Alumni Profile: Norma Jane Sabiston, 1972 Delegate

1972 – Delegate from Abramson High School
Currently – Consultant and Owner, Sabiston Consultants

Norma Jane Sabiston came to LYS as a delegate in 1972 and was elected as “Most Outstanding Delegate”. She returned to serve as Counselor in 1973, 1974, 1975, and 1976. “NJ” served as Staff Assistant in 1977, 1978 and 1979 and then as Program Director in 1980, 1981, 1982, and 1983. She is a member of the 5 Year Club and the LYS Hall of Fame. Norma Jane served on the Board of Directors for many years and currently serves on the Advisory Board and on the Board Fund Development Committee.

Norma Jane received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of New Orleans, with her major area of study being Political Science. She served several prominent Louisiana political leaders including United States Congressman Billy Tauzin and United States Senator John Breaux. She served as Chief of Staff to United States Senator Mary Landrieu. In addition, Norma Jane served in several political campaigns, including serving as Field Director for Senator J. Bennett Johnson and Campaign Manager for Senators Breaux’s and Landrieu’s successful Senate bids. Norma Jane’s desire to help New Orleans and Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita led her back home to join Marmillion Company as Vice President. Recently, Norma Jane established an independent firm, Sabiston Consultants, whose focus is corporate and political consulting.

NJ has received many honors over the years. She was the recipient in 1996 of the National Polly Award as Outstanding Campaign Manager. She was named as a Distinguished Alumna in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of New Orleans in 2001-2002. She has served on the Louisiana ArtWorks Board of Directors and on the LSU Health Sciences Foundation Board of Directors.

Norma Jane Sabiston and Senator Mary Landrieu met each other the summer of 1972 on Tulane Avenue in New Orleans at the Greyhound bus station as the two of them, both class presidents at their separate high schools, were boarding a bus to attend LYS. The story of their friendship is chronicled in the New York Times Best Seller book entitled “I Know Just What You Mean”, by authors Ellen Goodman and Patricia O’Brien. The book goes on to describe LYS as a “seminar for the best and the brightest of teenagers, young people already showing leadership capabilities.”  Since that summer, Norma Jane and Mary have remained close friends, working together for the good of Louisiana.

Norma Jane Sabiston loves her home state of Louisiana and currently resides in New Orleans. She also loves the Louisiana Youth Seminar. Since the summer of 1972, NJ has dedicated her time, her talent and her resources to LYS and the youth of Louisiana. She has served in many, many capacities and comes back year after year. And, many times when Norma Jane returns to LYS, she is joined by her good friend, Mary Landrieu…coming back to where their friendship started so many years ago.

The New York Times bestseller I Know Just What You Mean described Sabiston and Landrieu's relationship.

The following is an excerpt from the book I Know Just What You Mean by Ellen Goodman and Patricia O'Brien, published Simon & Schuster on May 10, 2000.

A generation later, women in politics still depend on friends to give them courage as well as comfort, friends who sometimes encourage them to take a chance and who stick with them. This has been especially true as women muster the courage to run for increasingly important political jobs. There are more and more of these stories of mutual empowerment and risk taking, and they all have one key ingredient: a woman “goes" for it – but not alone. This was how it happened for Mary Landrieu and Norma Jane Sabiston.

These two New Orleans women have lived their lives in tandem from the time they met as teenagers. Mary's father was Moon Landrieu, the charismatic mayor of New Orleans, and Norma Jane Sabiston's mother was his receptionist. Theirs was a friendship forged in the traditional male world of Louisiana politics that has taken them finally – and together – to the U.S. Senate: Mary as a Democratic senator from Louisiana, and Norma Jane as her chief of staff.

The met in the early 1970s on Tulane Avenue in New Orleans at the Greyhound bus station as the two of them, both class presidents at their separate high schools, were boarding a bus to attend a Louisiana Youth Seminar in Natchitoches. This was a seminar for the best and brightest of teenagers, young people already showing leadership capabilities, and Mary and Norma Jane gravitated to each other immediately.

“I didn't know a soul, and I looked around and I saw Norma Jane and she looked like the friendliest person. So I just went and sat right next to her. I mean, I could see, she had the most spirited manner of the whole group," Mary said with a Southern lilt to her voice.

The four of us were sitting in her new office on Capitol Hill shortly after her swearing-in. The usual pictures of the current senator were securely anchored on the walls, but the frantic atmosphere of the place betrayed the newness of Senator Landrieu's tenure.

“What I remembered most about Mary on that trip was just how smart she was," said Norma Jane, leaning forward with wired intensity, short blond hair bobbing, almost prototypically perky. She's the more gregarious of the two women and yet has the watchful air of the always-on-duty aide. “I just knew this young woman was going someplace. And I watched her at the seminar, even though I was totally caught up in what I was doing, and so was she. I kept my eye on her the whole time. And actually, I've kind of done that throughout our friendship."

They realized they liked each other and, from the outset, politics was part of it. They talked as much as they could. “Mary insists that I did the talking," says Norma Jane. And then they went back to their separate high schools.

They saw each other more frequently as they grew older, their lives touching, their careers leapfrogging. They were two women among the men, and at times it could be awfully lonely. When Mary first won a seat as a twenty-three-year-old in the Louisiana State Legislature, male colleagues whistled, mocked her from the microphone, and – like schoolboys rather than legislators – put a rubber snake in her desk. But in time, she ran successfully for state treasurer, and Norma Jane, who describes herself as too squeamish to be a candidate, became an aide to Congressman Billy Tauzin. They weren't chatting-on-the-phone friends, but they had an eye on each other. Politics was keeping them on a similar track.

Yet when Mary ran for governor in 1995 and asked Norma Jane to be her campaign manager, Norma Jane turned her down. Very reluctantly, “I struggled with it a lot, but it just wasn't right for me at the time," she said. “The hardest thing for me was to tell Mary that I couldn't do it."

Mary lost that campaign. Then came an opportunity a year later that Norma Jane was convinced Mary shouldn't pass up. Senator J. Bennett Johnston had decided not to seek a fifth term, and Norma Jane, by then a top aide to Senator John Breaux, wanted Mary to run for the seat.

So one night in Breaux's home, over a hot gumbo dinner, Norma Jane tried to persuade Mary to go for it. Mary was wounded from that bruising gubernatorial loss. She stalled. She was questioning herself; questioning whether she had it in her to try again for high office so soon. “I'd been running very hard for two years. I had a small child. My husband had given up his job and everything to help," she said. “I told my dad it was like getting up to Mt. Everest and getting ten feet from the top and then falling down…and then somebody comes and knocks on your door and says you gotta do it again."

Other friends were gathered there that night, but the one Mary was listening to the hardest was Norma Jane. She said she wouldn't do it unless Norma Jane ran her campaign. “I wouldn't have done it without her," said Mary. “I just couldn't go through a race again without somebody that I absolutely, totally trusted."

Norma Jane gave up her job and took on the challenge out of loyalty to Mary. After all, she had helped talk her into taking on what could be another losing campaign. How could she not share that grinding, fast-moving, life-crunching experience? Mary took an early lead in the race. Then, in the last week before the election, the retired Catholic archbishop of New Orleans called a news conference to announce that voting for Mary Landrieu would be a sin because she supported abortion rights. Her lead in the polls slipped. She still managed to eke out a narrow victory – an outcome immediately challenged by her opponent.

By the time the recount was over and Mary could relax, knowing that the Senate seat was hers, she and Norma Jane had fought their way jointly to a single goal. So it was only natural that Mary asked Norma Jane to be her chief of staff. They were a team.

“There's a million things Norma Jane does better than I do, and there are things that I do better than she does…we're really a perfect match," said Mary. “I'm more intense and serious. Norma Jane is easier." She doesn't mean just a political match. Norma Jane is godmother to Mary's baby, Mary brings sale suits from Lord and Taylor's that fit perfectly on Norma Jane's small frame. They consult on lipstick – “I should give you that color; it looks better on you," says Norma Jane – as well as legislation.

“I think we'll be together for a very long, long time," Mary says. Norma Jane answered quickly, with a grin. “I'll be at your funeral, and you'll be at mine."

We thought afterward about that night they shared the pot of gumbo. Another friend might have been more protective of Mary. She might have said: “You've been through a lot, your family needs you, you don't have to do this." Even, “I know how you feel."

But Norma Jane knew deep in her gut the extent of Mary's ambitions. The core of their mutual understanding was political as well as personal, and she knew that for Mary's career, it might well be now or never. Mary in turn trusted both Norma Jane's instincts – and her friendship. If she was climbing back up Mt. Everest, Norma Jane would come with her. Indeed, Norma Jane did more than advise Mary to run; she ran with her, all the way, taking the heat, reflecting it, sharing it.

When two friends take chances together, go to that next chapter or that next campaign, the balance of the relationship may also be at stake. When Mary Landrieu and Norma Jane decided to join their political fates, it was right for both of them.