Tensions in the New Orleans mayor’s race heated up Wednesday night, as the top three candidates swiped at one another’s records in the final televised debate before Saturday’s primary.
While such jabs have become more common as the campaign has proceeded, the charges flying among Michael Bagneris, LaToya Cantrell and Desiree Charbonnet were particularly sharp Wednesday.
The debate, put on by WWL-TV and the Committee for a Better New Orleans and held at WYES-TV’s studios on Navarre Avenue, was probably the contenders’ last chance to present themselves to a large portion of the city’s electorate before Saturday’s election.
Each could use the exposure. A recent poll done for WWL and The Advocate suggested that any two of the three, who lead a field of 18 candidates, could make it into a likely runoff, as they each have strong favorability ratings.
All appeared to be trying to cut into their competitors’ support Wednesday in a debate format that allowed each to ask a question of the others.
In addressing each other, the candidates went directly after perceived failings, both professional and personal.
Bagneris accused Cantrell of taking money from code enforcement efforts to fund low-income housing, an apparent reference to her efforts to redirect the city’s Neighborhood Housing Improvement Fund.
Cantrell said she had fought to take that $4 million a year program from funding code enforcement attorneys, whom she described as punishing residents, and put it into affordable housing and home rehabilitation programs.
Charbonnet later accused Cantrell of supporting incentives for Magnolia Marketplace, a new shopping center on South Claiborne Avenue, so that the developer — who Charbonnet said was a “political friend” of Cantrell’s — could keep the extra cent of sales tax imposed on the site. Charbonnet said that tax, which she said is now the highest sales tax in the country, is hurting poor residents in the area.
Cantrell defended the project, saying it was needed to attract national retail stores to an area of town that had seen disinvestment after Hurricane Katrina and that it is on track to pay off the incentive early. She also denied knowing who Charbonnet was referring to as her “political friend” and pushed back against the idea that the extra tax — which covers only the shopping center itself — is falling on low-income residents nearby.
“The facts are this. Maybe you don’t understand the need for national retail throughout the city of New Orleans,” Cantrell said. “The people that are patronizing it, the customers, are from throughout the city.”
Cantrell pushed Charbonnet on why she hadn’t refused to honor forced mortgage cancellations when she was recorder of mortgages after Katrina.
“I don’t remember ever getting a call from you or anybody from the City Council to ‘stand tall’ against mortgage cancellations,” Charbonnet said, quoting Cantrell’s accusation back at her and saying that wasn’t something she could legally have done.
“We were expecting elected leaders like you to stand up even when it’s outside your scope,” Cantrell replied.
“You don’t understand the law,” Charbonnet fired back.
When it was Bagneris’ turn, he went after Charbonnet for what he described as going against policy by not requiring then-state Sen. Troy Brown, who was arrested in New Orleans on a domestic violence charge last year, to appear before her when she was a Municipal Court judge.
Charbonnet said Brown had an appearance before a magistrate, which satisfied that requirement. She also said Bagneris — who in the past has questioned whether being a Municipal Court judge counts as experience in the criminal justice system — needs to decide if the court she oversaw handles serious cases or not.
“You don’t understand criminal justice,” she said to Bagneris.
“You don’t understand the law, period,” Bagneris shot back.
Charbonnet then asked why President Barack Obama’s administration had declined to appoint Bagneris to a federal judgeship after he was recommended for the position. “What does the FBI know that the citizens of New Orleans need to know?” Charbonnet asked.
Bagneris said he was passed over for the post that instead went to Nannette Jolivette Brown for political reasons.
“Like so many politicians, and President Obama is definitely the ultimate politician, there was an opportunity to appoint the first black female to the Eastern District” of Louisiana, he said. “That was the only reason.”
Pressed by Charbonnet about whether there was any other reason — she suggested there could have been a tax problem — Bagneris replied, “Absolutely zero.”
Cantrell went with a less weighty issue, recalling that Bagneris responded to a question on the mental health crisis at a forum last week by saying, “Some of it is represented here.” She asked who Bagneris was referring to.
“It wasn’t you, it wasn’t anyone. It was a situation where it was taken out of context,” Bagneris said.
The same divisive tone continued even as the candidates were asked to say something nice about their opponents.
Bagneris said only that Charbonnet has “great taste in shoes.”
Cantrell initially took the same tack, complimenting Charbonnet’s fashion sense, before being prodded to address her record and praising Charbonnet for the diversion program she initiated at Municipal Court.
Charbonnet was more gracious, at least to Cantrell, saying that her “work in Broadmoor speaks for itself.” More cryptically, she said of Bagneris, “I feel like he has a lovely wife who has stood by him.”
Bagneris praised Cantrell for being a great mom, while Cantrell complimented Bagneris on his sense of humor.
When talk turned to the main campaign issues, the three had little new to say, having answered many of the same questions many times before.
On crime, Charbonnet again touted the comprehensive crime plan she released over the summer. Cantrell again said that jobs would stop bullets, and Bagneris again called for New Orleanians to have a chance to make more of the products that pass through their port.
On the complex issue of race and whether four Jim Crow-era monuments in the city should have come down, Bagneris said race relations would resolve themselves if everyone feels they have had a fair shake. “It’s not really about black and white,” he said. “It’s about green.”
He again said he would have put the question of removing the monuments up for a public vote, and he refused to answer moderator Karen Swensen’s question about how he would have voted, saying that the “vote is sacred.”
Cantrell said citizens feel divided and that she would fix the issue by focusing on economic development. As for renaming public streets and replacing monuments that honor Confederate leaders or slaveholders, she said that issue should be resolved by the City Council, in cooperation with the broader community.
Charbonnet said she’d like to see something erected at Lee Circle — in place of the former statue of Robert E. Lee — that represents “peace and togetherness,” but that the decision should be left to residents.