When public officials serve during challenging times, their capacity for leadership is severely tested. For LaToya Cantrell, the new mayor of New Orleans, this is one of those times.
Cantrell enters the mayor's office with big issues on the horizon that will test her skill as a coalition builder and her competency as a manager. Unfortunately, most of these issues received short shrift in last year's mayoral election.
DeLesseps Story "Chep" Morrison became mayor in 1946 and had to carry out a sweeping reform agenda that changed city government forever. Maurice Edwin "Moon" Landrieu took office in 1970 and had to nudge and push New Orleans into the post-civil rights era. Ernest "Dutch" Morial became the city's first black mayor in 1978 and was called upon to write a new chapter in Crescent City history. C. Ray Nagin was in office when Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures devastated the city, and Mitch Landrieu took office when municipal coffers were empty and civic optimism had slumped. These mayors faced serious challenges. So will Cantrell, but hers will be different.
Here are the top 10 challenges Mayor Cantrell faces as she gets started. Any one of them can make or break her legacy.
If New Orleans is to have a modern economy, it needs a modern infrastructure. That's something everybody wants, but the price tag is a gigantic obstacle.
The cost of fixing streets and drainage alone will require at least $7 billion in addition to the $2.4 billion in FEMA-funded projects. That's a lot of money for a city that produces barely $600 million a year from every tax, fine, fee and "service charge" it imposes.
When it comes to fixing pot holes and cleaning out catch basins, the mayor needs to think small. When it comes to funding infrastructure rebuilding and modernization, she needs to think big.
Cantrell must put together — with much input, thought and study — a smart infrastructure funding plan based on existing bonding capacity, one-time cash windfalls, federal and state assistance and new revenue streams that also can be bonded. If she can do this, her place in history will be secured.
2. Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans (S&WB).
This critical agency is a mess. It lacks technology, management and competence. Customer service hasn't been a priority for many years. Simply hiring a new director and doling out a few pay raises won't be enough. The new mayor, working with the City Council and civic leaders, needs to press for fundamental overhaul.
Cantrell's first year in office will be defined by whether or not she fixes the broken S&WB. Ignoring the magnitude of the problem would be a tragic mistake, one from which she may never recover.
Realities of crime and violence threaten not only lives, but also the fiber of a city. Perceptions of an unsafe city also hurt job creation and property values. A primary responsibility of any mayor is public safety. Making sure the New Orleans Police Department is properly run and staffed is essential.
Sociologists can debate the root causes of crime, as they should, and talk about depopulating jails and prisons, but Cantrell's immediate responsibility is more direct: First, give the police chief all the necessary crimefighting tools of modern law enforcement. Second, hire more police officers to patrol neighborhoods and investigate crimes.
This means adding about 300 officers in addition to those needed to offset attrition. It also means raising police pay high enough to attract the best recruits and to retain experienced officers. If the new chief administrative officer's pencil is sharp enough, he can find the money in the city's $646 million general fund budget. That would be a dramatic accomplishment for this new administration.
Much progress has been made in recent years, but a stronger economy remains an ongoing challenge. The new mayor's view of economic development often is anchored in real estate development, as opposed to creating a better business climate. New Orleans competes for new jobs with cities in pro-business states including Texas, Tennessee and Georgia. We can't develop a stronger economy with only land swaps, new buildings and government programs. We need companies and good-paying jobs to fill them up.
5. Short-term rentals (STRs).
This is extremely important, and the mayor needs to take on any "special interests" that threaten residential neighborhoods, especially historic and vulnerable ones. The new council seems inclined to do that, but stronger regulation of STRs — and tighter implementation — will require buy-in from the administration. Without a mayor who has the political will to see this through, the council's anticipated efforts to control STRs will be short-circuited.
6. The Confederate monuments issue.
Cantrell already has hinted at a way to resolve the Confederate monuments issue. She's said the statues won't go back where they were, but adds she'll reach out to monument supporters to discuss appropriate private sites. If she can navigate these troubled waters, she will be seen as a leader who can heal divisions, and that will give her moral and political capital to tackle other issues.
7. New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA).
The city had to rebuild its transit system after Hurricane Katrina, but now it's time to take it to the next level. RTA needs a better organizational structure, starting with a highly qualified executive director. It also needs to implement its current plans to equip buses with tracking devices that allow riders to know where the buses are — and how long it will take them to get to riders. Other cities have had this for years. The mayor and the RTA board must work with officials in neighboring parishes to make the RTA a truly "regional" system. This goal has eluded mayors for decades. If Cantrell can make that happen, she will have transformed the agency.
8. Baton Rouge.
In Louisiana, all local governments are creatures of the state. Even with its home rule charter, New Orleans' taxing authority is limited, as is the city's ability to regulate companies like Uber and Lyft — as well as Harrah's Casino and other major economic drivers. As bad as that sounds, it could get worse. There's talk of a state constitutional convention, which could rewrite the state-local government relationship in significant, and not necessarily more favorable, ways. The new mayor must have a close working relationship with the local legislative delegation, the governor and other mayors around the state to protect the city's interests.
9. Washington, D.C.
Four of the most important people for New Orleans' future work a thousand miles away: Louisiana's two U.S. senators and the city's two representatives in the House. The problem for the new mayor is that, for partisan and political reasons, working with these four officials won't be easy.
Cantrell is a Democrat. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who represents part of the city, and U.S. Sens. Bill Cassidy and John Neely Kennedy are Republicans who are often aligned with President Trump. Congressman Cedric Richmond, the one Democrat of the four, has a district that represents most of the city in the House — but he was the driving force behind Desiree Charbonnet's campaign against Cantrell for mayor last year.
It is in the city's interest that Cantrell does her best to quickly create a productive working relationship with every Capitol Hill player who can help New Orleans. If she doesn't, if she lets ideological or personal differences get in the way, it will make her job much harder.
10. Unify the city.
New Orleans remains divided, especially by race and income. One of the biggest contributions any mayor can make is to bring people together and not to play divisive race or class politics. A united city is essential to getting important things done. And that, more than anything, should be the hallmark of the Cantrell administration.
— Ron Faucheux is a writer, pollster, political analyst and former state legislator from New Orleans.