Mayoral transitions are times of great anticipation and intense political speculation. Who will be the new mayor's top advisors? Who will be police chief, chief administrative officer, city attorney, executive counsel?
Those appointments and others will shape LaToya Cantrell's tenure as mayor, but, unlike all her modern predecessors, she enters the final weeks of her five-month-plus transition without giving the slightest hint of who will fill those critical jobs.
Inside the Xavier University Convocation Center Annex, which has served as her transition headquarters, a diverse group of loyalists, newcomers and professionals has been busily planning Cantrell's administration and counting the days till her May 7 inauguration.
- Alana Harris
The team is led by John Pourciau, who served as Cantrell's chief of staff in her City Council office until her election. Pourciau gets high marks from Cantrell for his steady demeanor and his ability to keep the mayor-elect informed and on message. If, as expected, he becomes the new mayor's chief of staff, he will be the "go-to" person Cantrell describes in her Gambit interview.
"We're building it while we're flying it," Pourciau says of the transition. "As we fully engage in the personnel decisions, people will see announcements of things like CAO and other major appointments."
Other top transition leaders include Michelle Thomas, former deputy mayor for Mitch Landrieu and former chief administrative officer for U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, when he served as mayor of Newark; and R. Erich Caulfield, who also served in Booker's mayoral administration. Thomas is Cantrell's lead consultant for the transition; Caulfield is director of policy development.
"We've taken advantage of the time we've had in this transition to initially focus on policy development while separately working with the mayor-elect," Thomas says. One early policy decision: getting rid of Landrieu's deputy mayor system.
"This team is a diverse and talented group of New Orleanians who have volunteered their time," Caulfield adds. "Everyone is very passionate about this process."
- John Pourciau
Examples of that diversity and passion include Alana Harris, the transition administrator who's also a member of the Creole Belle Baby Dolls marching group, and Justin Boone, the mayor-elect's executive assistant and scheduler. "I'm the Radar O'Reilly of the transition," Harris laughs as she ticks off an array of daily tasks. "As a Baby Doll, I'm also a culture bearer. My being here gives culture bearers a feeling that their voices will be heard."
Boone, a self-described LGBTQ millennial, only met Cantrell a year ago when he volunteered for her campaign. "My job is to be her gatekeeper and front door," he says. "I have to make sure that I have a grasp of everything around her so that if she has a question, I can answer it for her."
All around them are 22 committees and sub-committees addressing topics from public safety to infrastructure to youth and family services. Cantrell wants full reports by April 15.
"On the front end, it seemed we had a lot of time," Pourciau says. "How quickly that time gets eaten up has been a big surprise. That, and managing expectations."
Coincidentally, "managing expectations" was cited by Landrieu as the biggest challenge of his transition eight years ago.
Some things never change.