LaToya Cantrell rode to her resounding victory in the New Orleans mayor’s race by emotionally connecting with a cross-racial coalition of voters throughout the city, according to analyses of Saturday’s returns.
Finishing the runoff with more than a 20-point lead over her opponent, Desiree Charbonnet, Cantrell in May will become the first female mayor the city has ever had, shattering a glass ceiling in place for exactly 300 years.
The fact that two women were vying for that title — and that when Cantrell is sworn in, the three largest cities in the state will all be led by black women — is evidence of a growing push to make sure both genders are represented in electoral politics.
“Women have always been involved in politics, always been the backbone of politics,” said Lynda Woolard, a Cantrell supporter and president of the Democratic Party-aligned Independent Women’s Organization. “But women are now seeing the importance of actually stepping up and being the ones who run for office.”
Beyond the historic nature of her victory, the election may pave the way for a new style of politics in New Orleans, said University of New Orleans professor Ed Chervenak, who heads the school’s Survey Research Center.
That reflects the Cantrell campaign’s successful use of bottom-up tactics, social media and direct voter outreach, while Charbonnet’s side relied on endorsements and support from political power brokers and traditional advertising in its efforts.
“If this continues, (mayoral campaigns) will be much more of a grassroots effort, reaching out to voters and being very approachable with voters,” Chervenak said, “as opposed to the old New Orleans model where we were presented with the candidates and then were asked to choose from the selection we were offered.”
Overall, Cantrell won an estimated 69 percent of the black vote and 54 percent of the non-black vote, according to Chervenak’s analysis. That left Charbonnet doing about 15 points better among non-black voters than black voters, although she also is African-American.
Cantrell managed to flip 85 of the precincts Charbonnet won in the Oct. 14 primary, including almost all of those in black areas Charbonnet had won in her home base of the 7th Ward and Gentilly and in New Orleans East. Cantrell also picked up 13 precincts, most of them Uptown, that went to third-place finisher Michael Bagneris in the primary.
That left Charbonnet as the victor in only 10 of the precincts she had taken in the primary and only three that had been won by Cantrell. She picked up 18 of Bagneris’ precincts in white areas near the lakefront and in New Orleans East and Algiers, averaging 84 more votes in each than she had won in the primary.
That could be a sign that Charbonnet’s endorsement by U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, the third-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, did succeed in gaining her the support of white conservatives, though at the cost of other voters in a city that is mostly black and mostly liberal.
The results, though, were likely due mainly to the starkly different ways the candidates were viewed.
A poll taken on the eve of the election by Xavier University professor Silas Lee, who also worked for Cantrell’s campaign, found that 50 percent or more of the 250 chronic voters surveyed thought of Cantrell as the candidate who motivated them, cared about people like them and demonstrated leadership characteristics that appealed to them.
For each of those metrics, only 25 percent to 29 percent of voters said the same of Charbonnet, while 6 or 7 percent said that both candidates had those qualities.
All those qualities were ones that the Cantrell campaign sought to cultivate with on-the-ground volunteers and canvassers, at personal events with the candidate and through a sophisticated data operation.
That effort was bolstered by videos featuring testimonials from people who had worked with or been aided by Cantrell during her time as a community activist in Broadmoor or later as a council member.
“That’s not something that’s concocted. It’s organic and authentic,” said state Sen. and Democratic National Committee Vice Chair Karen Carter Peterson, a longtime friend and political ally of Cantrell’s who assisted with the campaign. “If you have a story to tell it’s pretty easy, but if you don’t have a story to tell it's hard.”
The digital aspects of that campaign may have helped Cantrell pick up the millennial vote. She won 66.5 percent of the vote in the city’s four precincts where the average age is less than 35.
In the end, the campaign may also have shown the limits of the old-style political tactics that characterized Charbonnet’s campaign, which had the support of U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond and most of the city’s traditional political organizations other than Peterson’s BOLD.
Woolard cast the election of a female mayor as part of a growing movement for more women in elected offices. The strengthening of that movement, which includes organizations like Emerge Louisiana that seek to recruit women to run for office, comes as some women have taken the lead in organizing in opposition to President Donald Trump.
“We’re becoming so more acutely aware that women are not represented as well unless there are women in seats of power,” Woolard said. “We know, we’re seeing too strongly, that we have to be the people in those seats. Our allies are awesome and we love them, but without us as women specifically there, we’re not getting the representation we need.”