At first glance, Donna Collins-Lewis and C. Denise Marcelle have a lot in common. Both joined the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council in 2008 as Democrats holding their first positions in public office. They sit next to each other in the City Hall council chambers, and their districts abut each other with similar demographics and needs.
Both women are survivors — Collins-Lewis of breast cancer, diagnosed last year, and Marcelle of domestic abuse in 2004.
But the two councilwomen often have found themselves at odds on local issues over the past few years. And on Oct. 24, they will face off in the election of a new House District 61 state representative, for a second time. The first time, they both lost to Alfred Williams, who recently died, leaving the seat vacant. Byron Sharper, a third candidate who qualified, has since withdrawn from the race.
Both have taken on high-profile roles in recent years, whether Marcelle sponsoring the so-called “fairness ordinance” to prohibit discrimination against gay people or Collins-Lewis in a prominent seat on the board of the public bus system.
Marcelle, 54, has never shied from taking a bold stand on a controversial issue, frequently offering an unfiltered criticism of officials with whom she disagrees.
“At the end of the day, I feel like I’ve got to do what’s best for the city or state I’m representing,” she said.
Marcelle’s ordinance to outlaw the discrimination of gay, lesbian and transgender people in areas of employment and housing became a divisive flashpoint for the community over several weeks. Ultimately, the item failed. Collins-Lewis also ended up voting in favor of the measure.
Marcelle said it was an unpopular issue to take up at the local level, and some of her colleagues on the council were frustrated to have to take a side on the political hot potato. But she said it was an important dialogue about equality for the community to have, even though she lost.
With Marcelle’s prodding, the Baton Rouge Police Department also introduced a pilot program with 100 body cameras for officers that will patrol her district, which is one of the highest crime areas in the parish. The program is going into effect this month.
Marcelle pushed the Metro Council to pass an ordinance that would require body cameras on all officers by next year, but the council rejected the measure largely because of questions about costs.
Marcelle said the measure was especially important in light of recent issues nationwide involving police shootings of unarmed black people. But she said the cameras also protected police officers from false claims of excessive force or inappropriate conduct.
Collins-Lewis voted against the mandate to more comprehensively distribute the cameras — a point that Marcelle has stressed in her campaign. But Collins-Lewis said she supports the cameras but voted against the idea of forcing the police chief to buy the expensive equipment for every officer without knowing the total cost.
Marcelle said that if elected to the Legislature, her priorities include securing funding to treat the mentally ill, raising the minimum wage and giving teachers raises as a means to attract top talent.
She said she would like to see an incentive program where educators can receive a tax break or student loan forgiveness in exchange for committing to teaching in Louisiana public schools for a certain number of years.
Collins-Lewis, 58, said her track record for her constituents can be seen on the streets and in the neighborhoods of the areas she represents. She worked with a developer and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to bring attention to the dilapidated living conditions at a low-income apartment complex on Ardenwood. That complex, now called Renaissance Gateway, offers 280 units of affordable housing.
Collins-Lewis said she stood with her constituents in Melrose East to oppose a business owner who wanted to turn a vacant space on Florida Boulevard into a bar and had the proposal killed twice. Then, she worked with the owner and the Council on Aging to negotiate a deal that would allow the nonprofit to use the space as an event center.
“It’s another eyesore removed from the community that had been a building that was empty for years,” Collins-Lewis said. “Those are the kind of things that I’m working on.”
As a state legislator, she wants to work on a variety of issues, including protecting money for transportation infrastructure and funding career training programs in community colleges and high schools to meet the needs of students who don’t seek their bachelor’s degrees from universities. Collins-Lewis also said she wants to ensure that the struggling schools in low-income areas of the state are properly funded and wants to increase resources for parents and teachers who are adjusting to new standards for their students.
Both women have been advocates of the public bus system, but their approaches to improving the system have been one of their greatest issues of contention.
Collins-Lewis has been a board member for the Capital Area Transit System during some of its most difficult financial years, when it faced being shuttered for lack of funds. As a board member, she supported a tax to better fund the system.
Marcelle was one of the most vocal and active volunteers during the campaign to pass the tax, but she has since grown extremely critical of how the agency has progressed since it received the public dollars and fired the previous leader.
Marcelle even went so far as to call a news conference demanding that current CEO Bob Mirabito resign or that the board fire him because of what she said was his poor treatment of employees and lack of effectiveness. She’s criticized Collins-Lewis for allowing Mirabito to continue and for supporting a 20 percent raise for him, making him one of the highest-paid public officials in the parish.
Collins-Lewis has said that to her credit, she has stayed with the board and endured criticism for years because transportation is an issue that she believes is critical to the parish.
“There are times I’ve taken such bad hits from CATS, but I believe I’m there for a purpose,” she said. “I don’t have to serve on this board; I serve because I want to.”