On November 18, New Orleans will elect its first woman as mayor. That woman will be African-American. She will be committed to reducing crime, growing jobs and preserving affordability in Louisiana’s largest city. But for all their commonalities, mayoral candidates LaToya Cantrell, a city councilwoman, and Desiree Charbonnet, a prominent local judge, have taken opposing tacks in a heated race that can be seen as the first truly post-Katrina mayoral election, pitting a post-storm community organizer-turned-councilmember against a member of the Democratic political establishment who brandishes a local lineage dating back to the 1790s.
In last month’s Democratic primary, Cantrell came away with 39 percent of the vote, while Charbonnet carried 30 percent.
For the first time since Katrina hit in 2005, the candidates aren’t talking about recovery, rebuilding or unifying communities into the “One New Orleans” that Mitch Landrieu promised in his 2010 election. With the storm’s damages fading into memory, Cantrell and Charbonnet are focused on fixing chronic problems that bedeviled the city before the levees failed in 2005 and never abated.
“In 2010, the immediate state of the city was still tremendously uncertain,” says Andy Horowitz of Tulane University, who studies disasters and their political impacts. “When we were voting in 2010, it was much more voting out of hope and fear than strong sense of reality.”
In a city where police responded to an average of 10 shooting incidents per week in 2016 and nearly one-quarter of the population lives in poverty according to the most recent data released in 2016, it’s not surprising that the major issues driving the election are public safety, affordable housing and jobs.
To answer those challenges, the two candidates promise approaches that differ in ways reflective of their differing professional paths. Cantrell’s leadership has developed over the last five years from her seat on New Orleans City Council, and before that from her role as executive director of the Broadmoor Improvement Association, where she led the fight for her neighborhood to literally stay on the map in response to proposals to clear it after Hurricane Katrina. If elected, the Los Angeles native would be the first New Orleans mayor who was born outside the city since the 1960s (former mayor Victor Schiro was born in Chicago but spent most of his childhood in New Orleans). While Cantrell and Charbonnet have both vowed to fight for the $15 minimum wage championed by the progressive left, the councilwoman has moved beyond her competitor to embrace the language and policies of the national movement, sounding not unlike Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges or New York Mayor Bill de Blasio in her talking points.
“We’re a ‘tale of two cities’ and this is a real opportunity to elevate, create that balance and equity that we need in the city of New Orleans,” Cantrell said in a speech shortly after registering as a mayoral candidate in July.
Cantrell’s major plan to prevent violence is based on job creation and training, which she marks with the slogan, “nothing stops a bullet like a job.” She has been explicit about the fact that increasing police enforcement and incarceration alone have not been successful tools to curbing crime. To reduce recidivism, she plans to fund a results-based job training program through social impact bonds, which solicit private financing and offer investors a return proportionate to the program’s success.
Charbonnet made her name locally as first woman elected as Chief Judge in New Orleans Municipal Court, where she piloted diversion programs and stressed alternatives to jail time, using strategies not unlike those championed by Cantrell. Before ascending to the bench, she served as Orleans Parish mortgage recorder. With her years of experience in city courtrooms, she is billing herself as the candidate who knows the most about curbing crime and has made restoring public safety a keystone of her campaign.
“I am the only candidate who sat on the bench and looked crime in the face day in and day out for a decade,” Charbonnet said in a press conference the night she advanced to the run-off.
Charbonnet’s public safety plan hinges on increased funding for the New Orleans Police Department. If elected, she would incrementally increase the number of officers in the force by 80 to 100 per year. She would also dissolve the Independent Police Monitor, the oversight body there to ensure that the NOPD is complying with a federal consent decree handed down by the U.S. Justice Department in response to civil rights violations.
Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro has endorsed Charbonnet, a vote of confidence from the city’s criminal justice establishment that has won her support among those who trust the system, while alienating many pro-reform voters who are ready for change. Cannizzaro is a controversial figure, most recently under fire for issuing fake subpoenas to compel witnesses to testify against people his office has charged, and jailing crime victims for failing to comply with the illegitimate documents. Last month, The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against Cannizzaro’s office for the coercion tactics. Cannizzaro also opposed efforts to reduce the number of juveniles going to adult prisons.
Despite her support for the police force and her alignment with Cannizzaro, Charbonnet’s track record on the bench has won her some allies in the justice reform community. She was elected to the municipal court in 2007 on a platform based on partnering with agencies to reduce domestic violence. As chief judge in municipal court, Charbonnet saw firsthand the cycle of recidivism — according to the city, a third of people released from prison in Orleans Parish end up back there within three years, and prison officials reported that a third of people in Orleans Parish Prison take psychotropic drugs. Charbonnet partnered with the city’s’ health department to pilot a diversion program for mental illness in 2014. That same year, Charbonnet participated in a task force facilitated by the American Bar Association’s Racial Justice Improvement Project, comprised of the police chief, the DA, the city’s top public defender and herself. The task force was designed to identify challenges to fairness and efficiency in the local system, and come up with solutions to counteract them. Charbonnet came up with the idea to pilot another diversion program, this one for people arrested on prostitution charges.
“Her vision came from having a pulse on the community,” says Salma Safiedine, who heads the Racial Justice Improvement Project. “Through an understanding of how New Orleans works, and how it doesn’t work — how it doesn’t work, more importantly, maybe.” Safiedine says. Charbonnet saw repeat offenders for whom neither jail time, nor a slap on the wrist, were effective solutions.
“She very eloquently described what kind of intervention would be helpful,” Safiedine says. “She’s always innovating and trying to push things forward — she wants New Orleans to have that gold standard.”
Earlier this year, Charbonnet partnered with Stand With Dignity, under the umbrella of the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice (NOWCRJ) to run a warrant clinic that wiped fees and fines for New Orleanians that had accumulated, in some cases, thousands of dollars in unpaid traffic tickets. Charbonnet lifted the warrants, often the result of unpaid tickets or a failure to appear in court, that kept many people from getting a driver’s license, or applying for jobs that required background checks.
But another branch of the NOWCRJ has had more success partnering with Cantrell. The Congress of Day Laborers, also under the umbrella of NOWCRJ, is a collective of immigrant workers and families, many of whom are undocumented. Cantrell supported the group’s work with Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gussman to create a policy denying ICE hold requests.
Charbonnet has said that she would support that policy if elected mayor. “By allowing our officers to best allocate their time to serve our communities and preventing improper targeting of non-violent New Orleanians who work hard every day to improve our city, the NOPD policy not to honor ICE detainer requests benefits the citizens of New Orleans,” Charobonnet said in an emailed statement to Next City.
To fund her ambitious public safety plan, Charbonnet plans to divert money from affordable housing and economic development funds, a move highlighted by critics. But Charbonnet asserts she’s still prioritizing housing; she just wants to change the way the city pays for it. She plans to use a portion of rent generated from city-owned property to build affordable housing. Where rooftops are concerned, her priorities are not terribly different from Cantrell’s. Both candidates say they would implement the Smart Housing Mix, a plan in the works to increase affordable housing in high opportunity areas, and consider increased limitations on short-term rentals. They would work to reduce blight and return properties into commerce, and work with employers to offer subsidized workforce housing. In a city where 60 percent of residents are renters, and more than half of those are rent-burdened, affordable housing is a key issue for both candidates.
While Charbonnet has used her experience as a judge to inform her public safety plans, Cantrell’s approach to housing reflects her experience as chair of the City Council’s Community Development Committee. Through her work in community development in Broadmoor even before making the jump to city hall, Cantrell gained a reputation as a coalition-builder, and as someone who gets things done.
“It’s not an act,” says Hal Roark, who headed the Broadmoor Development Corporation, an affordable housing developer affiliated with the neighborhood association that Cantrell ran in the years after Katrina. “Sometimes it’s a little scary and it can be a little rough, but it comes out of this deep genuine commitment to the common good,” says Roark.
After Katrina, a group of urban planners proposed turning the badly damaged Broadmoor neighborhood where Cantrell lived into a drainage park. Cantrell rallied the neighborhood, which is one of the city’s most racially and socioeconomically diverse, to create an alternative plan for how they would rebuild to not only recover, but become better than before.
“Many people — unless you were there — don’t realize the incredible pressure that was on everybody,” says Roark of the time after Katrina. “It’s not just the personal trauma of trying to keep your family together, but if you were a community leader, it was hundreds of people who were traumatized. You saw Ray Nagin crack ; you saw LaToya flourish.”
The resident-led Broadmoor development plan focused on one key commercial corridor at the center of the neighborhood. Community leaders, including Cantrell, worked to transform a storm-damaged public elementary school into a LEED-certified public charter school, build a health clinic and rehab the strip’s aging Rosa Keller Library and Community Center with the idea that three bright and modern buildings would anchor a new “health and education corridor” that would serve all Broadmoor residents and help unify the storm-shattered area. Ten years later, all three of those buildings are up and running.
Cantrell and a friend in front of the renovated Rosa F. Keller Library and Community Center a decade after Hurricane Katrina (Credit: Adam Schultz/Clinton Foundation)
That experience rebuilding a neighborhood from the ground up could serve well Cantrell as mayor, says Sara Johnson, co-executive director of Local Progress, a network for progressive municipal elected officials from around the country of which Cantrell is a board member.
“It isn’t surprising that someone with a strong progressive record and deep roots in the community would earn so much support. Leaders like LaToya are ascendant in communities across the country who are eager for change,” she says.
But while neighborhoods are no longer being reconstructed the way they were four or eight years ago, there will be plenty more building that must be done under the next mayor. This past August, enormous lapses in the Sewerage and Water Board’s ability to effectively operate pumping infrastructure were exposed, causing intense flooding disproportionate with the amount of rainfall. Landrieu’s successor will have to finish the repair projects introduced by Landrieu late this summer and move the city towards a long-term solution for subsidence and rising sea levels, trends that threaten to put the city under water if no action is taken.
In a recent debate on the topic, Charbonnet advocated for academic and vocational training in local colleges and universities that would yield qualified engineers to handle the water system. She also painted in broad strokes the level of leadership New Orleans needed to take on the subject.
“We always go to the Netherlands,” she said. “People talk about the Dutch and how well they manage water. We need to be the Dutch of the United States.”
Cantrell was slightly less abstract in her proposals, and a little more down to business.
“The city has truly taken steps in the right direction with the resiliency plan that we know we have, with the climate plan that we have, with the the urban water management plan that we know we have,” she said. “Now it’s about getting things done.”
In the weeks leading up to the runoff, the Charbonnet campaign has accused Cantrell of using a public credit card for personal travel expenses, which she later reimbursed out of her personal and campaign funds. While a list of Cantrell’s expenses charged to the public card that were later paid back includes several personal trips, most of the expenses in question were for professional development conferences and speaking engagements regarding issues such as affordable housing, race relations and water management.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with a statement on ICE hold requests from Desiree Charbonnet provided by her campaign on Nov. 3, after the article’s original publication.
Nina Feldman is an independent journalist focused on audio production. She worked as a regular contributor to NPR member station WWNO in New Orleans and as editor at American Routes. Her work has also appeared on Marketplace, Morning Edition and PRI's The World.