It was barely more than a month after C. Denise Marcelle entered the Baton Rouge mayor's race when she became one of the most recognizable politicians in the city.
After a Baton Rouge Police Department officer fatally shot Alton Sterling on July 5 in a scuffle outside a convenience store in Marcelle's state House district and a cellphone video emerged of the encounter, protests broke out across the city.
Marcelle was at North Foster Drive and Fairfields Avenue — which later became the epicenter of protests — before the video that set off protests even began to circulate publicly. She quickly called for an outside investigation into the shooting.
For those who know her best, her activism even amid a campaign made sense.
"She's one of those open books," said Marcelle's daughter D'Licia Brown, "If she says she believes it, she's going to stand behind it."
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It was one of the defining moments of Marcelle's political life, as she had previously pushed for officers to be equipped with body cameras should this exact situation arise. She was furious when BRPD Chief Carl Dabadie said the officers' body cameras fell off during their struggle with Sterling.
She became both protester and leader — protesting what she sees as a systemic problem of police brutality against black people and also asking those around her to remain peaceful.
"People were looking for somebody to stand up and there was nobody else there," she said. "If I would have waited two or three days to show up, the city would have been destroyed."
Marcelle says protesters listened to her because they know her and respect her. She remained visible at Sterling protests in the days after Sterling's death, and she handed out paper fans at Sterling's funeral saying "when will it end" on one side and "special condolences to the family and friends of Alton Sterling, donated by La. State Rep. C. Denise Marcelle" on the other side.
Thousands of mourners gathered Friday to grieve the death of Alton Sterling in a public fune…
Marcelle sees openness about past struggles as the reason why people can relate to her, as she is particularly popular in pockets of Baton Rouge with mostly black and poor residents.
And she likes to have fun, with fundraisers at cigar bars and her constituents sipping on cocktails with jazz music in the background. Her campaign site has a funky and catchy song reminding people that "when you go to cast your vote, Denise Marcelle is the way to go, Denise Marcelle!"
Marcelle, 55, has come a long way from when she was a pregnant 15 year old at Capital Heights High School. She graduated at 16, worked her way up to becoming a paralegal and later became a certified public notary.
Not having a college degree nagged at her, so she went back to school at Southern University and finally graduated with a criminal justice degree in 2011. Decades earlier, she had struggled with drug addiction and nearly died in a domestic violence incident.
"I'd have to say being a recovering addict myself with 25 plus years clean was my largest challenge, and then marrying an alcoholic for a husband who stabbed me and left me for dead," Marcelle nonchalantly told a gasping audience at a recent mayoral forum when candidates were asked to describe surmounting their greatest obstacle. "The left ventricle to my heart was severed, he stabbed me multiple times, and having come out of an addiction myself, I thought that I could help him. And so I married him, and that didn't help."
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No longer married, Marcelle has spent years working hotlines for people with addiction and thoughts of suicide.
Her foray into public service began when her now-grown daughters were young, and she discovered that other children in their Eden Park neighborhood did not get Easter baskets or school supplies. She started hosting annual Halloween parties because people worried about the neighborhood being unsafe for kids to trick-or-treat.
She defeated incumbent Metro Councilman Byron Sharper -- also a candidate this year for mayor -- to win a seat on the Metro Council in 2008 until she was elected to the Louisiana Legislature in the fall of 2015.
Marcelle has successfully pushed for policies that do not require city-parish and state employees from disclosing criminal histories on job applications, and she sponsored an unsuccessful "fairness ordinance" at the Metro Council level to ban employers or landlords from discriminating against people in the LGBT community.
She supports requiring Baton Rouge Police Department officers to live within parish limits along with a host of other policing reforms. Marcelle was one of the most vocal opponents of a recent push to open a temporary misdemeanor jail for people with uncleared warrants, clogging the court system.
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She pressed the argument about policies that have led to disproportionate imprisonment of nonviolent black men, helping lead the defeat of the proposed jail. In its place, she worked to create an amnesty day where people could clear their warrants without fear of arrest.
Policing issues and her defense of Sterling are where Marcelle has drawn heightened outrage and criticisms.
She wore a blood-spattered white T-shirt that said "Alton Sterling" during protests after his death, and wore another variation with the names of fallen law enforcement officers Montrell Jackson, Matthew Gerald and Brad Garafola after a gunman killed the three and critically injured another on July 17.
Blood spattered t-shirts state Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, has worn in remembran…
BRPD Union President Sgt. C. Bryan Taylor called Marcelle's shirts disgusting and blasted her for wearing it.
Marcelle said she does not condone violence in any form and that she donated flags for the fallen officers' funerals to show her support of them and their families as well. Jackson's father supported Marcelle in a letter to the editor and thanked her for support.
Marcelle also came under fire as she was about to move up to the Legislature and looked to make the appointment to fill her council seat. She initially recommended ex-Capital Area Transit System board member Isaiah Marshall, the chairman of the CATS board in 2013 when a board member was caught using money from the agency to pay his personal bills.
Emails obtained by The Advocate at the time showed that Marshall knew about the transgressions of his fellow board member two months before CATS notified police, and that Marshall instructed the CATS attorney not to notify law enforcement. Metro Council members and other political leaders called on Marshall to resign from the CATS board, which he eventually did.
After she proposed recommending Marshall to fill her council seat, other council members eventually balked, given his history with CATS and ethics fines. Marcelle created a committee and chose current councilman LaMont Cole instead. Marcelle said Marshall had run for Metro Council and that she thought he should be given a second chance.
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Looking forward to her possible administration, Marcelle said she hoped to keep on several of Mayor-President Kip Holden's staffers.
"I'm not a fortuneteller, but I wouldn't appoint anyone with a bad background," she said.
Marcelle's record of liberal policies is one reason she decided to run for mayor. Former State Sen. Sharon Weston Broome entered the race before Marcelle, and the two are both black and Democrats, as well as both hailing from north Baton Rouge. But Marcelle is more liberal on social issues.
Marcelle said people in her community asked her to run because they felt more connected to her and more comfortable with her leading. She says she is not too liberal to lead all of Baton Rouge, and has pointed to issues as mundane as zoning and bike paths where she has worked to represent diverse groups of people and Republicans.
As mayor-president, Marcelle said, she would want more programs to deter crime and to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison. She also wants alternative court on nights and weekends to help people who now have to choose between showing up in court or going to work.
Marcelle has also said she wants to use the successful model of building up downtown Baton Rouge and replicate it across the parish. She has said Baton Rouge needs an equitable division of economic development, while downtown has been in the spotlight for several years.
Marcelle's campaign for the Nov. 8 primary is grassroots-oriented, and she is relying on help from family and friends as she strives to make it into the Dec. 10 runoff. She trails most of the other major candidates in fundraising, and had just $7,860 left in her campaign bank account as of October 11.
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As she campaigns, she describes herself as a mayor for everyone, and as someone who gets out in front of issues before they happen — highlighting her press for body cameras years ago.
"When people get into a room with me and find out I'm more than someone from Eden Park or I'm more than someone who fights stuff against police, they find substance there," she said.