The first head-to-head matchup of candidates in the New Orleans mayoral race at a forum Saturday saw both broadly agreeing on such issues as immigration and substance abuse but offering few concrete policy specifics.
City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell and former Civil District Judge Michael Bagneris squared off at the forum, which was hosted by Indivisible NOLA, a progressive group founded in response to President Donald Trump’s election.
Given the group’s political leanings, most of the topics touched on were calls for more progressive policies from city government, which got broad support — with the occasional reservation — from each of the candidates.
Throughout the forum, which was held at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans, questioners called for increasing the minimum wage to $15, up from the $7.25 federal rate in effect. One, an 18-year-old woman, said that to make ends meet, both she and her mother had to work minimum-wage jobs and called for the candidates to pledge an increase.
State law prevents cities from increasing that amount, though the city has implemented a $10.59-an-hour minimum for city workers and contractors.
While both candidates said they support a higher minimum wage while noting that hurdle, Cantrell went further in her discussion of aiding low-wage workers, saying the city should provide parking and shuttle service so employees don’t have to pay to park during their shifts. Cantrell also said she would support unionization efforts.
“We need to be looking at ways we can be more creative locally toward putting dollars into people’s pockets,” she said.
The first mention of a $15 minimum wage at the forum came as part of an opening question about whether the candidates would endorse a platform put forward by the People’s Assembly, an effort backed by multiple progressive groups. That platform also calls for rent controls, a hospitality workers’ "bill of rights," relocation funds for those living on the former Agriculture Street landfill and better 24/7 service from RTA.
Neither candidate fully endorsed the platform.
“The only problem with blanketly endorsing the platform is not knowing the road to get there,” Bagneris said.
He singled out rent control as a potential problem, saying “I don’t know any city where rent control has functioned because the economics didn’t work out.”
Asked further about his priorities, he said he would focus his first 100 days on revitalizing neighborhoods, improving neighborhood watches and foot patrols to increase safety and creating an environment that would bring children and families back to the city.
Cantrell pointed to her former role as a community organizer and current position on the City Council as signs of her personal commitment to those issues.
A question about the need to address racial inequality brought calls for more understanding from Bagneris and for action from Cantrell.
Bagneris decried people of all races for being too quick to jump to accusing others of racism, particularly “if you’re black and trying to do something that is not popular or well-received in the white community you’re accused of playing the race card.”
“We need to talk more, understand each other more, have more forums like this,” he said.
Cantrell used Bagneris’ comments about racism as a jumping off point, saying the drawn-out monument debate showed that “talking ad nauseum” about a topic didn’t matter if people were still “living in squalor.”
“Throughout the city, there’s real disparity there and real growth, but people don’t feel connected to that growth,” Cantrell said.
“We have to get past the talk and get down to real action to where people’s lives are moving toward real prosperity."
The two-person forum came about as a result of both scheduling issues and decisions by the event’s organizers.
Desiree Charbonnet, who resigned from the municipal court bench in order to run for mayor, was also invited to the forum but was unable to attend because of a scheduling conflict.
Organizers opted not to invited Frank Scurlock, another candidate in the race. Joyce Vansean, the group’s founder, said Scurlock’s position in favor of keeping up four Jim Crow-era monuments and his arrest at the Jefferson Davis statue, his campaign slogans riffing on Trump slogans such as “Let’s make New Orleans fun again!” and other issues convinced organizers he was not in line with their values.
On a host of issues, there was little to distinguish between the two candidates’ positions.
Both said they support keeping the New Orleans Police Department’s immigration policies in place, which prohibit officers from asking witnesses and victims about their immigration status and limit the department’s cooperation with Immigration and Custom’s Enforcement.
And both agreed substance abuse should be treated as a health issue rather than a criminal matter and called for an increase in services for those dealing with addiction, mental illness and homeless. They each also agreed to appoint a liaison between the city and the schools.
Both candidates rejected a call to limit campaign contributions — now capped at $5,000 per person or business — essentially arguing that voters should support candidates whose integrity they trusted. Bagneris and Cantrell each said they didn’t feel donations influence their vote or that of their opponents.