PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
The scene at LaToya Cantrell's victory party at the New Orleans Jazz Market.
The 2017 citywide elections were indeed a watershed moment in New Orleans politics, just as I predicted in my column posted on Election Eve (Friday, Nov. 17). We not only got our first woman mayor, which was a foregone conclusion, but we also got our first Asian and Hispanic council members (the latter of whom was elected in the primary). The Council also went from five black members to three, and from four women to three.
More than that, the election of LaToya Cantrell as mayor and Cyndi Nguyen as councilmember from District E proves that the post-Katrina “bottom-up” electoral paradigm has gone citywide. Cantrell, a former community organizer and leader of the Broadmoor neighborhood’s comeback after Hurricane Katrina, mounted a grass roots campaign that mirrored both the style and substance of Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid. Cantrell also borrowed a page from former President Barack Obama in terms of her turnout operation, which used technology and social media to amazing effect. As a result, Cantrell becomes not only New Orleans’ first woman mayor but also our first truly post-Katrina mayor.
Similarly, Nguyen is the first truly post-Katrina City Council member for New Orleans East and the Lower Nine. In a district whose voters are 87 percent African-American, Nguyen, a leader in the Vietnamese-American community, trounced incumbent James Gray, who is African American, by a 59-41 percent margin — nearly identical to Cantrell’s margin over former Judge Desiree Charbonnet in the mayor’s race. Much like Cantrell in Broadmoor, Nguyen earned her political cred as a neighborhood and civic leader. This year, Nguyen proved to be an excellent campaigner who could connect with voters across ethnic and racial lines.
Elsewhere, just to prove that not all politics are alike, Jay Banks, a leader in the BOLD political organization, narrowly beat former School Board member Seth Bloom to capture the District B council seat that Cantrell is giving up to become mayor. District B includes the Warehouse District and CBD as well as Central City, the Garden District and parts of Broadmoor. In this contest, the bottom-up candidate was Timothy David Ray, who ran a very respectable third in the primary and then endorsed Banks. The unofficial results on Election Night showed Banks winning by 131 votes. Bloom refused to concede and hinted at a legal challenge by citing unspecified issues with absentee ballots. “I’m going to wait until Tuesday and let a judge make that decision,” Bloom told a roomful of supporters Saturday night.
Thankfully, the rest of us don’t need to petition a court to determine who won and who lost when it comes to our post-election post mortem, Da Winnas and Da Loozas. Let’s start, as we always do, with …
— 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) played 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, Cantrell in her victory speech 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 stroke at City Hall than all the other political groups combined.
State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson.
— Conventional wisdom holds that young people don’t vote. That may have been true in years past, but not so with 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 Hispanics
— 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 ethnic minorities have held untapped political potential for years, mostly waiting for the right candidates to emerge at just the right times. (Remember that America’s first Vietnamese-American congressman — Anh “Joseph” Cao — came from New Orleans East in 2008.)
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 (and carving up attorney Ike Spears and Congressman Cedric Richmond in the process). Torres, meanwhile, taught candidates and voters alike the importance of showing up for televised debates when he spent $100,000 or more blasting Charbonnet for skipping out of his Voice of the People (“VoicePAC”) debate at the last minute during the primary. I noted in an earlier column that PACs are now the official attack dogs of local politics. Subtle they ain’t, but woe to candidates who can’t take — and effectively return — a punch. 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. Together, they helped elect a lot of City Council and judicial candidates — and they all but own the Algiers Courthouse. This election cycle, they backed long-time allies Nadine Ramsey in City Council District C, council District E incumbent James Gray, and new at-Large Councilmember Helena Moreno. In the mayor’s race, they were all in for Desiree Charbonnet, who represented their effort to own a near-majority of the council and
the mayor’s office. In the end, they lost just about everything. Charbonnet got trounced in the mayor’s race, and both Ramsey and Gray lost their council seats. Ramsey’s defeat was particularly devastating to their operations 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.
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 4th Circuit Court of Appeal. Both lost big despite high-profile TV ads by the DA and extensive behind-the-scenes work for Charbonnet by Cannizzaro’s close friend and longtime political consigliere
, Bill Schultz. 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. From the get-go, Cannizzaro looked too close to the Charbonnet camp’s machinations on that one. 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 thus seems strongly inclined to tighten restrictions on vacation rentals. It will be interesting to see if the current council reconsiders the idea of tying STRs to homestead exemptions and voter registration.
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, Boutte and Schultz — 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.