Although the 2017 mayoral election gave us a painfully uninspiring field of candidates, it still produced a political watershed in several ways. Here are my takeaways one day before the election, assuming LaToya Cantrell (pictured) wins easily, as suggested by every poll. (If Desiree Charbonnet somehow pulls off the biggest upset since Bienville hoodwinked the British Navy in 1699, I'll eat what follows.)
Our First Post-Katrina Mayor — Hurricane Katrina flipped the political script in New Orleans from a top-down to a bottom-up template. Before the storm, voters waited to see who the political organizations and City Hall mullahs anointed for coronation. After Katrina, voters became enraged and engaged, pushing for multiple reforms and electing New Orleans City Council members whose political bases were rooted in neighborhood, civic and business organizations rather than political groups or officialdom.
Cantrell's election as mayor has taken the bottom-up paradigm to an unprecedented level. Her grassroots campaign evoked the best of Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders. Cantrell's turnout effort mirrored Obama's use of technology and social media, and her popularity among millennials, progressives, women and neighborhood groups — even in the face of withering attacks — mirrored the intense loyalty of Sanders' supporters. Millennials' emergence as a citywide political force is particularly significant, as is Cantrell's support across geographic, racial, gender and economic lines.
“From Here” Doesn’t Matter — Some New Orleanians believe our mayors should be Crescent City natives, even though we’ve had some notable mayors who were not “from here” — Chep Morrison of New Roads, La. and Vic Schiro of Chicago come to mind. That said, the argument against non-natives worked against Bill Jefferson in 1986 and Richard Pennington in 2002. The third time was not the charm for Charbonnet, who reminded voters at every turn that she was born and raised in New Orleans — in contrast to Cantrell, who’s from Los Angeles. Cantrell moved here decades ago to attend Xavier University, and she’s now the second Xavier alum to become mayor, the first being Dutch Morial, our city’s first black mayor. Although not a native, Cantrell’s Xavier connections gave her a strong network of contributors, volunteers and supporters. You can’t get much more N’Awlins than that.(Editor’s Note — The previous paragraph has been updated to remove the reference to “the Creole Era” in New Orleans politics. The term “creole” means “native born,” but it has also been used by some as a racially divisive term among black New Orleanians. That was never the writer’s intent.)
Cantrell Didn't Fire a Shot — I can't recall a modern mayor whose campaign succeeded without having to attack or counterattack. Does Cantrell's victory signal a new era? Probably not. Charbonnet was so badly wounded by the NotForSaleNOLA PAC's attack mailers in the primary that voters largely yawned in response to her runoff attacks against Cantrell for abusing her city-issued, taxpayer-funded credit card. Had Cantrell's credit card debacle been exposed in the primary by another source, this election might have turned out differently.
About Those Allegations — The election may be over, but both Cantrell and Charbonnet are the subjects of criminal complaints now in the hands of state Attorney General Jeff Landry. Cantrell's misuse of a city credit card may also draw the feds' attention — and if that happens, several City Council members could also be in trouble.
Correction: In my column of Oct. 24, I suggested that the attacks against Charbonnet by NotForSaleNOLA failed because they did not keep her out of the runoff (assuming that was the PAC's aim). In retrospect, the PAC clearly succeeded in undercutting Charbonnet's credibility, which hobbled her runoff efforts. That said, I stand by my criticisms of the PAC's heavy-handed tactics and racially insensitive optics — rich white business types blasting a cast of black political players.