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City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell and former Municipal Court Judge Desiree Charbonnet are headed to a run-off in the New Orleans mayor’s race, a result that guarantees a woman will be elected mayor for the first time in the city's 300-year history.
Cantrell and Charbonnet topped a field of 18, with former Civil District Court Judge Michael Bagneris trailing at third. With 121 of 351 precincts reporting at 9:30 p.m., Cantrell had 42 percent of the vote to Charbonnet's 30 percent. Bagneris was far behind at 17 percent.
Saturday's vote sets up a contest between two candidates with very different styles and very different supporters.
Cantrell is the plainspoken community activist-turned councilwoman. She's got the backing of prominent figures in the city's white business community and polled strongly in Uptown precincts. She is not a New Orleans native but built a political career holding up the frustrations of working-class neighborhoods after Hurricane Katrina.
"I’m not talking now about taking from the rich and giving to the poor and all that kind of crap," Cantrell said at a victory speech Saturday night. "What I’m talking about is creating balance so everyone feels like they’re winners. We all can win. It is not a zero sum game as we have been made to believe. We will not be pitting neighborhoods against one another, we will be building up neighborhoods."
Charbonnet is the polished longtime judge, holding up her efforts to reform the criminal justice system and drawing on the support of major figures in the city's political establishment, including U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond.
The race so far has centered on same issues that typically dominate local races, like the persistence of violent crime, poverty and potholes.
Under a revised schedule it was supposed to play out without the distractions usually posed by Mardi Gras and the Sugar Bowl. But the distractions came anyway, in the shape of severe flooding that brought a new issue to the fore of the campaign: poor management at the Sewerage & Water Board.
At times, the substantive issues were overshadowed by the bizarre, like the revelation that Frank Scurlock — a would-be developer of Six Flags amusement park who injected more than $650,000 into his bid for mayor -- had been accused of masturbating during an Uber ride in California.
On the stump, clear differences emerged in the candidates’ approaches.
Though her mayoral bid had been widely anticipated for years, Cantrell’s campaign showed rough edges immediately, including a stumble as it accidentally announced her bid online, pre-empting the kind of splashy announcement speech candidates usually use as a springboard.
But Cantrell was aided by an army of volunteers that used both traditional tactics like calls and social media.
Charbonnet ran a more polished campaign, with a formal announcement party at the Sheraton and a chauffeur to drive her around. She unveiled glossy proposals for solving the city’s major problems, one issue at a time, and came across as the most practiced at debates.
She also raised the biggest war chest, more than $1.4 million over the course of the year.
Cantrell, after a slow start, raised about $741,650 this year. Bagneris trailed that with about $705,000.
Bagernis, making his second run for mayor after unsuccessfully challenging Mitch Landrieu in 2014, started out seeming like an afterthought in the race. But he put himself within striking distance of the runoff with the backing of significant business community donors, some attracted to his criticism of Landrieu’s decision to take down four Jim Crow-era monuments.
Much of the primary’s energy was consumed by political action committees that emerged to knock down Charbonnet, who faced questions about politically connected employees she hired while serving as recorder of mortgages two decades ago.
Charbonnet’s critics also accused her of being on the receiving end of a sweetheart deal brokered in 2000 by her brother, political operative Bernard “Bunny” Charbonnet, and of other alleged transgressions.
Charbonnet dismissed the attacks as sexist — suggesting that she would be controlled by male allies. She also turned the tables on those behind the dark-money groups -- notably, education reform advocate Leslie Jacobs and reality TV star and real estate magnate Sidney Torres — and pointed up controversial parts of their histories.
With the race tight until Saturday, Charbonnet, Cantrell and Bagneris started to sharpen their own attacks on one another. The three had some particularly pointed exchanges during a debate on WWL-TV. Charbonnet knocked Cantrell for voting to instate an extra penny of sales tax at Magnolia Marketplace in Central City, and Cantrell criticized Charbonnet for not doing more to block forced mortgage payoffs while she served as mortgages recorder.
Bagneris and Charbonnet, meanwhile, kept their sparring going even after the debate, with Charbonnet accusing him of being passed over for an appointment to New Orleans’ federal court because of personal baggage, and Bagneris calling her a liar.
Neither of the women who made the runoff candidate is lacking for powerful backers.
Charbonnet entered the race with the support of U.S. Richmond and his powerful political organization, which has all but supplanted the traditional political groups in the city. She also has the backing of major labor groups, COUP, the Orleans Parish Democratic Executive Committee, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and state Sen. J.P. Morrell, among others.
Cantrell, on the other hand, picked up some of the groups that have been eclipsed by Richmond, most notably the Central City-based BOLD, closely aligned with Cantrell’s mentor and state Democratic Party Chair Karen Carter Peterson.