Historic change has been the leitmotif of the 2017 election in New Orleans, with voters choosing the city's first female mayor in Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell after a runoff that featured two women.    

But the spirit of shaking things up also has reshaped the City Council, which will look significantly different next year when five of the current seven members are replaced.

The council taking office in May will be the most diverse in memory following Saturday's runoffs, which featured the upset ouster of Councilman James Gray, the second sitting member to be unseated in an unpredictable election cycle. 

"You're going to get a new set of eyes and a new perspective that I think will be outside of the box," said Councilwoman-elect Helena Moreno, a state representative who describes herself as white and Hispanic. "I think the diversity is exciting, and I think it says a lot about how accepting and welcoming our city is."

The anti-establishment sentiments that helped lift Cantrell to victory over former Municipal Court Judge Desiree Charbonnet were also evident in the District E race, in which challenger Cyndi Nguyen, a 47-year-old community activist, trounced Gray, winning 49 of 57 precincts in a sprawling district that covers most of New Orleans East plus the Lower 9th Ward.

Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American who will become the first council member of Asian descent, defeated Gray, a retired lawyer who is black, in a district that's 87 percent African-American.

Nguyen said her election brought “tears of joy” to the Vietnamese community in New Orleans, particularly the older generations.

"They're just very honored and very proud to have someone who bridges the ethnicity groups," she said Sunday. "I got that feedback today from our elderly, that I had the ability to bring the community together, and they're very excited about this opportunity."

Perhaps most strikingly, Nguyen took 14 of 19 precincts that are at least 95 percent black, according to an analysis by Ed Chervenak, director of the University of New Orleans Survey Research Center.

Gray, who has held the council seat since 2012, faced mounting criticism during the campaign over what many voters saw as decaying infrastructure, rampant crime and lack of economic development in New Orleans East.

"This was a clear call for change," Chervenak said in an interview Sunday. "I'm not sure race is even playing a role here. It really boiled down to performance — or a lack of performance." 

Racial crossover was more of a factor in the race for Cantrell's District B seat. Jay Banks, who is black and was King Zulu in 2016, squeaked past Seth Bloom, a white attorney and former Orleans Parish School Board president, by just 131 votes. 

District B, which covers a diverse collection of neighborhoods — including the Central Business District, Central City, the Garden District and Lower Garden District, Broadmoor and parts of Uptown, Mid-City and Bayou St. John — is 46 percent black and 46 percent white. Bloom received just 9 percent of the black vote on Saturday, while Banks took 27 percent of the non-black vote, according to Chervenak's analysis. 

"The candidate who can get the most crossover is going to be successful in that district," Chervenak said. 

Banks' victory returns the District B seat to the hands of a member of the Central City-based political organization BOLD, which held the seat from 1978 to 2002 with Councilmen Jim Singleton and later Oliver Thomas. 

In many ways, Saturday's runoffs amounted to a repudiation of U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, who strongly backed Charbonnet and Gray. Richmond also supported Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey, who was unseated in District C last month by Kristin Gisleson Palmer.

But the makeover of the council also stemmed from a number of other factors. The District B seat opened up when Cantrell ran for mayor, while two other members, Susan Guidry in District A and at-large Councilwoman Stacy Head, were term-limited.  

Guidry's seat will be filled by a Lakeview attorney and first-time officeholder from a longtime political family, Joseph Giarrusso III, who defeated five opponents in last month's primary. Moreno, a former television journalist who was born in Veracruz, Mexico, was elected to Head's at-large seat, taking 66 percent of the vote in a three-candidate primary.  

District C, which covers Algiers, the French Quarter, Marigny and Bywater, will continue to be represented by a woman after Palmer unseated Ramsey by a razor-thin margin. Palmer previously held the District C seat from 2010 to 2014.

In a parallel to the District B result, Palmer won by just 111 votes. In a parallel to the District E result, Palmer, who is white, defeated Ramsey, who is black, in a district where a clear majority of the voters are black.

"I think voters were looking for those individuals who have a record of fighting," Moreno said. "More than anything I think you're getting some change, which will be very positive for the city."   

Former longtime Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson said the new council will be essential to furthering the resurgent growth the city has seen under Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration. 

"If LaToya is going to take it to the next level, she's going to need a real dedicated council, and the diversity brings in that many more constituencies," Clarkson said in a phone interview Sunday. "No one on the council does anything alone, and I think the new council will work better together than the current one." 

The shakeup includes a shift from majority female to majority male, as councilmen Jared Brossett and Jason Williams — the only returning members — fended off weak primary challenges and will be joined by two new men, Giarrusso and Banks.

For the first time probably in history, the incoming council also will not have a racial majority: Three members are black, two are white, one is Vietnamese and one is white and Hispanic. 

"It's an entirely new entity," said Silas Lee, a pollster and sociology professor at Xavier University. "The city has elected a very progressive and populist mayor in Cantrell, and I think you can expect that from some of the new City Council members. It's a racially diverse council that reflects the changing demographics of the community." 

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.

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