With less than 48 hours to go before the polls open, Desiree Charbonnet came out swinging against front-runner LaToya Cantrell on Thursday night in the final debate of the city's mayoral runoff campaign.

The forum, hosted by WWL-TV, saw Charbonnet, the former judge who is trailing in the polls, make multiple attacks on Cantrell and her record as a city councilwoman. She peppered her comments with digs at Cantrell and several times stressed her own family's deep roots in the community. Cantrell is originally from California. 

Cantrell, though getting in a few shots at Charbonnet, maintained a less aggressive demeanor, even forgoing two opportunities to challenge her opponent directly.

As has been the case at many forums, the most heated exchange of the evening came as the candidates were given a chance to question each other.

“I’m not going to fall into the tricks of asking questions. We’ve seen in the past it doesn’t do us any good and more importantly it doesn’t do the people well,” Cantrell said. “They don’t want to see that. They want to see someone who has their back, who is willing to stand up and meet their everyday needs, as I have demonstrated I can do.”

Charbonnet, when given the chance, didn’t balk, instead calling into question the image Cantrell has projected as a fighter for affordable housing.

“You say you’re for affordable housing, but it seems at every turn you side with the developers,” Charbonnet said, citing an email sent out by Councilwoman Stacy Head criticizing a land-use change supported by Cantrell that would allow a property to be used for short-term rentals.

Cantrell replied by noting her work creating a city housing fund directed at assisting residents with home repairs and touting her work with developers to get new affordable units built without subsidies.

“When you haven’t done anything, it’s easy to promise everything,” Cantrell said. “I’ve been walking the talk and delivering for the citizens of New Orleans.”

Cantrell then turned down another chance to question Charbonnet, who zeroed in on short-term rentals.

“Have you accepted donations from short-term rental proponents?” Charbonnet asked.

“Sure, I have accepted donations, just like you have,” Cantrell replied.

“I haven’t accepted any from short-term rental proponents,” Charbonnet shot back.

“Sure, just all the strip clubs on Bourbon Street,” Cantrell countered.

Cantrell has received donations from both the Alliance for Neighborhood Prosperity, a local group advocating for looser regulations on short-term rentals, and from Airbnb’s political action committee.

Cantrell’s comment about strip clubs mirrors claims made in an attack mailer by the Not For Sale NOLA committee. While Charbonnet has taken some money from strip clubs or their owners, the amount claimed in the mailer is padded with donations that are not related to those businesses.

A following question from moderator Thanh Truong about housing saw Charbonnet tout her pledge to restrict short-term rentals to properties with a homestead exemption and owned by New Orleanians.

“This is not California, this is New Orleans,” Charbonnet said, a shot at Cantrell’s state of birth. “Every neighborhood has a different character, and we’re all proud of where we’re from.”

Cantrell said she would stand by commitments to review the city’s short-term rental regulations and noted she was one of the co-sponsors of a failed attempt on the council to limit short-term rentals to properties with homestead exemptions, meaning they are the owner's primary residence. She also spoke about the need to create balance in neighborhoods.

“We have to use our housing dollars more wisely to balance and redevelop our neighborhoods instead of pushing them to gentrification,” Cantrell said.

The forum also touched on a handful of topics absent from recent debates. During a "lightning round" segment that allowed for only “yes” or “no” answers, Cantrell said she would support some kind of rent control in the city while Charbonnet said she would not.

Both candidates said they would support a tax on sodas and sugary drinks and a reduction in the rates for parking meters, which Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration increased.


Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.​