LaToya Cantrell the First Woman Elected Mayor in New Orleans

by | November 20, 2017

By Jeff Adelson and Jessica Williams

LaToya Cantrell soared past Desiree Charbonnet on Saturday to become the first female mayor of New Orleans, winning in a landslide after a hard-fought race that pitted the city's political establishment against grass-roots organizing and turned long-standing political traditions on their head.

With all precincts reporting, Cantrell had collected 60 percent of the vote, making for one of the largest margins in an open mayor's race in the city's modern history. She will take office in May.

"This win tonight is not for me or my family," Cantrell said Saturday, surrounded by relatives and friends at the People's Health New Orleans Jazz Market on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. "This win tonight is for the city of New Orleans. We have work to do, and we are going to do it together."

The decisive victory by Cantrell, a neighborhood organizer who served the past five years as a city councilwoman, was hardly a surprise. She took a commanding lead in the primary and her poll numbers never flagged. She also snared the endorsements of the third- and fourth-place finishers.

Yet she also defied many of the commonly held assumptions about politics in New Orleans. Cantrell will be the first mayor not born in the famously insular city since Victor Schiro was elected in the 1960s, and even Schiro spent some of his childhood in the city.

"Whether or not you were born here, whether or not you chose to be here -- the bottom line is, we are here," Cantrell said. "And because we are here, we are going to make sure that we continue the hard work and that we focus on every aspect of our city."

She succeeded without the support of most of the black political establishment. U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond and nearly all of the traditional black political organizations lined up behind Charbonnet.

Cantrell won at least in part by capitalizing on her image as a community activist. She was not a native but maybe the closest thing to it -- someone devastated by the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina who helped give voice to the frustrations of recovery.

It was that experience that thrust Cantrell onto the public stage, when she took the reins at the Broadmoor Improvement Association. Her fight against the so-called "green dot plan," which would have written off her neighborhood and others, and her advocacy on behalf of for returning residents drew citywide and even national attention.

It also would prove to be a springboard for her 2012 run to represent District B on the New Orleans City Council, a seat she was re-elected to two years later without opposition.

Cantrell has not yet said whether she plans to relinquish her council seat before being sworn in as mayor.

The city and government Cantrell will inherit are drastically different from the one that confronted Mayor Mitch Landrieu eight years ago. While still beset by major problems, including crime, a lack of affordable housing and a crippled Sewerage & Water Board, the city is at least on stable financial footing.

When Landrieu took office, the city faced a growing budget deficit and a stalled recovery.

When she takes office, Cantrell will inherit a balanced budget, most of a $2.4 billion settlement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to spend on roadwork, a Police Department that is winding down a major court-supervised overhaul and a substantially revamped City Hall.

She will have to confront major problems at the S&WB, exposed by this summer's flooding, but a new airport terminal is already rising, the old World Trade Center is set for a makeover into a luxury hotel, and a landmark deal to transform another chunk of the waterfront has been finalized.

Though Cantrell has not always seen eye to eye with Landrieu, the sitting mayor has said the two "get along great" and said he has no reservations about the transition.

"It is a positive attribute as a mayor to be hard-headed and to be passionate about what you do," Landrieu said of Cantrell.

Cantrell's campaign had been years in the making, though it appeared on shaky ground once Charbonnet entered the race. Its fundraising in the primary was anemic and sometimes barely enough to cover costs, even as Charbonnet's team racked up massive contributions from the start.

But at the same time, the campaign cultivated an army of volunteers and supporters they put to work making phone calls and promoting the candidate as paid canvassers and organizers provided additional boots on the ground. And those efforts were guided by data-driven analyses to target voters who could be swayed to Cantrell's side or given the extra push needed to get them to the polls.

Charbonnet, by contrast, invested most of her funds into TV and radio ads and mailers.

All told, that effort would give Cantrell an unexpectedly large 9-point advantage in the primary, a lead that snowballed as the runoff took shape. It also would end the campaign's money woes: Contributions poured in, even as Charbonnet's financial backers appeared to abandon her, leaving her campaign nearly broke.

A week and a half before the election, Cantrell had raised a total of $1.2 million, about half of that since the primary, while the $1.8 million Charbonnet collected had essentially all been spent.

Silas Lee, a Xavier University professor and pollster for the Cantrell campaign, said the election is a sign that the landscape has changed for how elections are conducted in the city.

"What it does show is we have a new citizenry here, and motivating and having direct contact with voters, the retail politics of political engagement, has merged with social media," Lee said. "No longer can you just have ads -- people want to see a new form of engagement and citizen participation."

Cantrell also benefited from the visibility and constituency she has as a sitting city councilwoman, something that judges like Charbonnet lack, Lee said.

Throughout the race, Cantrell managed to shrug off attacks and unflattering stories about her personal finances that could have hobbled other candidates.

The most damaging of those, which consumed much of the runoff, came after Charbonnet's campaign alleged Cantrell had misused her city credit card for frequent trips. Charbonnet pointed to reimbursements Cantrell had made to the city -- including a large one right after qualifying -- to suggest she regularly had been using taxpayer money for personal expenses.

Cantrell's credit card use later would be revealed to be higher, but not out of line with, that of other council members.

But by then, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro -- a strong supporter and close ally of Charbonnet's -- alerted the media that he had forwarded an "anonymous complaint" about Cantrell's credit card use to Attorney General Jeff Landry, further stoking claims by Charbonnet's team that Cantrell could face criminal charges.

But all that barely dinged Cantrell's standing in the race. A poll taken after the credit card controversy showed Cantrell still up by 15 percentage points, only a 3-point drop from before the news broke.

The election dealt a blow to Richmond's widening stroke in New Orleans, as voters rejected the boost Charbonnet received from Richmond and his allies, who were derisively cast as a political machine by Cantrell and others. Voters also rejected Richmond's choices in two council races.

The dismissal of his mayoral pick came even as operatives with strong ties to Richmond worked to amass a $1.8 million campaign stockpile for Charbonnet, as Richmond cut ads in her favor, and as two national politicians Richmond has been friendly with delivered endorsements from on high.

One of them, from Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, was seen as risky by political handicappers and might have repelled more voters in the overwhelmingly Democratic city than it attracted. The other, from Democrat U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, of California, might have gone over better locally but may have seemed puzzling to some voters, given Waters' fuzzy connection to New Orleans.

Perhaps no Charbonnet endorsement was as problematic as that of Cannizzaro's, however.

Once popular, the district attorney's poll numbers have been dented by recent scandals, including his use of so-called material witness warrants to victims of crimes in order to force them to testify, and his issuing of what prosecutors acknowledged were "fake subpoenas" to pressure witnesses to cooperate.

"She really linked herself closely to the district attorney, and the last poll on him had him underwater in terms of approvals," University of New Orleans political scientist Ed Chervenak said.

That poll, commissioned by The Advocate and WWL-TV, showed that less than half of the electorate approved of Cannizzaro's job performance, his lowest favorability rating in years.

In the early days of the primary, it appeared that the race might split along the same lines as former Mayor Ray Nagin's 2002 election, and it mostly did. The wealthy members of the Uptown white business community who pushed him to victory lined up against Charbonnet, who drew much of her support from the political organizations and their members who had backed Richard Pennington in that contest.

In the runoff, Charbonnet appeared to be attempting to re-create Nagin's second coalition, from 2006 -- appealing to conservative white voters by focusing her ads on crime, and mailers and robocalls with Scalise's endorsement, while trying to maintain a base in the black community.

Cantrell's striking victory also came as she positioned herself as the "bottom-up" candidate, unbeholden to powerful backers who would expect favors in return for their support, political analyst Ron Faucheux said.

That strategy successfully tapped into the city's zeitgeist, which apparently was more in line with the national mood that enabled the momentum of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders' and President Donald Trump's campaigns last year than Charbonnet's camp figured.

"I think the (popularity) of grass-roots politics over establishment, top-down politics put Charbonnet on the wrong footing," Faucheux said.

Charbonnet also struggled to craft an identity separate from that of her political patrons and allowed the narrative -- fashioned by dark-money political groups -- that the former judge was easily controlled to sink in among some voters.

"Charbonnet was never really able to define herself," Faucheux said.

For all she is perceived publicly to be at odds with Landrieu, a Cantrell administration likely will continue much of what the sitting mayor has established over the past eight years.

"I've shared with our current mayor that it's not about throwing out the baby with the bathwater," Cantrell said. "We want to keep good things going and tweak things that need to be tweaking. We deserve that."

For one, Cantrell supports signature components of Landrieu's economic opportunity strategy, such as the mayor's work with Strive NOLA, a program that helps the city's hardest-to-employ residents find work.

She also would push for development on the French Quarter riverfront, a possibility Landrieu enabled via a landmark agreement to turn the 3-mile stretch of land now occupied by the Gov. Nicholls Street and Esplanade Avenue wharves into park space.

But Cantrell wants to remove the traffic cameras Landrieu established that have "nickel-and-dimed" residents, she has said, and replace revenue lost because of that move with other funding. She also would improve upon Landrieu's jobs strategy by creating a "social impact" bond program that essentially could function as a city-led temp agency for disadvantaged residents.

She'll be expected, over the next six months, to fully outline to residents how she'll achieve those and other objectives, ahead of an inauguration bolstered by celebrations of the city's 300th birthday.

At her victory speech Saturday, she said she'd use that time wisely and build a well-equipped transition team.

She then wrapped things up using the plain-spoken vernacular she's become known for.

"Let's go get 'em," Cantrell said.

(c)2017 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.