The 2017 citywide elections were a watershed moment in New Orleans politics. We got our first woman mayor, which was a foregone conclusion, and our first Asian and Hispanic council members (the latter of whom was elected in the primary).
Equally important, the election of LaToya Cantrell as mayor and Cyndi Nguyen as council member from District E proves that the post-Katrina "bottom-up" electoral paradigm has gone citywide. Gone is the old "top-down" model of entrenched political organizations and city officials anointing chosen candidates for a pliable public to accept. Lamar White Jr. of BayouBrief.com put it best: "It's better to out-organize your opponent than to simply outspend them."
Which brings us to our post-election post mortem, Da Winnas and Da Loozas, starting with ...
1. BOLD — In an election season that saw establishment candidates get their asses kicked, the Central City-based Black Organization for Leadership Development (a longtime player in city politics) had a key role in helping elect LaToya Cantrell and kept its decades-long hold on the District B City Council seat. With few exceptions since the mid-1970s, BOLD has held the District B council seat, and Jay Banks' narrow win on Nov. 18 kept it in the organization's hands. Moreover, in her victory speech, Cantrell gave a shoutout to another BOLD stalwart, state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson. Banks is a skilled politician who also is close to Cantrell, giving BOLD more pull at City Hall than all the other political groups combined.
2. Millennials — They are New Orleans' new power bloc, and they played a major role in Cantrell's victory. They comprised a significant portion of Cantrell's support and, equally important, they gave her campaign grassroots energy. They also played a key role in electing Kristin Gisleson Palmer in City Council District C.
3. Vietnamese and Hispanic residents — For the first time, New Orleans will have an Asian-American council member (Nguyen) and a Latina council member (state Rep. Helena Moreno). These two minorities have held untapped political potential for years, and now that potential has been realized.
4. Super PACs — Charter school champion Leslie Jacobs, along with businessman Sidney Torres IV, personified the influence that Super PACs can have in local elections. Jacobs led the NotForSaleNOLA PAC in deconstructing Charbonnet as a mayoral force, while Torres taught candidates the importance of showing up for televised debates by spending nearly $100,000 blasting Charbonnet for skipping out of his Voice of the People ("VoicePAC") debate at the last minute during the primary. Which brings us to ...
1. Congressman Cedric Richmond, attorney Ike Spears and bail bondsman Blair Boutte — These three guys effectively filled the political void left by "Dollar Bill" Jefferson's fall from grace in 2008, and for nearly a decade they were the go-to triumvirate for candidates in search of votes, yard signs and political organization in New Orleans. As congressman, Richmond provided a regional as well as local power base. Attorney Spears was widely considered the brains and strategist of the group, and bondsman Boutte was seen as the political "muscle" because of his legendary skills as a street-level organizer and yard-sign ace. This election cycle, they backed longtime allies Nadine Ramsey in City Council District C, James Gray in Council District E and new At-Large Councilwoman Helena Moreno. In the mayor's race, they were all in for Desiree Charbonnet. Charbonnet got trounced in the mayor's race, and both Ramsey and Gray lost their council seats. Ramsey's defeat was particularly devastating because her district includes the French Quarter, whose bars and clubs provide a steady stream of political contributions for favored candidates — and clients for Spears.
- District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro may have to work to hang onto his job.
2. District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro — The DA threw all his weight behind two losing citywide candidates this cycle: Charbonnet in the mayor's race and Criminal District Court Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier in the contest for Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal. Both lost big. Moreover, the DA lost the PR battle over Cantrell's credit card debacle, even though he did the right thing in recusing his office from the "anonymous" criminal complaint filed against Cantrell. Rumors began swirling even before Election Day that he won't run for re-election in 2020, particularly after news of his "fake" subpoenas and arrests of crime victims to compel their testimony. It's early yet to write his political obituary, but Cannizzaro has a lot of work to do if he wants to hold onto his job.
3. Short-Term Rental (STR) proponents — Their two top candidates for City Council — Nadine Ramsey and Aylin Maklansky — both lost in the primary, and Seth Bloom (who was seen as sympathetic to, if not supportive of, STRs) lost a close race in District B. The future council seems strongly inclined to tighten restrictions on vacation rentals.
4. Attorney Bernard "Bunny" Charbonnet — The brother of the losing mayoral candidate tried once before to elect a mayor (in 2002, when he helped orchestrate then-state Sen. Paulette Irons' campaign). For Bunny, the second cut was probably the deepest; he had a ringside seat as his sister gave up a very safe judgeship to run a disastrous campaign for mayor. Now they're both sidelined politically. He also was featured — along with Richmond, Spears and Boutte — in the attack mailers sent to voters by NotForSaleNOLA.
Politics is a bruising game, but every election cycle presents opportunities to rise from the ashes — and fall into Gehenna.