The Lost Penny

LaToya Cantrell’s first year as New Orleans mayor: See breakdown of her wins and losses

By Jessica Williams and Jeff Adelson

Source: The Advocate

May 11, 2019

For generations, the mayor of New Orleans was supposed to be a native, a smooth political operator and, it almost goes without saying, a man.

In her history-making 2017 campaign, Mayor LaToya Cantrell bet that New Orleans was ready to buck all those “old outdated rules,” she told a cheering crowd celebrating her inauguration at the Mahalia Jackson Theater one year ago.

A year into her first term, the city’s first female chief executive is still taking risks and breaking old rules. And so far, many of her gambles are getting results.

The biggest one: After spending months pressuring the tourism industry to turn out its pockets to help the Sewerage & Water Board, she has wrung tens of millions of dollars a year from its grasp in a triumph that many observers considered impossible.

At the end of her first year, the question is whether she can keep winning such policy battles, or whether her governing style — which critics say has been marked by secrecy and stubbornness and lacked a broad, clearly stated vision — will trip her up.

And big issues remain.

For all her advocacy for more money for infrastructure and especially the S&WB, the utility has not come close to regaining the public trust. It continues to be plagued by boil-water advisories, sleeping workers, billing issues and other embarrassing problems.

Despite her pledge to quit “nickel-and-diming” residents with the city’s traffic cameras, Cantrell’s secret and unapologetic move to lower the thresholds at which speeding tickets are issued struck many motorists as taking “nickel-and-diming” to new heights.

Cantrell defends N.O. traffic cam changes, didn’t want to ‘encourage’ speeding by making changes known
And while she has focused on the sorts of unglamorous issues that won her fans as a councilwoman — clearing litter from city streets, looking for solutions to the city’s affordable housing shortage, and prioritizing New Orleans’ children, among others — her long-range vision for the city’s future is fuzzy.

Also in need of mending: Cantrell’s relationship with a City Council that seems eager to buck her authority.

Her boosters say she is less worried about small losses and more about meaningful, game-changing victories that will outlast her tenure — such as the infrastructure deal.

Honeymoon period
She is “consummately committed to getting the job done,” said Bob Tucker, a Cantrell adviser who has worked in or around seven mayoral administrations. “She’s not caught up in trying to make herself more politically desirable, or politically liked.”

But critics say her errors, some of them unforced, highlight the inexperience of a mayor with a shorter political resumé than many of her predecessors.

Cantrell declined a recent opportunity to speak with The New Orleans Advocate about her first year. The newspaper would not agree to her request to bar a specific reporter from conducting the interview.

But she told WBOK Radio last week that she has produced results for the city, even if her delivery has been misunderstood. “It’s almost as if you are underestimated in terms of your approach and strategy,” she said. “But you really have to stay focused.”

Cantrell took a big political risk when she jumped into the mayor’s race in 2017, even as several more experienced hopefuls sat on the sidelines.

She hailed from Los Angeles, having moved to New Orleans almost three decades ago to attend Xavier University. But it had been a half-century since the last non-Louisiana native, Victor Schiro, was elected the city’s mayor. And Cantrell had spent just six years in elective city politics after experience as a neighborhood leader following Hurricane Katrina.

However, her campaign style and persona tapped into a public mood eager for change. She won big, with 60 percent of the vote, and maintained roughly that level of support through December, according to a University of New Orleans survey.

“Elected officials get that honeymoon period, where voters and other political actors give the mayor the benefit of the doubt and wait and let her pursue her agenda,” said Ed Chervenak, director of the UNO Survey Research Center.

Winning ‘a lost cause’
Cantrell inherited a city government with stable finances, generally transparent contracting practices and major quantities of new public and private investment. But New Orleans could not boast of a competent utility.

That became apparent a few months before Cantrell’s victory, when a pair of summer storms in 2017 caused widespread flooding and exposed deep problems with the S&WB’s staffing and ancient equipment.

An $80 million spending spree to try to fix those issues hurt the utility’s bottom line. The agency had no permanent leader for most of a year after Mayor Mitch Landrieu fired the old leaders, and problems with its billing system led to massive overcharges for many customers. Meanwhile, boil-water advisories and routine street flooding also kept faith in the utility at a low ebb.

Still, Cantrell went right to work, appointing former Milwaukee Public Works Commissioner Ghassan Korban, widely praised as one of her best hires, to run the beleaguered agency. She also reinstated a controversial policy of shutting off water to delinquent customers, a step condemned by the City Council as insensitive.

But her most audacious plan was revealed in the fall, when she began calling for the city to get its “fair share” of hotel taxes that have long gone to tourism marketing groups, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. She said the money was needed to fix the city’s infrastructure, led by its ailing water system.

Past mayors have tried and failed to wrest any money from those groups’ grasp, and some lawmakers, including Gov. John Bel Edwards, panned the effort when it was first announced.

“Folks said … that this will never happen: ‘A lost cause — it’s been tried before, forget about it,’ ” Cantrell told WBOK.

But “we were able to turn that no into a yes,” she added, thanks to the work of a political action committee, the public’s frustration with the S&WB’s failings, and the support of business groups and the Bureau of Governmental Research. Edwards, too, eventually aided the effort, perhaps with an eye on New Orleans’ importance in this fall’s gubernatorial election.

The landmark deal that resulted will see the S&WB get $50 million — just a bit less than the drainage system’s annual budget — this year from the state and the Convention Center, plus up to $26 million a year in the future from new taxes targeting tourists in the city.

“Infrastructure is the greatest existential threat facing our city right now,” said Coleman Ridley, managing director of the Business Council of New Orleans and the River Region. “This (agreement) is the foundational element in turning the corner on this issue.”

Successes and failures
Cantrell’s focus on the S&WB has not pushed all her other priorities to the wayside. For instance, she spent $1 million last year targeting city litter, one of her chief peeves. “A clean city is a proud city … a safe city … a healthy city,” she said.

She has sought to focus on children, making weekly visits to school classrooms, prioritizing investment in early childhood education and creating a new city office that aims to combine various youth initiatives under one umbrella.

Amid a housing crisis, she has continued Landrieu’s late-tenure embrace of strategies to increase the city’s supply of affordable homes and improve public transit. Advocates involved in those issues say she has listened to their advice, in line with her promise to be a “bottom-up” mayor.

On one of the city’s most intractable problems — violent crime — Cantrell has continued work started under Landrieu by deploying conflict-resolution teams in neighborhoods. Analysts are cautious about pinpointing the reasons for it — or whether it will continue — but the city over the last year enjoyed the lowest level of gun violence seen in decades.

Cantrell has also sought to open up seats on city boards and commissions to average people rather than connected insiders.

“To me that shows a level of collaboration that we haven’t seen in the past and a willingness to allow people to be their own leaders,” Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer said. “That’s a harder thing to do than to try to control the narrative.”

But Cantrell’s successes have at times been overshadowed by missteps that undercut the public image she cultivated during a campaign built on “listening sessions” and pledges to bring more residents into the city’s decision-making processes.

Take the earliest days of her transition, when she assembled panels to advise her on the city’s needs. Those selected were muzzled by non-disclosure agreements and met behind closed doors, however, and promised sessions to gather public input never happened.

Or take when she offered a contract welcoming former Police Superintendent Warren Riley to her City Hall team and called him “a great choice.” Her review of his experience apparently didn’t include Riley’s seeming indifference to the Danziger Bridge police shootings after Hurricane Katrina.

Cantrell later withdrew the appointment — prompting Riley to sue the city — but only after pointed protests from the families of the Danziger victims.

A question of trust
She also removed a large number of the city’s unpopular traffic cameras, fulfilling a campaign promise, though keeping those in school zones. But she undid much of the good will that move might have created by lowering the speeds that trigger camera tickets — and even more by keeping the change quiet, letting tens of thousands of people learn about it by receiving expensive tickets.

When angry motorists called her money-hungry, she insisted she was just trying to protect schoolchildren, and said she’d lower the speeds further if she could.

While the traffic-camera debacle may not have been hugely consequential, it could erode public trust in Cantrell, Chervenak said.

“Can you believe what they say? Do you trust what they say?” he said. “That’s why I think this goes way beyond just a traffic ticket. It’s about whether you trust the administration to be forthright, to be transparent.”

Cantrell also avoided a public process when it came time to pick a new police chief after well-respected Superintendent Michael Harrison, who had been appointed by Landrieu, resigned to take over the troubled Baltimore Police Department. The mayor quickly tapped the head of the New Orleans Police Department’s training division, Shaun Ferguson, as her pick, with little or no consideration of other possible candidates.

Harrison’s appointment had been similarly opaque, but he served a lengthy term as interim chief that allowed him to build public trust before he was given the job permanently.

Cantrell has also struggled at times to convey a broader vision for the city. The tweets she blasts only occasionally seem to convey a cohesive message.

Critics say that style has kept her from defining the broad themes of her administration on her own terms.

“I couldn’t tell you what I think her vision is for the city of New Orleans when she runs for re-election,” said Cheron Brylski, a political strategist who once worked in Mayor Ernest “Dutch” Morial’s administration. “I knew when Mitch ascended (after Mayor Ray Nagin’s troubled tenure) that he was immediately going to get rid of corruption and had a plan to keep us stable. I assume LaToya’s focus is about making neighborhoods stronger, but I don’t hear that from her.”

But on specific points, Cantrell is crystal-clear in letting people know how she feels. When lawmakers and other officials have refused to agree with her approach, she has accused them of seeking to deliberately hurt New Orleans.

In another instance, she lambasted an Advocate reporter who wrote a story about a contentious public meeting on S&WB bills during a delicate stage of the infrastructure negotiations. The mayor demanded: “What do you want to do, screw the city?”

In an interview with WWL-TV, Cantrell said her blunt style is a feature of her transparency, describing herself as a truth-teller who, unlike other politicians, doesn’t mince words.

“I think I’ve been the most transparent of telling it like it is, how I found it, being very upfront and honest about the existing conditions in our city,” she said.

‘We all will win’
Cantrell’s sometimes imperious manner may help explain what has been a strained relationship with the City Council, which took on a more activist bent when five fresh members took office last year. The council has held probing hearings into some city departments, passed resolutions opposing administration actions and argued with Cantrell over the budget and other issues.

Perhaps most notably, council members took the unprecedented step of pushing for a new tax for senior services that the mayor opposed, choosing to put the question to voters. The mayor won that round; the tax was defeated in a landslide.

Just last week, over the administration’s objections, the council unanimously passed an ordinance laying out new rules for clearing homeless encampments.

Palmer, though, cast the skirmishes as disputes over the best approach to a problem, rather than disagreements over the desired outcomes. “The reality is we have two different branches of government and periodically we’re going to hip-check each other,” she said. “That’s what we’re here to do.”

Cantrell has said she plans to work to improve her relationship with the council.

Asked to rate her own first year, Cantrell demurred, telling WWL-TV that it’s hard to grade yourself. But she said she’s proud of her achievements thus far, even if the jury is still out on her success long-term.

“Sometimes you do have to prove yourself,” she said. “It’s challenging, but if I stay focused and continue to deliver to the people … we all will win.”

Fair Use Notice

This site occasionally reprints copyrighted material, the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We make such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of issues and to highlight the accomplishments of our affiliates. We believe this constitutes a “fair use” of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is available without profit. For more information go to: US CODE: Title 17,107. Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond “fair use,” you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.