Her predecessor, Mitch Landrieu, spent more than two decades working in Baton Rouge, first as a state legislator and then as lieutenant governor. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell came up a different way, as a community organizer and later member of the City Council. So when Cantrell laid out an ambitious agenda for her first full legislative session in office, there was reason to wonder just how much she’d end up having to show for it.
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It turns out that the answer to that question is plenty.
At a time when many of her fellow progressives, including members of the New Orleans delegation, left Baton Rouge frustrated over a failure to advance causes helping women and lower-income constituents, Cantrell largely dodged the more ideological terrain and focused on bread-and-butter issues. By the end of the session, she emerged with her wish list littered with check marks.
The biggest win, of course, was a package of bills to tap into tourism money to shore up New Orleans’ aging infrastructure, which includes $50 million in upfront money and up to $26 million per year in the future.
What Cantrell dubbed the “Fair Share” initiative started out facing fierce headwinds, from resistance from tourism officials and Gov. John Bel Edwards, to the Legislature’s historic reluctance to help the city out, to the idea that she was asking for lawmakers to support taxes — even taxes that their constituents wouldn’t pay — in an election year. She also had to contend with the fact that the Orleans Parish lawmakers she was relying upon haven’t always gotten along with one another. Throughout the session, word periodically leaked that negotiations had broken down, only to start up again.
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That she emerged with much of what she wanted owes to the fact that others got what they wanted too. Edwards, who brokered the deal, got a chit from the mayor of a city full of the Democratic voters he’ll need when he runs for reelection this fall. Tourism leaders got the go-ahead to build a new hotel connected to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. The bulk of the money to pay for the work, in fact, will come from tourists who visit the city — both those who stay at hotels and will pay slightly higher taxes and those who stay in short-term rentals, if New Orleans voters approve a measure to increase the tax rate they pay.
But don’t discount the role Cantrell played. The “fair share” construct she pushed proved powerful at marshaling public support among weary voters who are tired of contending with ancient pipes and broken streets. The initial messaging from tourism leaders reluctant to engage — basically that the city needs them to keep doing exactly what they’re doing to prevent visitors from heading elsewhere — came off as tone-deaf, even arrogant.
If a mayor who ran a remarkably successful populist campaign should be expected to excel at the outside game, she also did a good job of courting legislators from other parts of the state, many observers have noted.
Indeed, she wound up with even more to show for the session than just the infrastructure package. Lawmakers also approved placing a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would allow voters to decide whether the city could offer property tax relief in the name of enhancing affordability. Other measures she listed as accomplishments include bills involving the Housing Authority of New Orleans, the Regional Transit Authority, and sexual assaults.
When it was over, Cantrell issued a blanket thank-you to the entire New Orleans delegation, led by her hand-picked floor leader, state Rep. Neil Abramson.
Of course, he and a few other key players, state Rep. Walt Leger III and state Sen. JP Morrell, will leave this fall due to term limits. And by the time next year’s session rolls around, Cantrell’s honeymoon may be over.
All the more reason for Cantrell to have gone big her first time out.