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Mayoral candidate LaToya Cantrell shakes hands with attendees before the Lake Area Mayoral Forum Sponsored by The New Orleans Advocate at the Hellenic cultural Center in New Orleans, La., Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017.

Advocate staff photo by MAX BECHERER

LaToya Cantrell dates her political awakening to the early 1990s, when her commute to Xavier University, where she was an undergraduate, took her past the Magnolia public housing development in Central City. 

Every day she would board a bus on prosperous St. Charles Avenue and quickly find herself amid poverty and hopelessness. 

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City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell 

“It's very eye-opening in our city where you can be a block away from St. Charles Avenue and all hell breaks loose,” Cantrell said. “That disparity just hits you, up close and personal.”

She describes the experience as the animating force in a three-decade career that has included education research, community activism and, finally, five years on the New Orleans City Council. 

Now she is emphasizing the same theme in her run for mayor, explicitly pointing to the city's economic divisions with her "tale of two cities" campaign slogan. It's a focus that somewhat sets her apart from her two closest competitors, who have put public safety at the center of their appeals. 

Cantrell, 45, also seems intent on contrasting her own style of leadership with that of the outgoing mayor, promising to tackle the city's problems without attracting the same reputation that Mitch Landrieu did for unilateral, sometimes high-handed decisions. 

“As mayor, you have to listen and you have to build consensus, and then you deliver. It’s not a ruling or a swing of a gavel that the decision is made and is final,” Cantrell said. “That’s not how you get consensus and win-wins for a very diverse group of people.”

The story of Cantrell’s public life almost always begins with her leadership of the Broadmoor Improvement Association in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but she says her road to politics began when she first arrived in New Orleans from Los Angeles to study at Xavier, working at the same time in the city's hospitality industry to cover expenses. 

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Mayoral candidate LaToya Cantrell talks to donors at the home of Robert Ripley in New Orleans, Friday, Sept. 22, 2017.

“The conditions we were allowing people to live in: substandard housing, slumlords, blight,” Cantrell said. “The lack of hope and the despair on people’s faces on my commute have never left my head.”

After graduating with a degree in sociology, Cantrell went to work for an organization seeking to improve public education in the city, eventually launching a failed bid for a School Board seat in 2004.

By that point, she already had been an organizer in a slice of Broadmoor, a diverse community she calls a microcosm of New Orleans, including a sharp divide between its richer and poorer sections. Before the flood, that meant organizing cleanup drives and advocating for more resources for her area, which she said was grappling with drugs, slums and blight.

Then came the levee failures that left Broadmoor under 7 feet of water. Cantrell was still in Houston working to come back when she first heard of recovery plans that suggested that neighborhood and others could be transformed into greenspace rather than rebuilt. Broadmoor’s very survival was at stake.

That meant organizing residents, setting up meetings and focusing on a host of issues facing both the community and the city as a whole, pledging that if any of the city's neighborhoods returned, all would be able to.

“Having the ability to break things down at that neighborhood level like I did in Broadmoor has served me over and over again very well in my capacity as a council person,” Cantrell said. “You have to be able to see it from the lens of that ground.”

Focus on grass roots

Cantrell has been seen as a potential mayoral contender for years and was one of the first out of the gate, telling supporters and donors just after the 2016 presidential election that she was considering a run. That turned into a formal bid in the spring, followed by a "listening tour" and, after qualifying, a ceremony at which she laid out her platform. There she also deployed a phrase that has become her campaign’s mantra on crime: “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.”

But while polls show she’s remained among the top three contenders, her campaign has failed to match the fundraising haul of former Municipal Court Judge Desiree Charbonnet and was eclipsed in recent financial reports by former Civil District Court Judge Michael Bagneris.

The campaign, which has focused on grass-roots mobilization, volunteer efforts and social media, wears the contributions totals as something of a badge of honor.

“I think it’s more than fair to say that LaToya is the only independent candidate, and if you want to verify that just look at the campaign finance reports,” said Karen Carvin Shachat, a political consultant working on the campaign.

This wouldn’t be the first time Cantrell won a race against tough odds.

She was first elected to represent District B in a 2012 special election to fill the rest of Councilwoman Stacy Head’s term after Head moved up to an at-large seat vacated by Arnie Fielkow. The campaign pitted her against Dana Kaplan, who had the backing of Landrieu and raised almost four times as much money but was unable to overcome Cantrell’s base of support.

Cantrell was re-elected without opposition in 2014.

During her time on the council, Cantrell has become known for a variety of initiatives: championing the smoke-free ordinance for bars; pushing for affordable housing funds to be spent directly on fixing up homes rather than on code enforcement lawyers; sponsoring an ordinance seeking to cut down on common complaints along parade routes; and campaigning for a so-called "low-barrier" homeless shelter, an issue that saw her in conflict with the Landrieu administration over its location.

She’s also been on the front lines of various efforts to increase the supply of affordable housing, though those remain stalled before the council. They include requiring all rental properties to be registered and inspected and requiring large new residential developments to include some affordable housing.

At rallies, her background as a community organizer shows as her outrage translates into enthusiasm and applause from the crowd. But in debates, she has a tendency to dive into the weeds of policy, coming across as unscripted and knowledgeable but perhaps less accessible to the average voter.

As both a community activist and a politician, Cantrell has gained a combative reputation, thanks in recent years to fights with other council members and the Landrieu administration. And many in the donor class have privately raised concerns about her bluntness and occasionally unpolished approach behind closed doors.

“I don’t fight to fight. I fight to get things done, and I get results,” Cantrell said. “I’m battle-tested.”

But she also has a reputation as someone willing to listen to multiple sides of an issue and change her mind if necessary.

She has stressed that her years on the council have given her an inside look at how City Hall functions today, experience that her opponents lack and that she said would let her hit the ground running and get buy-in from city employees for her plans.

A bleak picture

All the candidates in this year’s race are quick to point out the city’s problems. But Cantrell’s description of the state of New Orleans is perhaps the bleakest, a picture of a city where the have-nots are forced to live in neighborhoods filled with blight and squalor, where their needs are ignored and where the recovery from the 2005 flood remains an unfilled promise for many.

“How long do we have to fight to get results, to have a better quality of life?” she asks.

Cantrell’s “tale of two cities” is a matter not just of financial inequality between people but also of neighborhoods struggling against each other for basic city services. Those left behind include the often neglected communities of New Orleans East, the Lower 9th Ward and the West Bank, she says.

As with many issues, Cantrell sees that neglect through the lens of her experiences in Broadmoor as she cites other neighborhoods whose needs she says are ignored by the city. 

The solution, she says, is shifting resources to areas of greatest need, supplementing the resources now available while encouraging more engagement from the communities themselves.

“You want both. That should be the whole strategy, because you want a more engaged citizenry,” she said. “When you do that, we’re all better because of it.”

Cantrell said she would use as a model programs she has sponsored, such as the passed but never implemented "mow to own" program for vacant lots and a "green and clean" program to clean out and fence off properties used as dumping grounds.

Cantrell has tied her crime platform to both the need for economic development and to larger reforms of the criminal justice system beyond the New Orleans Police Department. Those plans include improving the department's efficiency, reducing fines and fees, and improving re-entry programs for ex-convicts. She also suggests having inmates who volunteer to do so clean catch basins and having those doing community service help with blight remediation.

She's also said she would suspend the city's traffic camera program on taking office.

Cantrell has called for boosting spending on infrastructure by $84 million a year to repair the city’s crumbling roads, broken pipes and troubled drainage system. Some of the money would come from fees she wants to impose, at least at first, on property owned by nonprofits that do not pay property taxes but use city services.

One liability for Cantrell is her vote in favor of regulations that legalized short-term rentals throughout the city, a vote that critics claim was at odds with her emphasis both on affordable housing and on the importance of organizing neighborhoods and their residents.

While she supported an amendment that would have limited short-term rentals to properties with a homestead exemption, meaning those that their owners actually live in, and favored banning them in the Lower Garden District, she ended up going along with the ordinance after the amendments failed.

She said authorizing and regulating short-term rentals under a compromise with Airbnb, the largest of the rental sites, was necessary to impose some rules on a practice that was already widespread and that the city had been unable to control.

While her main opponents have suggested some changes in the law are needed to further rein in short-term rentals, Cantrell said “the jury is still out” on how well the new regulations are working.

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.​