Baton Rouge Metro Councilwomen C. Denise Marcelle and Donna Collins-Lewis, who sit next to each other in the council chambers at City Hall, will face off for a second time in a race for an open seat in the state Legislature this October.
The two Democrats are seeking the District 61 seat in Baton Rouge, which was unexpectedly left vacant by state Rep. Alfred Williams, who died early this month following complications from knee surgery. In fall 2011, the two ran for the seat against Williams, also a Democrat. In the primary election, Marcelle led with voters, and Williams came in second place. Collins-Lewis got 27 percent of the vote and did not make the runoff.
In the runoff, Marcelle lost to Williams by about 200 votes.
Both councilwomen represent council districts in Baton Rouge with a mix of low- and middle-income constituents. They both joined the Metro Council in 2009.
Collins-Lewis, who also serves as the chairwoman of the Capital Area Transit System, said she was not planning to run against Williams when he came up for re-election. But, she said, the two of them had been working on some plans together prior to Williams’ death and she wants to see them through.
For example, she said, they had been jointly working on finding funds for sidewalks on Florida Boulevard near Baton Rouge Community College.
Collins-Lewis said that, like Williams, she considers infrastructure a top priority that she can help improve by joining the Legislature.
Marcelle said she is a “voice for the people” and isn’t afraid to take a bold stand on issues. She said one of her priorities in the Legislature would be finding funding and support for the mentally ill.
Marcelle notably sponsored the most recent anti-discrimination ordinance that would have prohibited employers from firing gay and transgender people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The measure failed. Collins-Lewis stated for weeks ahead of the vote that she didn’t know how she would vote but ultimately supported the measure along with Marcelle.
Marcelle also has led an attack on CATS CEO Bob Mirabito, calling on him to resign or be fired by the board for poor management and disrespect. Collins-Lewis stood by Mirabito, saying he was doing a good job of improving parish bus service and getting the chaotic agency back on the right track. Both councilwomen supported the CATS tax in 2012.
Marcelle said she’s most proud of her work bringing body cameras to the Baton Rouge Police Department. She called for an ordinance that would have made them mandatory on every patrol officer, which failed.
But her calls for cameras helped bring a pilot program of 100 cameras to the city-parish, which are due in the coming months. The pilot program will determine the costs and protocols needed to outfit the rest of the officers.
Marcelle also said she was proud of a measure she sponsored in 2011 that allowed more restaurants that serve alcohol to open on Sundays. Previously, a business had to sell 60 percent nonalcoholic goods to be able to open on Sundays, which hurt some sports bars and late-night restaurant and bars. Collins-Lewis voted against the measure.
The Metro Council subsequently did away with the blue laws, allowing all bars to open on Sundays — which Marcelle also supported. Collins-Lewis wasn’t present for the final vote, but she previously had expressed opposition to expanding the bar hours.
Collins-Lewis, who is less of a lightning rod than her opponent in taking on controversial issues, said she was proud of her record as a consensus builder. She said her strength is bringing people together from both sides of the parish.
Collins-Lewis said she had no problem with running against her council colleague.
“It’s an open seat; everyone had a right to run for office,” she said.
But Marcelle said she wished Collins-Lewis would have sat down with her first so the two could have mutually discussed who was in a better position to run.
“May the best woman win,” Marcelle said.
District 61 is bordered roughly by Government Street to the south, Acadian Thruway and Plank Road to the west, Sharp Lane and Airline Highway to the east and Clayton Drive to the north.
The primary election is Oct. 24.