Spending nearly eight years laboring inside the Beltway as a communication strategist, Melanie N. Roussell has reached a critical position that could make or break the reelection chances of President Barak Obama.
As chief spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the former press secretary for the U.S. Department of Housing must carefully craft messages about the commander-in-chief.
Roussell said she’s ready.
Roussell got her first taste of politics as a senior at Florida A&M University, a historically Black college in Tallahassee, Fla., when she got involved with the Bush vs. Gore 2000 election.
The FAMU graduate, then a member of the school’s Student Government Association, said there were 500 reported cases of voting disenfranchisement in which students were turned away from the polls or told they couldn’t vote, even though they had current registration cards.
Roussell then organized a march on the Florida State capitol and other political events.
After one event, a graduate of FAMU approached Roussell and invited her to work on Capitol Hill in summer 2001 as a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation intern.
“They came to me and said, ‘You got all the national press for the event; you did this by yourself; I can’t believe it. You should think about interning on Capitol Hill. I think you would be a great press secretary,’” she said. “Up until that point, I did not know the job existed.”
Roussell accepted the CBC gig and worked for Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), and was asked to return for a full-time position as staff assistant in 2002 and communications director in 2004.
“It changed the trajectory of my life,” Roussell said.
Her big political test occurred in August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans leaving a costly and deadly trail behind. At the same time, Rep. Jefferson became the target of bribery investigation, in which the FBI released videotape showing the congressman taking $100,000 of alleged bribe money and reported finding $90,000 in cash stuffed in his home freezer.
Roussell said she had to quickly learn crisis management as she was the voice of two dilemmas that plagued the Gulf Coast city. Her approach had to be strategic as New Orleans was a focal point for the nation.
“Our focus shifted,” she said. “My goal was to let his constituents know that [Jefferson] was focused on his district at the time. I could not do anything about the investigation—that wasn’t something I could bend…I wasn’t even allowed to comment on it.”
Jefferson eventually was convicted on 11 corruption charges and sentenced to 13 years in prison.
While Roussell could not address the bribery investigation, she was allowed to speak about Hurricane Katrina—a task that prepped her to be a communications professional, but that also weighed heavily on her as her hometown was ripped apart.
“It was professionally good for me, but it was also personal because I am from New Orleans and my family is there and we lost our home,” she said. “It was a personal mission for me to communicate to the people of New Orleans that we were working everyday to help the city recover.”
After her post at Jefferson’s office, the 32-year-old rapidly navigated through the political communications field. She was communications director in 2007 for the House Judiciary Committee where she spearheaded media relation efforts involving the contempt of Congress charges against ranking officials—including former President George W. Bush’s senior advisor Karl Rove and former White House counsel Harriet Miers. In 2008, she served as Southern Regional Communications Director for the Barack Obama campaign and eventually as press secretary for U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
How did she move up so quickly? Roussell calls it “luck,” being in the right place at the right time and honing skills she learned from college and previous posts.
“It requires a bit of toughness,” she said. “I cannot walk into any job as if I’ve known everything. I build relationships with the people who have been doing it for years—whether they are subordinates or not, I used them as resources.
“The goal is always to stay ahead.” And for the upcoming 2012 election, Roussell said her team already has started crafting strategies to help Obama secure a second-term.
“Reelecting the president is the most important thing we can do. An alternative is not an option,” she said. “Part of my job day-to-day is to point out the contrast between Republican candidates and the president so I’m going after those candidates on a daily basis.”
As a press secretary in digital age, Roussell admitted that social media adds another layer to her daily tasks of writing press advisories, speeches and speaking engagements.
“It’s just a new way to communicate,” she said. “My job is rapid response and nothing can make the world more rapid than Twitter. It requires a lot of attention, but it also gives us another platform to get our messages out and the goal of reelecting the president.”
As an African-American woman in Washington’s political hub, Roussell said that every day she, like the president, is creating a new path for others to follow.
“I think no one faces that [racial] challenge more than the president,” she said. “Right now, I’m helping pave the way for more women of color.”
Her biggest advice to future political leaders is to approach everything with a level of humility.
“Don’t ever think you know everything because you don’t. Have some humility and be loyal,” she said. “Also, maintain your network,” said Roussell, who also has a master’s degree in public communication from American University.
“I try to help as many young people as possible,” she said. “I take personal interest in helping to make that happen.”