Melanie Oubre sounds cheerful and energetic even at 5 pm after a full day of work. After some technical difficulties and speaking over some very loud train whistles. I sat down to talk to Oubre, the executive director of Emerge Louisiana. Emerge Louisiana is one of the many organizations now working to get Democrats and progressives elected to office. It does this through working with female-identifying, registered Democrats living in Louisiana to train them to run a successful political campaign. With enthusiasm, she spoke to Big Easy Magazine about breaking an ankle, recruiting and working with her first class of trainees, being harassed by white supremacists, and her vision for Louisiana.
-Can you tell us a bit about who you are, and what brought you to politics?
“Well, my father worked in politics, and I’ve been interested in politics from a very young age. In eighth grade, we held a mock presidential election, and when the other kids were talking about longer recess and more French fries at lunch, I went up and started talking about campaign finance reform. (Laughs) Needless to say, I didn’t win on that platform, but I took politics seriously. I got my first campaign gig when I was 18, working for a US senate race. From there, I worked on another campaign and ran my own campaign for LSU student government. It is like running an actual political campaign, as there thousands of eligible voters. I graduated with a degree in political communications. Then I went to Washington DC because I wanted to work for Democratic politics and people told me you won’t be able to have a career in Louisiana, go to DC! So I went to DC and I worked for a non-profit that campaigned on immigration issues. For the last four years, I’ve been organizing and I moved back to Louisiana to work on a political campaign with Caroline Fayard, who ran for US Senate in 2016.
Not only did I feel inspired by Caroline, but I wanted to come back and do the hard work in Louisiana, and work here near my family and friends. New Orleans pulled me back in and we ran a really close race in 2016, but we were not successful. The day after that election—Caroline had lost her race, and also, Hillary had lost to Trump, I woke up the next morning and thought what am I doing back here? I’m living in Metairie in the same neighborhood I grew up in. I left my job in DC where I could have stayed at for as long as I wanted to, and my career in politics is over! I decided to go back to school to get my master’s degree in public administration and started working for an organization called New Leaders’ Council, which trains and recruits young progressives to translate their values into the career path that they choose. I was also doing fundraising work at the national level, and then I saw this job opening for Emerge Louisiana.”
-In your own words, what does Emerge LA do, and what are their goals?
“So first, Emerge LA is part of the Emerge America network. Here’s a story. In 2002, a woman named Andrea Dew Steele had this friend who wanted to run for office. People had told her over and over to run. But she was like what do I do? And Andrea said I don’t know, I just want you to run! So, she taught her, helped her write a political bio, getting a social media presence, got things going on her website. That friend ran for local office and won, and ran for state office, won again, and now that friend is the junior senator from California, Kamala Harris.”
“Yeah! (laughs) So that’s the inspiration behind Emerge America. It got started in 2002 in California, and other states were like, we want this too! We have women who don’t know how to do it, but they should be elected officials! She branched out, and Emerge America was officially started in 2005. Since 2005, we’ve expanded to 25 states and we plan to be in every state by 2020. Our mission is to recruit, train and support Democratic women in this state who want to run for office, but they’re not sure where to start.
Emerge LA was the 19th state, which I think is really special because the 19th amendment gave women the right to vote. Emerge LA, we’re brand new. We launched in November 2017. We had a really big launch event where we had Emerge alums from other states come and talk about their experiences going through our training program, and we went from there.”
-How do you choose trainees, and how do you decide on them?
“We have an application process where we ask them where they are in their professional and personal life and we figure out if they’re a good fit for our training program. We sit down with them and we talk about everything from their children, and whether they have elderly parents to care for, we talk about those tough decisions that women especially need to make when they decide to run for office. A single mother running for office in the state legislature living in Shreveport has a lot of hurdles before her. You have to drive to Baton Rouge. The pay is low. We make sure that they are ready on a personal level to run and even just to go through the six-month training.”
“I will say, it is not an easy thing, our program. It’s six months long and one weekend a month, and we hold our trainings across the state. We are a statewide organization and graduated our first class of trainees back in June of this year. We had 22 women in that class and we did a condensed version of the training, a “boot camp” and that was three full days of training, with 22 women. As of today, there are 44 emerge LA alums, all of whom are running for office now or planning to run in the future.”
“We do look at their campaign experience… if a woman has never worked on a campaign, if she has absolutely no idea how a campaign works, then typically I will say Why don’t you go volunteer on campaigns this year, and come back and apply next year? We give them the tools to run, but they should have some basic knowledge of politics and campaigns.”
“We also look at community involvement. Are they known as a leader in their community? Have they been putting in the work to make their community better, as many women are in Louisiana? Women are the backbones of neighborhoods, towns, cities and they have been doing that work, on the PTA, on non-profit boards working for good causes… they’re leaders, but no one has gone up to them and told them to run.”
“We also look at their commitment to run. We look for women who are planning to run for office within the next five years. People who want to be more behind the scenes, we point them to places that can train them to be campaign managers, staff or activists.”
“We do some research on them, to tell whether they will be a viable candidate, in this moment, in that district. We want to be sure that they are running at the right time, for right reasons. We love that since Emerge America has started, of the trainees who ran for office, over 70 percent of them won their race! With Emerge LA, our first group of eight women will be on the ballot this fall. Since Emerge LA started, we had over 100 women apply for our trainings. And people thought it couldn’t work in Louisiana… women aren’t gonna step up to run, they know how hard it is in this state… and I am very happy that we’re proving them wrong, and women are stepping up to make this state and country a better place.”
-Are there candidates this election cycle in the Nola metro area that you’re excited about?
“Of our alums, Tammy Savoie, she is a retired air force colonel. She has a Ph. D and she’s a single mom. She’s running for congress in the first congressional district. This is mostly Jefferson Parish.
In Orleans Parish we have another alum running for the clerk of courts, Chelsey Richard Napoleon. She has been running the clerk of court office since April, and that’s a parish-wide election this fall. She knows the office, what has been working and we think she’s a very strong candidate.
We also have a woman running for school board in the second district of the Jefferson Parish school board, April Williams. She ran for the office before, she didn’t win, but she decided her passion is to serve the children of Jefferson Parish.”
-What are some hurdles that a woman running for office might face that the layperson might not know?
“You know, women have to walk a fine line. You’ve got to be smart, but not come off as cocky, you have to be confident, but can’t be bitchy, you have to be relatable and authentic, but you can’t come off as emotional. Women have a double standard, just in their persona, that men don’t have to face.”
“Women are also the backbone of their family. We’ve coined a term called mom-guilt. Having to leave your kids to campaign—that’s hard. But if you’re not campaigning hard enough, you’re failing your constituents and your staff.
Women are also likely to be criticized if they’re running with small children. One woman in Shreveport, she has two small kids and people ask her all the time who’s taking care of her kids—men never get that question! Even if they have ten children at home!”
“More than anything, women have not seen themselves as political candidates because they have not held these offices, especially in Louisiana. There’s a lack of role models for them. Representation matters! If you’re growing up in LA, and you’re seeing people on TV who are running your city and your state and they don’t look like you, from a small age you don’t think that’s something you can do. We’re literally trying to change the face of politics in Louisiana. We want to show women that this is a career path that they can have, and that they can win elected office if they want to.”
“Women need to be asked A LOT to run for office. There’s a statistic that a woman needs to be asked seven times to run before she begins to even consider running, and for women of color or members of the LGBTQ community, you have to double or triple those asks. Women historically don’t have people coming up to them telling that they should run. Part of my job is just encouraging women who are rock stars, that they can do this.”
-Does Emerge LA look at diversity within your group of trainees?
“Absolutely! Diversity is extremely important to Emerge LA and Emerge America. Of Emerge LA’s now 44 graduates in the state, over 60 percent are women of color. I will say that we have work to do getting LGBTQ women to apply. We need to have women of all races, religions and socioeconomic classes running for office.”
-With all that said, would you call yourself a feminist? What does that mean to you?
“I would absolutely call myself a feminist! I think being a feminist means that I expect and will fight for equality for women in all walks of life. I think that it is a tragedy that over 50 percent of the people in LA are women, and over 55 percent of the voters are women, yet only 15 percent of our state legislators are women. We cannot have a legislature that serves Louisiana’s needs until we have a legislature that looks like the people that they are serving. When women run, women win. It’s just getting them to run, that’s the hurdle. But studies show that when women are in office they’re consensus-builders. They’re more likely to reach across the aisle. They actually bring more money home to their district… it’s better for communities to have more women in elected office. So I take a little bit of a political spin on feminis, with the work that I do.”
-What groups or networks does Emerge LA partner with to do their work?
“On the national level, we are partners with Emily’s List, and Run For Something, which gets young progressive people to run for office. We also work with basically all of the labor unions in the state and nationally. We are partners with the Democratic Attorney General’s Association, which is trying to get women to run for Attorney General. Another partnership is Higher Heights, which works with women of color to run for office. Locally, Emerge LA works with the House Democratic office on recruitment efforts and we also identify PACS that might be good partners with our candidates—we don’t take any Super PAC money, but we do facilitate some of those conversations if our alums are interested in their endorsement. It is so important to be a coalition-builder, especially here in LA. We do work closely with the Democratic party statewide. We are trying to build a coalition of Democratic women to lift each other up. We want to help bring the state forward.”
-How does Emerge LA conduct outreach and connect with good candidates for their program?
“We are currently recruiting for our class for 2019 and we promote ourselves through social media, email, and word-of-mouth. Our alums go to their community meetings, their local Democratic Party meetings, or women’s groups and they talk about their experiences, and they can look at the women that they know and start to encourage them at the personal level to apply. I feel very excited to go on a statewide recruitment tour in September. We’ll be going to the major population centers, but also some towns that have some crucial races there. We have a Board of Directors and Advisory Council too that help us recruit.
Next year provides a unique opportunity because over 40 percent of our state legislators are term-limited and cannot run for reelection in 2019. So there will be a lot of vacant seats up for grabs that we’re trying to get women to step up and run for.”
-How has this first year been? What have some of the challenges been for the organization?
“For me personally, not only have I started this organization, but I also broke my ankle and had to have surgery! I was the girl on the scooter for a while, which was a real crowd pleaser (laughs). I get to wake up every day and do my dream job… I pinch myself that I get to do this work. The organization has been going 200,000 miles an hour since we launched. It’s a rare thing to have an Emerge affiliate do so much in its first year. Overall, it has been wonderful.
The scariest hurdle was back in January, we had some white supremacists threaten our organization and our trainees on social media. We had to be very cautious… do we make this event public? Do we even have the event? We were worried about people’s safety. Luckily, that has quieted down, but it’s a reminder of how we need brave women to step up and take this state into the 21st century.”
-A lot of people have described the 2016 Democratic primary, and time since—which has felt like eternity—as a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party, with the establishment which is often more centrist, against newcomers who are often more progressive. What role do you see Emerge America playing in this struggle?
“Emerge is unique from, say Emily’s List in that we don’t have a litmus test for our candidates. We realize that running for office as a Democrat in Massachusetts is different than running in Louisiana. We also understand that women have enough barriers to running for office and we don’t believe that we should give them any more. We don’t train on issues, which makes us a really inclusive organization. The only criteria for our program are that you need to identify as a woman, reside in LA, and be a registered Democrat.
I will say that we are finding authentic women leaders who can connect with the voters. I think that is why we saw losses in 2016… the Democratic party was running cookie-cutter candidates who fell flat with the voters. We want the Emerge alums to show off their tattoos and their pink hair if that’s who they are! We know that they are being real, and when the voters see that, they connect with it. We are trying to reach people who may be turned off by the Democratic Party, but when they see the people from their communities, women that have been doing the work… they might have not even known that these women were Democrats, but they’re not knocking on that door for the first time as a candidate. They’ve known the people who they’re going to be asking for their votes. And they’re going to keep that trust.
In Louisiana, they call us a “red state”. I don’t like that term. We are trying to get common-sense Democrats elected to office, who won’t bring down our education, healthcare and welfare system. We want our residents to be able to live a decent life. Louisiana is ranked very low in terms of income, health education… we can only go one way from here. We are trying something new, because the men that we have sent to the state government, time and time again, have not benefitted this state.”
-Truth! (laughs) So what would you say to a woman who says, ‘I’m not interested in elected office, but I want to work for a great candidate’?
“If they’re seeking training, I would send them information on upcoming campaign training. The Democratic Party does great trainings called ‘power up trainings’ for people who want to work behind the scenes. If people want to specifically help Emerge women, we have a place for them. If they are seeking a campaign job, if they want to manage an Emerge Louisiana woman’s race we have opportunities there. If they know a bunch of women who want to run for office, they can be a recruiter for us. They can also host an Emerge event for one of our alums too. There are many ways to lift up women running for office without running yourself.”
-What keeps you going? When there are campaign losses, what gives you hope?
“I feel that if I have shown a woman how to run a campaign race, if I have given her the tools to be a better speaker and fundraiser… even if she doesn’t win, she can do it again and has the women around her to support her. We are giving women the confidence to show them that they can take on the world and break into the ole’ boys club! That’s how I comfort myself when one of my women loses, if that were to ever happen.” (laughs)
“What keeps me going is that I can’t walk around my neighborhood without seeing poverty. When I’m on airline drive, and I see that old man sitting out in the sun because there’s no shelter on the bus stop… people are struggling here. I want to get women elected who care about the people. Then we have to really put in the work.”
IMPORTANT DATES EVERY LOUISIANA VOTER SHOULD KNOW
Election Day in New Orleans is November 6 (open primary, congressional races)
Last date to register to vote in person/ by mail: October 9, 2018
Last day to use Geaux vote to register online: October 16, 2018
Last day to request an absentee ballot (vote by mail): November 2, 2018
Last day for office to receive absentee ballot: November 5, 2018
Early voting begins: October 23, 2018
Early voting ends: October 30, 2018
Election Day (runoffs in December, open general congressional races)- December 8th, 2018
Last date to register to vote in person/ by mail: November 7, 2018
Last day to use Geaux vote to register online: November 17, 2018
Last day to request an absentee ballot (vote by mail): December 4, 2018
Last day for office to receive absentee ballot: December 7, 2018
Early voting begins: November 24, 2018
Early voting ends: December 1, 2018
Application for 2019 Emerge training cycle: October 1, 2018
Emergelouisiana.org to learn more
Program begins in January
You can like them on Facebook, follow on Twitter, and you can donate to Emerge Louisiana. 100 percent of donations go to funding Emerge trainings.
Editor’s note: If women’s equality (both locally and nationally) is an issue you’d like to read more about be sure to check out Big Easy Magazine’s piece on former Saintsaition Bailey Davis.