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Mayoral candidates, city councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, left, and Desiree Charbonnet a former Municipal Court judge, right, participate in a debate put on by Lake Area neighborhood associations at the St. Dominic School Gym in New Orleans, La., Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017.

Advocate staff photo by MAX BECHERER

Normally, a runoff is an opportunity for candidates to distinguish themselves from their opponents on the issues, sharpening and amplifying their messages once they’re no longer competing with a crowded field.

Not this year, apparently.

As the clock ticks down to this Saturday’s mayoral election in New Orleans, the race has been focused on just about everything but the city’s myriad problems.

Amid accusations about credit card use and homestead exemptions, and the character and associates of the candidates, questions of exactly how LaToya Cantrell or Desiree Charbonnet would lead the city have largely fallen off the radar.

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Outside of forums where they mostly restate the same talking points, neither candidate has gone out of her way to pitch voters on her policies.

It’s not that the two women don’t have plans and stances on the issues. But often the differences are matters of focus, tone and details, rather than any sharp divergences on how the city should be run or what its goals should be.

Indeed, in an overwhelmingly Democratic city where, aside sometimes from race, there are few ideological divides in the electorate, the issue in a mayor's race — beyond personality differences and exaggerated attack ads — normally is who can best manage the city's money and workforce.

Even hot-button national issues with local ramifications — such as "sanctuary cities," where both candidates essentially support Mayor Mitch Landrieu's policy — have played little or no role in this year's campaign.

Perhaps because there are so many problems facing New Orleans, no single issue stands out as defining the race. And the candidates — and most voters — largely agree on what the city’s major challenges are: The crime rate is too high, the stock of affordable housing too low. The Sewerage & Water Board and Department of Public Works are in shambles, and more needs to be done to provide jobs and good wages for residents.

It’s only in the fine points that the differences start to come to light.

Crime is one area that finds both rhetorical and policy differences, though both candidates want to expand the New Orleans Police Department, conduct a national search for a new police chief and attack the root causes of crime.

Charbonnet, a former Municipal Court judge, has frequently spoken about her time on the bench to bolster her criminal-justice credentials. She’s made an ambitious pledge to add 80 to 100 officers to the NOPD every year, in part by recruiting military veterans and encouraging retired officers to come back. 

Charbonnet also has called for trimming the roughly $1.7 million spent on ensuring the NOPD stays on track with the requirements of its federal consent decree. And she wants to overhaul the system put in place by the consent decree to monitor off-duty police details — a change she says would increase morale at the department and aid in recruiting and retention.

Cantrell, a city councilwoman, has shied away from pledging to hire a specific number of officers. However, she’s argued for regular, yearly raises for the NOPD to aid in recruitment, something she contrasts with Landrieu’s record of large but irregular raises.

She’s also called for greater use of phone or online reporting of minor crimes to cut down on the workload of officers on the street, and she favors greater use of technology, such as license plate readers, to aid in investigations. 

The two women’s opinions on how to increase the city’s diminished stock of affordable housing also differ somewhat.

Cantrell has pushed a proposal to require landlords to register their properties with the city and submit those properties to regular inspections, a move she says would help root out slumlords. Charbonnet says she would instead create a center for people to call with complaints about their landlords.

Charbonnet favors capping the number of short-term rentals in certain neighborhoods, while Cantrell does not. Both candidates, however, would tie the rentals to homestead exemptions, meaning people must live in the properties they rent.

Both would require developers to reserve a portion of new housing for lower-income residents.

They differ somewhat on how they would handle the beleaguered Sewerage & Water Board.

Cantrell has proposed bringing the semi-independent agency into City Hall so it can be directly controlled by the administration, something that would require the Legislature’s approval. Charbonnet has suggested leaving it as a separate agency for the time being, in part because of concern about what effect a change would have on its ability to issue bonds.

Both candidates have said they oppose privatizing the S&WB.

Cantrell has proposed dealing with the massive cost of fixing the city’s drainage system by imposing a stormwater fee that, at least initially, would target nonprofits that don’t pay property taxes. Charbonnet has opposed such a fee, saying that the money can be found elsewhere in the city budget.

Though both contenders would support efforts to increase the minimum wage to $15, to pay women fairly in workplaces and to hire local residents, Cantrell also favors mandating that 35 percent of all city work be reserved for disadvantaged business enterprises. Right now, that is a city goal, not a requirement.

Moreover, Cantrell has suggested creating a “pay-for-success” program, in which former prisoners could receive job training and jobs through a city-run temporary employment agency.

Charbonnet would focus on supporting small businesses, particularly those that specialize in technology, environmental services and coastal restoration. She would work first to get a handle on the crime problem in order to attract developers to neighborhoods that have suffered from disinvestment.

She also wants to strengthen existing assets, such as the New Orleans Regional Business Park in New Orleans East.

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.​