Photo by Irving Johnson III
Kim Vaz-Deville: Gentilly ties that bind Credit: Irving Johnson III

All politics is local, as the saying goes. For me, the mayoral runoff was hyper-local.

I grew up on Virgil Boulevard in Gentilly, which makes me a former neighbor and lifelong admirer of Desirée Charbonnet, the candidate I volunteered for.

But as an associate dean and professor of education at Xavier University, I had no lack of esteem for LaToya Cantrell, a Xavier alumna who enjoyed wide support within the university community.

In other words, the runoff was going to be something to celebrate no matter which way it turned out — a victory for New Orleans, and not just black New Orleanians like me, I hasten to add. Also a huge victory for women.

Think about it: Two African-American women entered the race against 16 men. Both had done superb work helping the city back up onto its feet after Hurricane Katrina. Both are champions of the dispossessed and the disenfranchised with tenderness for the elderly. I see them as role models for the younger generation. But what were the odds that they would vanquish that small army of male candidates and emerge victorious in the primary!

Voters on Saturday capped a fascinating runoff by making Cantrell the first woman to be mayor in the 300-year history of a remarkable city.

That both candidates in the runoff election were African-American and that one was a native New Orleanian and the other a transplant raised issues that have confronted the city for centuries, ever since the region’s indigenous people were forced to confront waves of Europeans and enslaved Africans.

One candidate — Charbonnet — was supported by the black political class that developed in the 1970s with the end of segregation. Cantrell was supported by a broad coalition of groups that she helped mobilize after Katrina, when the city was convulsed by tensions between “old” versus “new” New Orleanians.

Have no doubt that the feminizing of the mayoral runoff did not spell the end of New Orleans often down-and-dirty political culture. Inevitably, racialized gender stereotypes emerged, put forward by a political action committee that aimed to derail Charbonnet’s candidacy.  And then in the waning days of the campaign Cantrell faced questions about her use of a City Council credit card.

There was much handwringing and moral outrage about the mudslinging that tainted the runoff’s final days.

But the scandal mongering didn’t distract the candidates from repeatedly addressing questions about the city’s intractable issues: crime, water (flood, ground, and rising tides), declining business investment, city revenue shortfalls and accessibility for the aged and disabled, to name a few. Other concerns ranged from voter apathy to the media’s lack of confidence in either candidate.

Sometimes New Orleans can feel like a sinking ship. Tulane geographer, Richard Campanella has written of his fraught decision to defy the mandatory evacuation order and stay in the city during Hurricane Katrina, as a witness to history being made. As a black women’s studies scholar, I shared a similar motivation (if considerably less risk) in yielding wholeheartedly to an enthusiastic interest in the runoff that was going to yield the city’s first black woman mayor.

First, a bit of the background that, in New Orleans, is never really far from the foreground:

The Virgil Boulevard of my childhood was a 7th Ward neighborhood of hard-working African American families, many with Afro-Creole heritage. When my parents decided to buy a house they looked at three in the area.  After a hard rain, my mother drove down Virgil and it met her two-fold test: It hadn’t flooded and it was quiet during workday hours. This meant, our new neighbors were employed. Two-parent African American families abounded on a tree-lined block that ran up to the London Avenue levee, a dead end that kept traffic very light and made a perfect playground for neighborhood kids.  Next door to us were the Manegos: Cirilo, Janet, Nelita and her little sister Cindy.  Adjacent to our house were the Dejoies: Andre, Wyatt, Cheryl and her little brother, Andre. The Charbonnets lived three doors down.

By the 1960s, many of the area’s white residents were bailing out for distant suburbs. They were replaced by a black middle class of teachers, self-employed entrepreneurs, post office and telecommunication managers and executives; including the city’s first African-American police chief, Warren Woodfork, appointed by our first black mayor, Ernest Morial (1978-1986). He was followed into office by another Virgil Street denizen: Sydney Barthelemy (1986-1994).

 Primary night (Oct. 14)I attend Charbonnet’s victory party and am joined at the cocktail table by old friends from my Gentilly childhood. Frustrated that the television stations are reporting the election returns so slowly, we continuously check and re-check the Secretary of State’s election  website.

The Riverside Hilton hotel’s ambient illumination, recalls an evening in the early 1970s when three of the women with me tonight, young girls at the time, stood under a streetlight and used a fine-toothed comb to scrape the backs of our hands until they trickled blood. We then rubbed our wounds together and declared ourselves “blood sisters.”

Charbonnet’s victory speech echoes that sense of unbreakable friendship and optimism. “My whole life,” she says, “I grew up dreaming of what this great city could become, if we all worked together and if we all embraced changed. I grew up in Gentilly and I played outside in the street. It was safe to do that back then.”  She congratulates both Michael Bagneris, who garnered 19 percent of the vote, and Cantrell who led with 39 percent. Charbonnet has come in second. There will be a runoff, but the astonishing certainty is this: A black woman is going to become the next mayor of New Orleans.

Day 8 of the runoff campaign: I attend Xavier’s biannual Culture of New Orleans Series, presided over by Prof. Michael White. The event, entitled “Resistance and Redemption in Black New Orleans: Past and Present,” draws leading civil rights activists, including Take Em Down NOLA co-founder Malcolm Suber. “While it is a historic election,” Suber tells the audience, “which programs is either of these women going to advance?  Neither one of them has a history of progressive organizing.  Neither one of them has a history of marching with us in the streets against police brutality.  Neither one of them has come out and said we want our hotel workers to be unionized and paid $20 an hour. … This is what we talk about when we talk about resistance.  Resistance means that you don’t go along with the game…of politicians lining their pockets and those of their friends.

Ouch. Suber makes a strong point. I remind myself that not all politics happens in the streets and at community gatherings. We elect men and women to office in order to translate populist yearnings into policy that can be implemented strategically.

Lt. Gen. Russell Honoré, the Pentagon’s man in charge of New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, publishes an opinion piece in The Advocate and notes that 36 percent of the city’s children live in poverty. He says addressing this tragedy should be the top priority reflected in any future mayor’s budget. Honore calls for quality pre-school childcare, early education and youth programs as a means to reduce violent crime and poverty.  He says he is driven in part by concern for the nation’s military strength.  He stresses alarming statistics: “Seventy-six percent of young people ages 17-24 in Louisiana, and 71 percent nationwide, are ineligible for military service, primarily due to educational shortcomings, obesity and having a record of crime or drug abuse.”

Marc Morial, who served as mayor from 1994-2002 sends a plea to all the candidates before the primary urging them to learn the history of the city, study the administrations of the best former mayors, his father Ernest Morial included. He exhorts candidates to educate themselves on the management of the government and attend to jobs, youth welfare, cultural divisiveness, poverty, housing affordability and most importantly to think about the qualities of leadership that are necessary for success.

Day 14: For some years now, Virgil Boulevard has organized a safe, treat-rich Halloween party for kids called “Boo on the Boulevard.” The event has grown to festival proportions over the years, including a choo-choo ride to take the children from one end of the street to the other.

Charbonnet campaign chair, my old friend Nelita Manego Ramey decides that we should shoot a promo to demonstrate that our candidate’s leadership values are steeped in care of the community. In the promo, Manego family members chat about the good old days with members of the similarly prominent Priestly family: “We had different houses, but the Priestlys’ mom and dad, was our mom and dad.  Everyone was family.  Desirée came from this neighborhood.  [Our parents] were hard working people who believed in family and raised the children accordingly. Mr. Songy was a photographer.  The Trouillers were dance instructors.  The Turners were a mailman and a school teacher.” The promo ends with Ramey saying: “If you know this neighborhood, you know it is not just one person; it’s many people. Its representative of what the city is and will continue to be when Desirée is mayor.”

Day 15:  The first time I go to Charbonnet’s headquarters to volunteer, I am given a sign to wave at a busy intersection. I drive my own car rather than take the buses provided for both paid and unpaid campaigners.

Before beginning a lengthy shift, I dash into a fast-food restaurant for a quick bite. An African-American girl of about 10 notices my Desi for Mayor T-shirt and we chat briefly. I tell her the election is historic; a woman will be elected mayor. She replies: “We don’t have a woman president yet.” I tell her it’s up to her generation to make that happen.

In his “Open Letter to Mayoral Candidates City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell and Judge Desirée Charbonnet” New Orleans Parish School Board member Ethan Ashley who represents District 2, challenges the next mayor to direct city resources and attention to early education, workforce development, jobs, summer programs, and mental health care for the young, because in his words, there are “things that drag children below the waves, and things that keep them afloat” even as the city tries to say afloat.

Day 21 is the second day of early voting. Friends, supporters and campaign staffers from both sides begin posting photos of themselves with their “I voted early” stickers. I start the day responding to a call to volunteers to sign up for shifts for either phone banking or sign waving.  I am given the task of checking in volunteers.

Soon after, Dylan Brown and Vincenzo Ciccone, from the Xavier Herald, the student newspaper, arrive for a scheduled interview with Charbonnet, a complement to the one they conducted with Cantrell. Among other topics, Charbonnet focuses on crime and on opportunities for young people in the city.

Xavier appears to be all in for Cantrell. Even before she announced, Silas Lee, the pollster and Xavier sociology professor, noted a billboard near the Pontchartrain Expressway bearing only the candidate’s first name and declared it effective because of the way it “creates interest. It stimulates enthusiasm. It starts conversation.”

Lee taught Cantrell, saw promise in her as an undergraduate, and has been hired by her campaign as a strategist. The American Association of Retired Persons holds a campaign forum that focuses on livability issues, and Cantrell is embraced like the political star that she is becoming.

Bart Everson of Xavier’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Faculty Development came to know LaToya through her community activism after Katrina and endorsed her ahead of the primary: “When LaToya decided to run for city council in 2012, I was excited because it was grassroots democracy in action. Now that she’s been in ‘the system’ a while, I can honestly say I have not agreed with every decision and position she has taken. But I still like where she’s coming from and what she represents, and of the front-runners she’s my favorite. No question.”

David Robinson-Morris*, in Xavier’s Office of Institutional Advancement, met her in the course of his recovery work and as a board member of The Church of the Annunciation. In an Instagram post he writes: “I remember being struck by her dogged determination, strength, spirit of hope, and ability to bring people together. At this time in our city’s history, we need the leadership of LaToya Cantrell.”

Kathleen Kennedy, dean of Xavier’s College of Pharmacy, does a promo on Facebook, titled “LaToya Delivers on the Issues that Matter Most,” and goes on to laud her tenacity, her “holistic approach to addressing crime and violence,” and that “she seems to listen to the people.”

Xavier is not New Orleans, but things are not looking great for Charbonnet.

Day 26: At a mayoral forum on jobs and the economy hosted in Algiers by Loyola College of Law’s Workplace Justice Project, I chat with an Algiers educator. He and others attribute the energy in the room to Algerians’ sense that they get short shrift from elected officials who prioritize other areas of Council District C, notably the French Quarter, Marigny and Bywater.  The educator’s wife has already voted — for Charbonnet — but he is not sold on the former judge and wants to hear the candidates for himself. I am, cautiously optimistic that he will go with Charbonnet.

Shortly before the audience is called to order, a crush of people representing the various forum co-sponsors enters the auditorium.  It thrills me to see the kaleidoscopic beauty of the engaged and gregarious citizens honoring an historic election while seeking workforce change and equity. At forum’s end, as we make our way to the parking lot, I overhear a woman telling her male companion: “They were both good.”

Day 30:  I attend two campaign-related events.  The Ashé Cultural Arts Center hosts a screening and panel discussion on “Displacement in Central City, New Orleans,” a film by Trupania Bonner. It focuses on how many traditionally African-American neighborhoods — including Central City — are losing core residents and businesses to gentrification.  Housing is becoming more difficult to find as prices rise — and so is childcare, which is crucial for women who work. Panelists highlight various disparities, none as jolting as the difference in life expectancy between residents of Lakeview and Central City. It is estimated to be as much as 25 years.

Meanwhile, at the Eiffel Society at 2040 St. Charles Avenue, the Young Professionals Happy Hour with LaToya Cantrell features the gender-bending entertainer Freddie “Big Freedia” Ross. Cantrell can count on strong backing in the African American community, but this energetic and well-heeled crowd is predominantly white. Cantrell, a Californian, tries to bridge the divide, both the racial polarity and also the one that sometimes separates newcomers from us natives: “Whether you were born here or decided to make New Orleans your home, it’s all of us collectively that will make our city better,” she says.  My impression of the evening is that these two conversations desperately need happen in the same room.

Day 31: Seeking a commitment.  This is the objective of the Jeremiah Group’s “Dinner and Dialogue with the Candidates.” The Jeremiah Group is a multicultural, multigenerational, multi-issue, nonpartisan organization of churches, schools, and neighborhood associations.  Their objective is to meet with members of the community, listen to expressions of pain and aspiration and train community leaders accordingly. It’s a way for marginalized people to grasp power and provoke discussion with elected officials.

The dinner is conceived as a way to expose the candidates to the people’s agenda and, through phone-banking and other campaign resources, help them devise strategies to implement it. The group is not about wishful thinking. It has a proven track record, guided by its overarching principle, from Jeremiah 29:7: “Seek the welfare of the city…for in its peace you will find your own.”

Day 32: A radio debate, hosted by Advocate columnist Stephanie Grace and Newell Normand, the former Jefferson Parish sheriff-turned WWL radio talk-show host, yields candidate pledges that would mark a permanent change in the way City Hall does business. Both Charbonnet and Cantrell vow to end the corrupting practice called “pay-to-play,” in which city contracts are lavished all but exclusively on deep-pocketed campaign donors.

Day 34:  In the final analysis, Charbonnet says, the measure of success, should she become mayor, will be her oft-cited benchmarks: Are the streets smooth? Are the pumps working? Is crime down and the city safer? For Cantrell, success will lie in the degree to which everyone feels included and protected, in the leveraging of available resources and with the successful implementation of her strategic agenda.

Day 35: Election Day, at last. I start the day checking in volunteers and field staff at Charbonnet’s headquarters. Polls predict low voter turnout and a landslide for Cantrell, but we are undaunted. A staffer in the sign-in line says he postponed his dialysis appointment to be with us.

As I check off names and thank volunteers, I ponder the unknowns:  Will the new administration be a rising tide that lifts all boats?  When the excitement of the election fades and reality intrudes, will the low turnout weaken the new mayor’s claim on a mandate for positive change? Will we citizens be there to help her?

The returns stream in. And the winner by a landslide is … A woman! An African American, a leader, a New Orleanian! And for lagniappe, District E, stretching from the Industrial Canal all the way to the Rigolets, elects the first Vietnamese-American to serve on the City Council — another woman, Cyndi Nguyen, director of the nonprofit Vietnamese Initiatives in Economic Training.

In her concession speech, Charbonnet thanks supporters and assures her backers that she has no regrets about giving up a judgeship to make the run. She urges those who voted for her to realign themselves behind the winner.

In her victory speech, Cantrell reiterates her platform issues and pledges to serve with integrity and to be inclusive. Everyone matters, she stresses.

Campaigns are a gladiator sport.  There was much handwringing and moral outrage about the mudslinging that tainted the runoff’s final days.

We begin the new era, on the cusp of the city’s tricentennial, and should do so with this epic herstory firmly in mind.

I find myself thinking about the anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston, a black woman and one of the bright lights of American literature, used to make a dramatic entrance at awards ceremonies even when her work did not win first place. Upon arrival, she would theatrically announce the title of the writing she had submitted. In the words of novelist Alice Walker, Hurston “refused to be humbled by second-place in a contest she did not design.”

As much as Cantrell said she did not want to attack her opponent — and I believe that to be true — the runoff (as in most New Orleans mayoral races) was structured in a way that led to character assassination and an erosion of policy debate. The result was the de-legitimization of both women, in effect denying the moral high ground to the city’s next mayor, no matter which one took the office.

But this is what can’t be taken away: Saturday’s resounding affirmation of African-American women and their place in New Orleans’ history — their sweeping journeys through the watery grave of the Middle Passage, their years of enslavement and/or servitude in this swampy destination, the way they forged a creolized culture, fusing old world customs with new inspirations and exigencies.

We have created businesses and championed hope and activism. We have resisted the snail’s pace of change that, still today, condemns many of our sisters to struggle for full possession of their minds, bodies and souls.

“I have been in the trenches, being courageous, being the voice on every issue,” Cantrell said in that radio debate the previous Wednesday. I hope she stays just as tough and committed after taking office in May.

A drawing by the late Senegalese artist Ismailia Manga depicts villagers as the roots of a baobab grove. Credit: By permission of C.C. Pounder

We begin the new era, on the cusp of the city’s tricentennial, and should do so with this epic herstory firmly in mind. Charbonnet was alluding to it in that same radio debate when she expressed deep regret for not having the resources to protect city archives from Katrina’s floodwaters during her time as Recorder of Mortgages. She noted, hauntingly, that those records of assets bought and sold might well comprise the only evidence on earth reflecting the life of a 10-year-old slave girl as she was passed from one owner to the next.

No matter when we arrived in New Orleans, each of us comes as the Senegalese describe their baobab trees, as something that resembles a plant that has been yanked from the ground and replanted upside down.  In an exhibition currently on display at Xavier, the late artist Ismailia Manga plays with the image in his drawings of a community scene. Baobabs comprise a backdrop to the villagers’ lives, each tree placed in a way that makes it appear to shoot right out of their heads.

Cantrell and Charbonnet are our baobab trees, embodiments of the tensions between insider and outsider, a schism that has wracked the city at least since 1803 and the Louisiana Purchase.

The baobab metaphor allows no exemption for the undecided, the disaffected and the cynical, because the leafy branches eventually enmesh us all.

How the city gets out of debt and stays that way, increases access to education and employment, develops economic alternatives to street crime (and, yes, its white-collar equivalent: cronyism and outright political corruption) — these are the anvils on which the city’s future will be forged. A woman will lead the way — and will be held accountable.

Kim Vaz-Deville is associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Xavier University and a professor of Counselor Education. Her book, “The Baby Dolls: Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gas Tradition,” Louisiana State University Press (2013) was the 2016 selection of the Young Leadership Council’s campaign for community and literacy project, “One Book, One New Orleans”. Her anthology, “Walking Raddy: The Baby Dolls of New Orleans,” will be published next summer by The University Press of Mississippi. 

Views expressed in the Opinion section are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.

*The name was misstated in an earlier edition of this column.