The two women vying to be the next mayor of New Orleans offered differing strategies Tuesday for keeping young talent in the city over the long term and ensuring corruption has no place in their administration.
They also disagreed somewhat on how to spark investments in neighborhoods, such as New Orleans East, that have not kept pace with the rest of the city’s progress since Hurricane Katrina 12 years ago.
The first debate of the runoff campaign, held before an audience of college students and staff, saw candidates LaToya Cantrell and Desiree Charbonnet taking a far more cordial tone than they have in recent weeks.
While the women traded barbs at the final televised debate before the Oct. 14 primary, it’s been Charbonnet who has thrown all of the punches since the primary marked Cantrell as the race’s front-runner. Cantrell took 39 percent of the vote to Charbonnet’s 30 percent.
But even Charbonnet abstained from throwing any jabs Tuesday, heeding forceful calls from the debate’s organizers to stick to the issues.
The event was held at Tulane University and was hosted by the Isaiah Institute’s NOLA Student Leadership and Civic Engagement Project, a coalition of students from a half-dozen local colleges and universities.
It was open only to university students, faculty and staff, and both women seized on the chance to appeal to the mostly younger crowd.
Responding to questions about providing opportunities to younger people in the city, Cantrell spoke of graduating from Xavier University in the 1990s “in the red” and of the need for government incentives so that key industries will do more to keep college students in the city after graduation, by offering higher wages or through other means.
“We have to be intentional about not just linking you with the opportunity, but incentivizing you in a way where you don’t leave with debt,” Cantrell said.
Charbonnet spoke of providing jobs for young people within government. “I think the first thing that a mayor can do is give you jobs at City Hall,” she said. “Because if we don’t lead by example, there is no one to follow us.”
On the question of how they would work to ensure that city contracts not covered by public bid laws are awarded fairly and not based on applicants’ connections with politicians, Charbonnet offered new details on her ideas.
While she has previously said that she would retain the more transparent procurement regulations Mayor Mitch Landrieu implemented in his tenure, on Tuesday she said she would create a new office that would solely monitor ethics concerns at City Hall.
“I would appoint an ethics compliance officer to make sure that everything is above board,” she said.
In improving upon Landrieu’s policy of having committees of city officials score applicants' bids in public, Charbonnet said she would expand those committees to include members of the public, such as people appointed by university presidents.
Charbonnet was assailed before the primary by political action committees who warned that her administration would bring corruption back to City Hall. They sought to paint her as beholden to her political patrons — a claim she denied, insisting she would be independent.
Cantrell, asked the same question, said she would keep in place Landrieu’s reforms but also would work to improve the city’s goal of awarding 35 percent of city contracts and subcontracts to disadvantaged business enterprises.
“I would like to not make it about ‘good faith’ but make it mandatory within the city of New Orleans,” Cantrell said, referring to Landrieu’s practice of requiring contractors to meet the DBE goal or show that they have made “good faith” efforts to do so.
Such “good faith” language mirrors federal policies for DBE contracting. Any push for a more stringent requirement could face opposition from many local companies that do business with the city.
Cantrell also said she would do more to encourage on-time government payments to contractors. Some contractors have complained they must wait as long as nine months to get paid.
Both women said they would work to spark new investment in New Orleans East and other struggling neighborhoods, though through different approaches.
Charbonnet said the old Lake Forest Plaza shopping center site is ripe for redevelopment, and that she would attract new businesses through tax credits and by focusing on eradicating crime.
Cantrell said she would beef up code enforcement in order to tackle blighted buildings, which are often sites of criminal activity. She also would support incentives for new businesses and a community clean-up program “to get the trash out of people’s eyes.”