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Candidates for mayor Desiree Charbonnet, left, and LaToya Cantrell, right, talk with a panel of students including SUNO's Helena Francis, center, during a debate at Tulane University in New Orleans, La. Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017. Students asked questions of the candidates and represented Dillard University, Southern University New Orleans, Loyola University, Tulane University, University of New Orleans and the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON

The New Orleans mayor's race has never been particularly inspiring. Last week, though, it took a turn toward the truly depressing.

City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell finished the Oct. 14 primary well ahead of her opponent in the Nov. 18 runoff, former Municipal Court Judge Desiree Charbonnet, so Charbonnet needed a way to shift momentum her way.

She seemed to find it in financial records from Cantrell's council office, obtained by the campaign via public records requests and passed on to journalists covering the race.

It turns out that Cantrell used her city credit card to pay for at least $8,950 in personal or political expenses since late 2012. She later reimbursed the city in several lump payments, including one large one submitted days after she qualified for mayor. The Charbonnet campaign casts the reimbursements as evidence of guilt and alleges that still more charges, mostly for travel and entertainment, were improper or even criminal.

It's not yet clear how damaging this will turn out to be, whether Cantrell's supporters will see it as a minor or major infraction, or whether her behavior actually violates council policies, which are looser than those cited by the Charbonnet campaign governing the administrative branch. A big question is whether the revelations feed into a narrative that the Charbonnet campaign is pushing, that Cantrell can't be trusted with the public purse. Other evidence to this effect, according to the Charbonnet camp, includes the now-settled tax lien on Cantrell's home and a foreclosure proceeding that Cantrell blames on post-Katrina complications.

But no matter how you slice it, it's not good.

Nor is what happened the following day.

Rather than sit back and let the Cantrell story dominate news coverage, a key Charbonnet supporter, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, inserted his own public office into the controversy. Cannizzaro took the highly unusual step of publicizing that he was passing on what he called a "criminal complaint" on the subject to Attorney General Jeff Landry.

To the lay person, that sounds very much like an official allegation with the weight of law enforcement behind it. In fact, it was an anonymous tip that mirrored the opposition research delivered to news organizations.

Charbonnet's spokesman Kevin Stuart said he didn't know a thing about it.

"I understand from watching the news that this was anonymously done," he said.

Yet there's plenty of circumstantial evidence suggesting a link to the campaign, or at least to Charbonnet's key supporters.

For one thing, the referral from Cannizzaro's top aide to the A.G.'s office was dated before the news stories on Cantrell's spending broke. District Attorney spokesman Christopher Bowman said that was a mistake, and that it the letter was sent the day after revelations became public.

And the idea that Cantrell engaged in criminality also just happens to jibe with the line that Charbonnet's campaign is pushing, including on the campaign Facebook page, where a post argues that Cantrell "broke the law" and "illegally used our tax dollars as her personal piggy bank for lavish personal expenses." You can almost hear the "lock her up" chants — even though, while some public officials have been prosecuted for charging personal expenses to the public dime, there's a large gray area and many haven't.

Everyone involved, of course, claims to be taking the high road. Cantrell said she reimbursed the city because she wants to be beyond reproach. 

"The councilwoman does a thorough periodic reconciliation to ensure appropriate compliance," campaign spokesman David Winkler-Schmit said. He added that there were "occasional and inadvertent errors and they were picked up during the reconciliation process and remedied."

Cannizzaro said he not only recused himself but publicized the move to remove any possible appearance that he was politicizing his office, although that appearance clearly remains.

Now that the accusations are flying, there will surely be more to come, and we'll have to wait and see whether all this turns the election into more of a race.

This much is already obvious: It's becoming a race to the bottom.

Follow Stephanie Grace on Twitter, @stephgracela.