Will New Orleans elect its first woman mayor this year? Such a possibility looms larger than ever in the city’s long history.
Two of the three major candidates now in the race — former Municipal Court Judge Desiree M. Charbonnet and Councilmember LaToya Cantrell — are women. The third active candidate is former Civil District Court Judge Michael G. Bagneris.
It’s possible that other candidates could still jump in, such as state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, businessman Sidney Torres IV or state Rep. Walt Leger III. It’s also possible that lesser-known candidates could make stronger-than-expected showings, such as businessman Frank Scurlock. But the clock is ticking. Qualifying ends July 14.
In any event, the prospects are better than ever that at least one woman will make the runoff, and even that has never happened before. The woman who came closest was Paulette Irons, currently a Civil District Court judge, who ran third in the 2002 mayor’s race.
Women make up 56 percent of registered voters in New Orleans and turn out in higher numbers than men. In the last presidential election, 59 percent of the votes cast in the city were cast by women. Even though women don’t always vote for women and men don’t only vote for men, these registration and turnout numbers demonstrate why women are such a potent citywide force.
Other cities, such as Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Las Vegas, San Antonio, Fort Worth, Nashville, Charlotte and Minneapolis, have women mayors. In Louisiana, Baton Rouge last year elected Sharon Weston Broome as its first female mayor-president, and in 2014, Shreveport elected Ollie Tyler its first woman mayor.
Despite these examples, less than one-quarter of all U.S. elected officials are women, and only 19 percent of mayors in cities with populations over 30,000 are women. Which leads to the obvious question: Why so few?
Political scientists Jennifer L. Lawless and Danny Hayes have studied this topic across the nation and have concluded that women are underrepresented in elected office for a deceptively simple reason — they are less likely to run for office. That answer raises another, equally interesting, question: Why don’t more women run?
In a separate study, Lawless and researcher Richard Fox found that males are more often socialized toward politics as a career from an early age and receive greater encouragement to seek office. They also found that nearly twice as many young males as young females would rather be mayor of their city or town than hold any number of other nonpolitical positions, assuming equal pay.
Conventional wisdom has held that men have the advantage when running for executive offices, such as mayor, while women do better in legislative and judicial races. The situation in New Orleans — which has never had a woman mayor, but has elected a majority female City Council and a majority of female judgeships — would seem to support this notion. But that doesn’t mean things won’t change.
Lawless and Fox argue that “when women run for office, regardless of the position they seek [emphasis added], they are just as likely as their male counterparts to win their races.”
A 2014 Pew Research Center survey found that most Americans — 74 percent of males, 76 percent of females — believe men and women make equally good political leaders. It also found that women are seen as more compassionate, organized and honest, while men are viewed as more decisive and driven. An earlier Pew study from 2008 showed that women candidates have an advantage on social issues, while men have an edge on public safety and national security issues.
How all this translates to a New Orleans mayor’s race in 2017 is anybody’s guess. It will likely depend more on the strengths and weaknesses of the individual candidates — and their unique ability to tap into the election’s zeitgeist.
After a slow start, the candidates for mayor of New Orleans are off and running. In a few weeks, we will know all their names. One thing we already know is that for every Michael and Frank on the ballot, there will also be a LaToya and Desiree.