New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell was elected to serve a second term on Saturday, defeating 13 challengers to avoid a runoff next month.
The outcome is no surprise. The race failed to attract any well-funded or widely popular challengers to Cantrell’s reelection. With about half the city’s precincts still out, WWL-TV called the race for Cantrell just before 9:30 p.m. Saturday. She was leading with about 60 percent of the vote.
“We pulled it off, another four years,” Cantrell said in her victory speech. “Most of all I have to thank the city of New Orleans who decided … that they saw leadership in me that they did not want to let go of.”
With the recent passage of a major federal infrastructure bill, along with $500 million in bonds approved by city voters in 2019, the mayor promised big investments in her second term, which will follow a first term marked by serious challenges.
“This is our time,” Cantrell said repeatedly on Saturday night.
She pledged to focus on infrastructure, which she said includes not only roads, bridges and drainage, but housing and improved technology.
“This is our time. And we’re positioned and I say that because we have the opportunity to leverage additional federal money with local money,” she said. “It is our time to embrace the great assets we have in our city, to play to our strengths.”
Cantrell first made a name for herself in New Orleans as a grassroots organizer in the Broadmoor neighborhood, where she’s lived for decades. She became the president of the Broadmoor Improvement Association in 2004, continuing to lead the organization during the critical post-Katrina recovery years.
She entered local politics in 2012, winning an election for the District B City Council seat after Stacy Head vacated the office to become an at-large councilwoman. Cantrell was reelected to the position in 2014.
As councilwoman, Cantrell led the successful charge on banning smoking inside bars, pushed a “rental registry” ordinance intended to improve conditions in rental housing — which was never brought to a vote — and established herself as a vocal critic of the then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s traffic camera program. She would later campaign for mayor promising to significantly scale back, or even eliminate, the traffic camera program, which generated $15 million to $20 million per year in revenue for the city. (Upon taking office, she opted for a limited reduction of traffic cameras, leaving some that had historically been responsible for higher numbers of tickets. And in 2019, without a prior announcement, her administration lowered the speed threshold for ticket issuance.)
Cantrell secured a convincing surprising victory against her main opponent, then-Municipal Court Judge Desirèe Charbonnet in the 2017 mayoral election. Some saw the win for Cantrell, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, over Charbonnet, a politically experienced native New Orleanian, as a sign that New Orleans politics was changing and moving away from the old guard rules.
Cantrell became the city’s first woman mayor in May 2018. Next year’s inauguration date for New Orleans mayors and city council members has changed to January.
One of her first major policy priorities combined two of the city’s top issues — tourism and flooding. Cantrell wanted, and continues to want, to fix the financial and infrastructure problems that have plagued the Sewerage and Water Board for years.
To pay for it, Cantrell decided that the city should get a bigger cut of hotel tax revenue. Cantrell and others have long complained that more than 75 percent of hotel tax revenues go back to the tourism industry bodies, including the convention center and the governing body of the Superdome.
Cantrell went to work to negotiate a “fair share deal” between the city, the tourism industry and the state of Louisiana, which controls many of New Orleans’ tourism-related government bodies. She wanted the city to get a bigger chunk of the tourism tax revenue to fund improvements at the Sewerage and Water Board.
Although far less than what Cantrell originally asked for, she was able to close on a deal to bring in tens of millions of dollars in upfront cash and millions more in recurring annual revenue. The deal also made several concessions to the tourism industry, like allowing the city’s two tourism marketing organizations to consolidate under a private nonprofit rather than a public body subject to government accountability rules, and then giving that private nonprofit 25 percent of the proceeds from a new short-term rental tax.
Things got tougher for Cantrell as she got deeper into her first term. Starting in late 2019, she’s had to juggle a series of emergencies and disasters that have more or less consumed the attention of her administration since.
The first in that chain of disasters was the collapse of the Hard Rock hotel building in October, which killed three workers, injured several others, damaged surrounding buildings and city infrastructure, and shut down a normally busy downtown intersection for over a year.
Two months later in December, the city was hit by a cyberattack that took away the city’s ability to access key information and software. It took more than a year to recover from.
A few months later, in March, the coronavirus pandemic began in earnest and had a particularly devastating effect in New Orleans. The city was an early hotspot for the virus, which spread rapidly around the city during Mardi Gras in early March. The subsequent lockdowns were disastrous for the national economy as a whole, but were acutely bad for New Orleans, a city that relies on tourism to fuel both the economy and city coffers.
The city was hit by two major hurricanes during the pandemic — Zeta in October 2020 and Ida in August 2021. Hurricane Ida was the worse of the two, causing widespread damage and knocking power out for the majority of the city for more than a week, and forcing some to stay without power for more than two weeks.
During her first term, Cantrell also launched a controversial, and ultimately unsuccessful, plan to cut the public library’s budget by roughly 40 percent. Her campaign to cut the library budget, which The Lens covered at length, was littered with false and misleading information. And voters ultimately rejected the plan.
Despite those challenges, Cantrell has been able to maintain a relatively high approval rate, and easily won reelection after the race failed to attract any major, well-funded challengers.
Charles Maldonado contributed to this report.