Nearing the end of a long campaign season, mayoral candidates LaToya Cantrell and Desiree Charbonnet delivered few surprises during a forum Saturday morning at the St. Dominic Church auditorium hosted by the Lakeview Civic Improvement Association.
Whether they changed many minds was unknown. But apparently many in the audience still felt some uncertainty beforehand about their choice.
With only one week to go until the city elects its first female mayor, Jeannette Thriffiley, 60, said she might have to rely on a childhood game to decide. “I might be saying, ‘Eenie, meenie, miney, mo,' ” she said.
“I’m not satisfied with my choices,” said her husband, Peter Thriffiley, 61.
Their friend Bill Soniat, 60, said he thought he’d made up his mind, though he wasn’t certain. He was hoping what he heard at the forum would help affirm his decision.
Both candidates’ talking points and style are fairly well-known. Charbonnet’s delivery is more polished, while Cantrell speaks a bit more off the cuff.
Each led with their strengths.
Charbonnet began by emphasizing that she is the New Orleans native in the race. “I’m born and raised in New Orleans. I grew up in Gentilly. ... I went to Loyola for both undergrad and law school,” she said. “I’m proud to have been raised here. I love this city, and I love its citizens even more.”
Cantrell, who grew up in California, instead led with her history as a neighborhood leader and City Council member: “I have been working at the forefront of every single quality-of-life issue in our city, not only as an elected official starting in 2012 but as a grass-roots and community organizer and executive director of the Broadmoor Improvement Association.”
The forum, which was sponsored by The New Orleans Advocate, focused on broad issues selected by the civic association, including municipal finances, infrastructure and public safety.
Charbonnet said that as recorder of mortgages, her office was one of the earliest to re-open after Hurricane Katrina, to make sure people had access to their land records. Later, as chief judge of Municipal Court, she said, she emphasized diversion programs with services that kept nonviolent offenders out of jail, saving tax dollars.
In what seemed to be a veiled reference to questions about her opponent’s use of her City Council credit card, Charbonnet said no one ever questioned her budget or raised questions about financial mismanagement within her jurisdiction.
“I understand the issues of this community,” Charbonnet said. “I know crime is a serious issue for this community, and that is why I made it my very top priority. You are going to feel safer with me as mayor.”
She questioned the effectiveness of the State Police who help to patrol the French Quarter, saying she often sees troopers clustered together in groups, leaving some areas unprotected.
All through the forum, Cantrell emphasized her experience in the Broadmoor neighborhood: “I led that community through recovery and, pretty soon, realized that we were leading the city of New Orleans through recovery,” she said, adding that, on the council, she has helped to create the municipal budget, craft ordinances and unify constituents.
This experience makes her more qualified, Cantrell argued, with a side swing at her opponent, the former judge: “You cannot build consensus by the swing of a gavel; it has to be with the ability to listen.”
Asked about cost-cutting, Charbonnet said she would look first in the Mayor’s Office itself and would not retain Mayor Mitch Landrieu's roster of deputy mayors. Cantrell said she would focus on streamlining the government. “Much of waste is in the lack of communication and coordination between departments,” she said.
Cantrell said she would get moving immediately during the nearly six-month transition, working with the Landrieu administration to make the right hires and appointments to the Sewerage & Water Board. “This work will have to begin as mayor-elect,” she said. She also would overhaul the Department of Public Works, she said.
Calling the flooding on Aug. 5 “an abject failure” by the city, Charbonnet said she would prioritize hiring “a licensed, professional engineer” to run the S&WB. “It will not be the same old political appointments. I assure you of that,” she said.
Charbonnet said the city’s reliance on steam-powered turbines to power drainage pumps is no longer feasible, and “we’re going to have to move away from it.” She said she intends to convene her own team of experts to review the report that the Landrieu administration plans to issue about the problems at the water board. And she would require the S&WB and the Department of Public Works to create a plan for working together.
In closing, moderator Stephanie Grace asked each candidate what question they wished they had been asked during the campaign.
“I wish I would have been asked more about mental health services in this city,” Cantrell said. “The lack of accessible care is a real problem. Many of our people are suffering from trauma.” She’d like to see accessible treatment for addiction and wrap-around services in the city. “It is essential, and it hasn’t bubbled up as a priority,” she said.
Charbonnet chose a lighthearted answer, saying she wished someone would have asked her about her favorite hobby. “Nobody cares what we do in our spare time,” she said. “My answer would have been gardening. I miss gardening so much since I’ve been running. I wish somebody would have asked that. Maybe you’d know more about me that way.”