It's not like being mayor means never having to say you're sorry.
LaToya Cantrell, the New Orleans mayor-elect and still-sitting City Council member, surely gets that. Just last week, she was at outgoing Mayor Mitch Landrieu's side as his administration had to issue yet another boil-water advisory, this time not because the Sewerage & Water Board's equipment failed but because this Southern city just isn't built for extreme cold. Not much a mayor can do about that except act contrite.
But there are problems politicians can't avoid, and those they can and should.
For the second time since Cantrell's landslide victory in November, the mayor-elect has had to clean up an unnecessary mess. This time, she issued a lengthy "oops" Friday night, more than a week after the council voted for a resolution that sounds noncontroversial on its face, but is in fact linked to the highly contentious Israeli-Palestinian conflict thousands of miles away.
Cantrell wasn't there for the unanimous Jan. 11 vote, but she was listed as a co-author of a nonbinding statement saying the city should not do business with companies that have violated human rights, and she initially defended its sentiment. While it makes no mention of Israel, Jewish groups and supporters of the nation fear the resolution will be seen as a show of support for the "Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions" movement to protest Israel's policies toward Palestinians. The resolution didn't mention the BDS movement, but a news release sent out by the council's public relations consultants did.
Compounding the controversy was the fact that the resolution was approved without having been introduced earlier, and hours after the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans had given a presentation to the council about its work. The federation and the Anti-Defamation League quickly criticized the move, as did Landrieu, who called it "ill-advised" and "gratuitous" and said it does not reflect city policies.
Cantrell herself, though, took her time before finally acknowledging that the measure, even if well-intended, was deeply problematic.
"After extensive discussion and deliberation about the impact of this resolution, I can say that the unintended impact does not reflect my commitment to inclusivity, diversity, and respect and support for civil rights, human rights and freedoms of all New Orleanians. As mayor-elect, and a member of the City Council, I support the Council’s action to reconsider R-18-5 and subsequently withdraw the resolution," she said in a statement.
Cantrell wasn't the only one who screwed up here. Council President Jason Williams, another sponsor and one of five "yes" votes on Jan. 11, issued a statement two days before Cantrell's and basically took the blame.
"I am sad to say that I was not aware of the 'BDS movement,' its origin or its mission. I have spent my time since Friday morning educating myself on the complex, long history of these movements and issues in our city and worldwide. Let me be very clear to citizens of New Orleans and citizens of the world; this City Council is not anti-Israel," he said. Williams also said that the departure from normal procedure was not nefarious, but that it was a "mistake."
The council is set to reconsider the measure Thursday, and it will surely undo what it did. I'm not sure it will undo the impression it left.
The same goes for an earlier controversy over Cantrell's association with former state Sen. Derrick Shepherd, who is trying to claw his way back into the arena following a guilty plea and prison sentence for money laundering.
Shepherd's presence at a Cantrell meeting with current lawmakers set off alarms, but she took more than 24 hours after an Advocate story about the gathering to confirm that he would not be part of her transition or administration.
Both times she could have put legitimate concerns to rest quickly. Yet both times she waited, let suspicions fester and rumors fly before doing what she clearly needed to do.
Hopefully these incidents will at least serve as a learning experience as Cantrell prepares to take over in May. Plenty is sure to go wrong on her watch, and as we saw last week, damage control is always part of the job. But it's another thing when the damage is self-inflicted.