LaToya Cantrell became the first woman to lead New Orleans on Monday, making fresh history on the traditional date of the city’s founding 300 years ago and telling its residents, “We have to stand up to our challenges and face them together, with bravery, hope, trust, respect and love.”

Newly sworn in as mayor, she then danced off the stage at the Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts and led a second-line procession into the sweltering sunshine in Louis Armstrong Park, accompanied by her husband and young daughter and thronged by hundreds of jubilant supporters.

In her first speech as mayor, Cantrell fully embraced the historic first represented by her election victory in November.

“We broke every kind of glass ceiling and every color line, and old outdated rules ... about what that mayor is supposed to look like, or where he was supposed to be born,” said Cantrell, a transplant from Los Angeles who defeated New Orleans native Desiree Charbonnet to win the city's top office. 

“But it tells me that each and every one of you took a good hard look at where we are, where we want to be and how we want to get there. You put your faith in me, and I thank you so much.”

Cantrell, 46, inherits the leadership of a city that in some ways has outgrown the long recovery period that followed Hurricane Katrina 13 years ago, but that also faces major challenges both old and new: the continuing scourges of violence and inequality along with some unwanted side effects of a newly won prosperity.

“The magnitude and severity of the challenges we face today means I need your help,” Cantrell said. “It cannot be just me; it’s gotta be we.”

She pointed to the threat posed to a coastal city by climate change and the fact that private investment is remaking some New Orleans neighborhoods while passing others by.

Citing a report commissioned by her predecessor, Mitch Landrieu, she said that more than 90 percent of private-sector construction contracts still go to white-owned firms in a city that is more than 60 percent black.

On top of a notoriously high level of violent crime is an opioid epidemic that has begun to claim lives at a faster pace than guns, Cantrell noted. Major deficiencies also remain with the city’s most important infrastructure, a problem laid bare by inoperable drainage pumps and turbines during last summer’s devastating floods.

None of these problems will bow to easy fixes, Cantrell said.

“But we are here today, at a historic moment, not to look back at the 300 years behind us — but to look forward, to the days and years ahead that each one of us is shaping,” she said. “And making it not about how the world views us at 300, but how we see ourselves, one another. Worthy of a clean city. Worthy of good-paying jobs and opportunities. Worthy of quality affordable housing. And I can go on and on because you deserve it.

“Make no mistake, the task is great. But it’s an awesome responsibility that we are going to take together.”

The celebrations marking Cantrell’s inauguration began Monday morning with a Mass at St. Louis Cathedral presided over by Archbishop Gregory Aymond, who reflected on the city’s tricentennial and the election of its first female mayor.

“This is and will be written as a very, very important chapter in the history of our city,” Aymond said. “In our diversity there is unity because we are one family in the Lord, one family united in New Orleans.”

More than 2,200 people then packed into the Mahalia Jackson Theater to see Cantrell sworn in. Donna Brazile, a Kenner native and national Democratic Party strategist, acted as mistress of ceremonies.

The inauguration drew dignitaries including Gov. John Bel Edwards, former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, who represents New Orleans in Congress and was a major backer of Charbonnet in the election.

The New Orleans legislative delegation was on hand, as were St. John Parish President Natalie Robottom, Kenner Mayor Ben Zahn and famed chef Leah Chase.

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And former mayors Moon Landrieu and Sidney Barthelemy were on hand to welcome Mitch Landrieu, Moon's son, into their ranks.

“For the first time in our history, this city is going to have a female mayor,” Brazile said, drawing cheers. “Let me say, it wasn’t easy for this city to survive 300 years without a woman in charge.”

Cantrell celebrated New Orleans’ famously libertine reputation and also its resilience in the face of disaster.

“Some people see us as a city of parties and food and parades. But no matter where we go in the nation or around the world … everyone talks about the resolve of the people of New Orleans,” she said.

Cantrell also took time in her speech to pledge to work with the City Council — where she has sat for more than five years and which saw five new members join its ranks — and with other local officials who also were inaugurated Monday.

“I look forward to working with every elected official in the city of New Orleans, because we have to, in order to move our city forward,” Cantrell said. “It’s imperative that we do so. It’s not about us. It’s about all of us working together. To ensure that we reach our full potential in our great city.”

The new council members are Councilwoman-at-large Helena Moreno, the council’s first Hispanic member; District A Councilman Joe Giarrusso; Councilman Jay Banks, who replaces Cantrell in District B; District C Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, starting a second term after a four-year absence; and District E Councilwoman Cyndi Nguyen, the council’s first Vietnamese member.

District D Councilman Jared Brossett and Councilman-at-large Jason Williams are holdovers from the previous council.

Clerk of Criminal District Court Arthur Morrell took his oath of office for a fourth term, as did Sheriff Marlin Gusman. Dwight McKenna became the city’s first African-American coroner.

Before attending an evening ball at Mardi Gras World, Cantrell took a break from the celebrations to stop into her new office at City Hall, get acquainted with new staffers and help her new hires get settled. Both her recent appointments and long-time staffers have been hard at work already, she said. 


Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.