New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell will mark her first year in office next week, which means that local media is busy evaluating what and how she did.
An anniversary is a standard time to take stock. But it’s usually not such a race to the finish.
As Cantrell prepares to enter her second year Tuesday, two of her most significant initiatives are hanging in the balance.
One is in the hands of voters, who will go to the polls Saturday to decide on a complicated millage redistribution and extension to help fund recreation facilities. They’re being asked to approve a package that would result in a reduced share for the Audubon Commission, more for the city’s parks and parkways department and recreation commission, and new public support for City Park, all without raising the tax rate.
Negotiations on the package predate Cantrell’s tenure; in fact, the push dates back to 2014, when Audubon’s audacious go-it-alone attempt to raise and extend its prior share for 50 years was roundly rejected at the polls. But Cantrell’s putting her political muscle behind the effort, arguing that the new tax would be more equitable than what exists now, and that it would increase access, accountability and drainage. If it passes, it would mark a big win.
Not as big, arguably, as Cantrell’s effort to secure new money from tourism interests in order to fund badly needed infrastructure improvements.
This one isn’t up to the public — although at least one component is likely to require future voter approval — but Cantrell has adroitly marshaled public support and pressure. It’s being hammered out behind closed doors, in often contentious meetings between city officials, legislators, Gov. John Bel Edwards and his staff and leaders of the city’s tourism business.
That’s because the key components of the plan need approval from the Legislature, even though they would not draw on state general fund dollars. Instead, much of the money would likely to come from new taxes on visitors to New Orleans.
That doesn’t mean it’s an easy sell politically, particularly for lawmakers from around the state who might be loath to back any taxes in an election year. And getting the package, which includes both an upfront payment and recurring revenue, in shape to reveal to the public and push through by the time the legislative session ends early next month is a challenge in itself. Just this week, Cantrell and Edwards scheduled a triumphant news conference for Wednesday morning, but they quickly called it off when Cantrell and her allies raised questions about amendments they had just seen, sending everyone back into negotiations.
These are far from the only matters that have crossed Cantrell’s plate since May 2018, of course.
Her success will also hinge on personnel decisions such as her choice to head the troubled Sewerage & Water Board, Ghassan Korban, her decision to keep former Police Superintendent Michael Harrison on without making a long-term commitment and her choice of Shaun Ferguson to replace him, without the benefit of a formal evaluation process, after Harrison departed for Baltimore.
And there are still more matters that could ultimately make or break her public standing.
We’ll have to see how long hard feelings linger among drivers caught up in Cantrell’s decision to secretly reduce the speed at which the city issues tickets to those caught by traffic cameras, particularly since opposition to these cameras was a major plank of her campaign.
More broadly, the verdict is still out on the extent to which she has put her equity-focused rhetoric into action.
Still, the fate of Cantrell’s two large, looming quests will be telling. If the mayor pushes through the millage, it would likely cement a reputation built on her huge electoral victory as someone who can skillfully play the outside game.
The tourism fight is more interesting, because it hinges on whether she can be as effective behind the scenes. If she emerges with a win in her column, that creates all sorts of interesting possibilities for Year No. 2.