Ask me if I think New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell will soon face a recall referendum, and here’s my answer: I have no idea.
The due date to force a public vote on the mayor’s future finally arrived last week, but the next step is as clear as the Mississippi River muck. Organizers of the NoLaToya drive say they have the requisite signatures from a whopping 20% of the city’s “active” voters, but when they dropped the petitions off with the registrar of voters for verification, they wouldn’t provide a total. They also refused to turn over copies of signature sheets to this newspaper, despite having agreed to do so in a legal settlement. Then there’s the matter of their ongoing lawsuit seeking to significantly reduce the active voter total — and thus the number of signatures needed to force the recall election.
But no matter how the recall drama plays out, here’s what I do know: The mayor has lost the confidence of a significant number of her constituents, and she’s got an obligation to try to win it back.
Or better, from her perspective, to call it a second chance to convince New Orleanians that she understands their frustrations and is committed to addressing them.
That’s not outside the realm of possibility.
Cantrell didn’t face real opposition in her 2021 reelection, which was too bad in retrospect; a competitive campaign might have aired issues that blew up later. But she did face major competition the first time around in 2017, when a broad, racially and geographically and economically diverse swath of New Orleanians chose the California native over opponents from three well-known local families.
If she once won support from all sides, the Carnival season that just passed showed that Cantrell’s current troubles are just as widespread. The pointed barbs about her excessively expensive travels and her improper use of the Pontalba apartment came from krewes that lean both left and right, as did the usual satire lampooning the city’s woeful infrastructure and basic services and crime rate.
If perhaps people are harder on her due to her gender and race, as she’s suggested, that doesn’t mean their aggravation isn’t very real.
In a made-for-the-internet moment last weekend, Cantrell briefly let her own frustration fly, offering up a middle finger to a float roader from the Krewe of Tucks parade in response to some unseen provocation.
It was an unbecoming gesture for a public official; indeed, Cantrell’s abrasiveness can be a lot to take. But it was probably not an unforgivable sin to voters who knew when they elected her that she had a different demeanor than runoff opponent Desiree Charbonnet — frequently tagged as the “polished” choice, which is itself a loaded concept.
Being real isn’t bad. It actually can be politically appealing, in the right circumstances and paired with an approach that makes voters think an official is being real on their behalf.
Back in 2017, Cantrell’s authenticity was a selling point because it was accompanied by a good amount of grit, dating back to her leadership in the rebuilding of her Broadmoor neighborhood after Hurricane Katrina and the federal flood.
It's the grit — a sense of perseverance and tenacity and single-minded focus on the task at hand — that seems to have gone AWOL lately.
It would go a long way if Cantrell would admit she’s lost some of her focus and vow, with some humility, to do better.
Practically, that means letting voters know she gets how they feel, hiring the right people in top positions and putting processes in place to make City Hall work better, showing up to work every day on Perdido Street — not at some high-level meeting in some far off place — and not taking the perks of the job quite so obviously for granted. It also means doing a better job of selling the things that are going right, including the return of parades (with a big assist from Sheriff Susan Hutson) to their full routes this month.
If the recall referendum happens, the mayor will have months to win voters over once more. If there’s no referendum, she’s still got nearly three years left in her second term to get right with her constituents.
She should view either path not as some sort of punishment, but as a golden opportunity.