At a wide-ranging forum Nov. 9 that seemed to touch on almost every social problem in the city, mayoral candidates LaToya Cantrell and Desiree Charbonnet presented their visions for helping New Orleans workers share in their hometown's economic prosperity.
The forum at Algiers Auditorium, which was hosted by Loyola College of Law's Workplace Justice Project (WJP) and co-sponsored by several other progressive and civic-minded groups, was designed around a recent WJP report called "The State of Working New Orleans: The Industries That Sustain the Status Quo." The 13-page report laid out a clear picture of the strain felt by of New Orleans workers, many of whom struggle to afford even basic living expenses on their current incomes.
"The reality of workers' lives includes the stress of multiple jobs and rising living costs, made harder by a city that attracts wealthy visitors and demands welcoming hospitality," report author Erika Zucker wrote. "We cannot continue to move forward if so many are held back by poverty despite being employed."
[jump] The candidates responded to five questions based on the report from former WDSU-TV anchor and moderator Camille Whitworth, plus a barrage of questions from panel co-sponsors concerning racial inequities, immigration, housing, equal pay for women, child care for workers, development in New Orleans East and more. The questions from both moderator and sponsors illustrated systemic problems affecting New Orleans workers, from poor access to job opportunities due to inadequate public transit to declining wages in city jobs that formerly were a pathway to the middle class.
At the panel, the candidates agreed on many things, especially the need for workforce development and training programs to ensure the welfare of the next generation of New Orleanians. Cantrell repeatedly mentioned investing in programs such as STRIVE New Orleans, which offers job training and "soft skills" programs. Charbonnet said a better-trained workforce will help attract businesses to the city and can reduce crime.
“I have seen what happens when people lack a good educational foundation … the people who came before me [when I was a judge] would not have been there if they had had a good job," she said.
Both candidates opposed the idea of privatizing the Sewerage and Water Board. And in one of the night's biggest applause lines, in response to a question from representatives of Congreso de Jornaleros, both candidates pledged to support the rights of immigrant workers in New Orleans and to retain the city's status as a sanctuary city.
"I am not going to work with the feds [on deportations]. I am not going to see families broken up … I am not intimidated by bullies,” Charbonnet said.
As she answered questions, Cantrell stressed the need for a strategy to incentivize incoming businesses and to encourage greater access to capital for small businesses and startups in the city. For workers, she supports programs that don't just increase income but grow wealth, such as financing programs for first-time homebuyers.
She also called for increased flexibility in the way the city spends tax dollars generated by the tourism industry. “We’re going to have to get more of the tax dollars that are generated off the backs of people in New Orleans,” she said.
Perhaps fittingly for a panel between these candidates, one of whom will become New Orleans' first woman mayor, several questions asked about their plans to support working women in the city, especially black women. Charbonnet suggested that city contractors might someday be required to hire a certain number of women and said she'd correct any pay disparities between the sexes at City Hall. Cantrell, who has been a pay equity advocate on City Council, said as mayor she'd advocate for equal pay for women at the state level while setting an example within the city.
“[On equal pay], the city of New Orleans will walk the talk every step of the way,” Cantrell said.
Other ideas from the candidates included light rail transit and development at the Grand Theater site in New Orleans East (Cantrell); and a $15 wage for City Hall employees and funding for the Orleans Public Defender's office to work on expungements (Charbonnet). An audience of more than 200 people clapped enthusiastically and gave out the occasional whoop of support.
From that response and the many questions, it seemed as though New Orleanians will expect a lot from their next mayor. One of her chief responsibilities: making sure the city's gains are shared more equally among its residents.