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LaToya Cantrell elected Mayor of New Orleans

27th November 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

Six Historic firsts in the November 18, 2017 Election

1. The First Female Black Mayor

In fact, LaToya Cantrell is the first woman — of any ethnicity — to become Chief Executive of New Orleans. While this “glass ceiling” would have broken had Desiree Charbonnet emerged victorious, it is worth remembering that as late as qualifying, electing a female mayor was far from a sure thing.

Last September arrived with 2009 and 2013 second-place finishers Michael Bagneris and Troy Henry again throwing their hats in the mayoral mix. All Bagneris had to do to make this year’s runoff was win the one-third of the vote he claimed four years ago. Moreover, for a while, the former Civil District Court Judge looked primed to claim most of the Caucasian vote, thanks to his calls for a referendum on the monuments, and he still enjoyed incredible good will amongst Black voters.



So did Troy Henry, who had captured the hearts of the rising African-American middle class in his bid against Mitch Landrieu eight years ago. While his 14 percent would have failed to achieve a runoff this time around, it was not so inconceivable that Henry might have built upon this foundation. Polling indicated that multiple constituencies in the local African-American electorate considered Henry their second choice.

To extend the counter-factual even further, Desiree Charbonnet enjoyed an effective lifetime sinecure as a Municipal Judge. Well-paid and secure, she nearly opted not to run for mayor. Absent her in the contest, Cantrell, caught between Henry’s Black support and Bagneris’ white support, conceivably could have been squeezed in the middle — and out of runoff contention. Effectively, the Councilwoman could have repeated Paulette Irons’ campaign when the then-State Senator tried to become the first woman mayor 16 years ago.

Nevertheless, few words can emphasize the positive image that New Orleans sends forth to the world by passing the torch of leadership across the gender line. Perhaps, one day, the name “LaToya Cantrell” will be spoken in the same breath as other ground-breaking female leaders, such as Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, and Indra Gandhi. The reputation of the Crescent City will prove all the better for it.

2. The first non-native to win Mayor’s office in generations

In some ways, this reality might prove even more consequential for New Orleans—if not for the rest of the human race. By sending the message that the Crescent City welcomes the best and brightest to move here, study, and settle (as Cantrell did at Xavier and Broadmoor) and then adding that such a transplant could be chosen to stand at the apex of leadership, may prove more historic than gender.

Non-natives have won election to the Council, most recently with Arnie Fielkow and Helena Moreno, but never Mayor. Never to the top job—a reality that seemed to prove New Orleans’ hostility to outsiders. Local lore calls it “eight generations before you are a native,” a resistance to newcomers that has often translated into a liability for economic development.

Who wants to come to a city where they are not welcome? Certainly, the supporters of Desiree Charbonnet tried to dissuade swing voters through racially-charged mailers—featuring an unflattering photo of Cantrell and highlighting her childhood in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Compton. The effort, though, failed not only with older Uptown whites, both Democrats and Republicans, who chose Cantrell, but also with their adult children, who felt inspired by her story of adopting the Crescent City as her passion — and her home.

Now, to those who question the acceptance of migrants, LaToya Cantrell can provide the model. If you love New Orleans, and wish to work for her betterment, you can (to quote Ataturk) become “blood of our blood.”

3. Millennials become a political Force in New Orleans

LaToya Cantrell can thank the crash of the “Outta Compton” attacks due, in large part, to a rising tide of “under 35” voters found outsider status an inspiration rather than a liability.

Throughout the campaign, the District “B” Councilwoman actively courted Millennials, meeting with them at “Happy Hour” events at local gastropubs to outline her vision. While other candidates eschewed the recent college grads as unlikely voters, Cantrell embraced them, and voiced answers to their fears.

At one, hosted at the Oak St. Pub “Ale and Oak” back in August by three young Caucasian professional women, each under 30, proves a notable example. As the drinks flowed, Cantrell tackled their fears of rising crime, referencing Gambit’s “Is it Worth it” to live in New Orleans article.

Posing a solution, the Councilwoman highlighted her proposed reforms for the New Orleans Police Department, but, then, as one of the hosts put it to The Louisiana Weekly, “She spoke not only about the city, but why she loves the city as a transplant. Why she moved from California to Louisiana for college and choose to live here. Why she is drawn to the soul of the city, and why it’s worth fighting for.” So, when Cantrell was attacked later for her outsider status, her youth base viewed it as a strength.

Transitioning to economic development, the host continued, “The line [Cantrell] referenced over and over was ‘nothing stops a bullet like a job,’ talking about her plans for vocational training and economic development.” While older whites laughed at the reference, their children were inspired by the metaphor.

To the attendees, Cantrell appealed for not just their votes, but their “financial support to help the campaign” advance. They opened their wallets as well as their minds, at a time when Charbnnonet seemed to be claiming all of the campaign dollars. The District “B” Councilwoman succeeded in her appeal to a room of educated youth — where only a handful of participants yet had children—to fight for the future with their time and money. Cantrell’s campaign, more than any other contender, has targeted the newest generation of young professionals, citing the “Hipster” generation as her secret weapon to overcome her rival’s establishment support.

It worked. Doubling down on this effort with a social media campaign targeting the 18-35 demographic, Cantrell ultimately won 66.5 percent of the vote in the city’s four precincts where the average age is less than 35. Young people proved the Councilwoman’s firewall as the “credit card” allegations threatened her campaign. They also labored to convince their Uptown parents to stick with Cantrell.

4. The First Vietnamese Councilwoman

No one gave Cyndi Nguyen a chance.

That Black-majority District “E” would toss its incumbent James Gray II, a legendary politician, for an Asian American newcomer drew laughter this summer. Yet, Nguyen, the director of Vietnamese Initiatives in Economic Training (VIET), was a community organizer who knew her community. Not just the Asian neighborhoods, but the fashion in which New Orleans East — and the Ninth Ward — had transformed since Hurricane Katrina. New subdivisions effectively had sprung up in the wake of the disaster. The East’s rental population amounted to a fraction of its former strength, and the Ninth Ward is more associated with “Holy Cross” gentrification than dire poverty these days amongst aspiring “Hipster” millennials priced out of the Bywater.

Almost as important as electing the first woman mayor is the message that Black New Orleans embraced a Vietnamese-American Councilperson. The 21st-century post-racial reputation of the city remains secure, even if that is not always true across the nation as a whole. The “Big Easy” appears welcoming of immigrants, and embracing of change.

Locally, the ruling political class cannot ignore the rise of the Vietnamese as a political force. No longer content to just turn out for whomever incumbent woos them, Asian voters declared that they henceforth desire their own representatives in office. In other words, Asians in the East, and throughout the city, will now follow the self-determinate example of the city’s African-American electorate in the 1970s and 1980s.

5. The First Hispanic Council-woman

It is a testament to the number of Historic “firsts” that Helena Moreno’s election to Council At-Large ranks so low on this list. In any other year, the choice of an Hispanic for a citywide office would premier any tally.

The Mexican-born, Texas raised former TV reporter and current state representative not only defeated her fellow legislator Dr. Joseph Bouie, her triumph confirmed the rise citywide of Hispanics as a political force.

New Orleans has always served as a crossroad of Latin America’s intelligencia. Permanent immigrants, though, were comparatively few in number—at least in the last century. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina changed the pattern, drawing an influx of Latino workers who opted to stay.

In the budding multiracial political landscape transforming the Crescent City, local elected officials, who ignore Latinos do so at their peril.

6. The first Black/white ‘Carnival’ alliance

The phrase, “Rex elects Black Councilman” seems absurd, but the 131-vote victory of Jay Banks over School Board member Seth Bloom can be attributed — in large part — to the alliances that the 2016 King Zulu made with his counterparts in the Krewe of Rex.

What makes the phrase even stranger is that nearly three decades ago, Banks served as aide to Dorothy Mae Taylor, and helped the author of the Carnival non-discrimination ordinance. His Civil Rights record is hard to fault—any more than his commitment to Central City. As one of the heads of the Dryades YMCA, Banks has spent years building up — physically and otherwise—the residents around O.C. Haley.

He was an ideal Central City candidate, but these are not the days of Banks’ mentor Jim Singleton. The District “B” Councilman-elect would be the first to say that Central City has changed demographically. As the “Faubourg Livaudais” gentrifies, and Uptown becomes more white than anytime since the 1960s, it should mean that any Black contender faces a problem.

Banks overcame this challenge in an innovative way. He ran as the anti-tax, anti-AirBnB, pro-Carnival candidate.

Banks, as a senior officer of Zulu, has worked with Rex members to help the development and outfitting of local charter schools and community initiatives. The leadership of both Krewes know one another far better than the general public suspects. In fact, the officers of Rex and Zulu gather multiple times per year, en masse, to discuss issues of mutual interest – that go far beyond parades.

When Banks decided to run, coming off of his 2016 ride as Zulu King, some of his first calls were to Rex members, who immediately offered to open their homes to him – and promote his candidacy with their neighbors. Consequently, white Republicans amounted to some of Banks’ strongest supporters, forming a biracial, bipartisan coalition defeating Seth Bloom.

This article originally published in the November 27, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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