties. And my lease is up every two years."

Born in the tiny Mitchell County community Hopeful to a father who worked construction and a mother who was an educator, Dukes graduated from Mitchell County High School at the age of 15. Thinking about law as a career, he soon found himself drawn to history, thanks to a particularly effective professor at Mercer University in Macon.

"I was majoring in accounting and minoring in history, but I remember one quarter I ended up taking six history courses, all from the same professor," Dukes said. "I was fascinated by the politics of the different nations, and that ended up having a major impact on me."

Dukes earned his degree in 1978 and immediately enrolled in graduate school at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville. He earned an MBA in management and came home to decide what he wanted to do with his life.

"I could have done pretty much anything at that time, but I started working with my father (Sylvester Dukes) and soon discovered that being around him and his partner (Raymond Edwards) and their friends provided me with a wealth of knowledge I couldn't get anywhere else," Dukes said. "These were men of character, men of integrity, and they gave me a real education."

Dukes worked with Dukes and Edwards Construction as low man on the company's totem pole. He dug ditches, eventually graduating to carpentry work as he picked up new skills, all the while earning the respect of his fellow workers and, most importantly, the company's owners.

"Mr. Edwards always said 'How are you going to know if someone's giving you a full day's work if you don't know what a full day's work is'?" Dukes laughs. "That was one of my greatest lessons."

Dukes started his own separate construction company in 1985, putting his management degree to work for him as he plowed through the paperwork and bonding processes necessary to qualify as a contractor on larger, government-funded jobs. A year or so later, Sylvester Dukes and Edwards brought the younger Dukes on as their partner.

"They tricked me," Winfred Dukes laughs. "After they'd brought me on as a partner, they told me 'Now we work for you.' They both came in every day until they passed (Sylvester Dukes in 1994, Edwards last year). And I continued to learn from them."

While building his business career, Dukes became actively involved in key organizations in the community. He was named to the board of the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce, was selected as an Economic Development Commissioner, a Planning and Zoning Commissioner, and was an officer in the area Home Builders Association, the Minority Contractors Association, Omega Psi Phi fraternity and the local NAACP chapter.

Politics was a natural progression.

"At that time (1996), there was a push to 'get better people' involved in politics," Dukes said. "I offered myself as a better person."

During his 14 years in Atlanta, Dukes has helped push through legislation that has been vital to the region. Among those he considers most important:

- Open Records legislation that he co-sponsored;

- Education packages that have focused on school nursing programs, decreasing class sizes, an early intervention program, teacher/school accountability measures, technical school innovations;

- Combining the state's Departments of Medical Services and Medical Affairs;

- Removing the Confederate battle flag from the Georgia state flag;

- Funding a stadium for Albany State University;

- Funding the Flint RiverQuarium;

- Funding Darton College's athletic center; and

- Funding Albany Technical College's Technology Building.

"The most important thing has been obtaining resources for the constituents I represent," he said.

Earlier in his career, Dukes was chosen as floor leader for then-Gov. Roy Barnes. He said that opportunity allowed him to "understand how government really works" and also helped him realize how much more difficult it is to govern as a member of the minority party.

"You don't get the opportunities to impact public policy that you do when you're part of the leadership," he said. "But one of the things I learned as Gov. Barnes' floor leader is that when it comes down to actually spending the money that has been budgeted, politics does not play as big a role as you might think.

"The people who have been selected to head Transportation, DHR, Corrections, the Regents ... those people are not Democrats or Republicans. Those people are Georgians."

Well into his second decade as a state Legislator, Dukes says dealing with such decisions as running for higher office or even leaving his politicsl career behind have become a "day-to-day process."

"It's an interesting dichotomy," he said. "Serving in the Legislature is a time-consuming process. I know that three or four months of every year, I will be away from my business, away from my home. But it's also a very satisfying feeling to have a positive impact on the people of Southwest Georgia.

"That decision -- to stay in office, to run for a higher office -- is a constant battle. But I'm a firm believer that when the time comes in either case, I'll know it."