LaToya Cantrell and Desiree Charbonnet have already shattered the glass ceiling. Next year, a woman will for the first time take charge of City Hall in New Orleans.
Which of the two will gain the prize will depend on who can best capitalize on the strengths and minimize the weaknesses that came out during each one's primary campaign.
Cantrell, the feisty community activist-turned-city councilwoman, begins with the clear advantage, having taken 39 percent of the vote to Charbonnet's 30 percent in the first round of voting Oct. 14.
She also picked up momentum Friday with an endorsement from third-place finisher Michael Bagneris, a former judge whose backers in the business community could help Cantrell's fundraising efforts before the Nov. 18 runoff.
That's a crucial area where Cantrell will be looking to improve. She lagged far behind Charbonnet in the money race during the primary.
Cantrell likely will also have to play serious defense for the first time. Most of the mudslinging during the primary came from third-party groups, and most of it was aimed at Charbonnet. That's about to change, with the Charbonnet camp already probing Cantrell's history for angles of attack.
For Charbonnet, a former Municipal Court judge who's been running the more polished campaign, the challenge will be trying to draw votes from Bagneris supporters.
Among many voters, the attacks on Charbonnet during the primary, which tarred her as beholden to powerful backers, seem to have stuck.
“They weren’t able to knock Charbonnet out of the race, like they intended to," said Ron Faucheux, a veteran campaign consultant and former state representative. "But they were able to keep her from getting the undecided vote.”
Faucheux pointed out that Cantrell needs only about 39 percent of the votes that went to the candidates who got knocked out of the race in the primary, while Charbonnet will need to pick up 68 percent to win, assuming that all of their first-round voters stick with them and turn out again at the polls.
Charbonnet argues that she can make headway in winning Bagneris backers and other voters by highlighting her plans to fight crime. In an interview last week, she said the primary campaign taught her that public safety remains the No. 1 issue for voters.
“I’m going to continue to let citizens know that if they are concerned about crime, I am the candidate,” she said.
She also plans to contrast her resumé with Cantrell's.
“You’ve got to understand how to manage people — and I’m not talking about a City Council staff of four or five people,” she said in an obvious jab at Cantrell. “I’m talking about a large public office or court. The recorder of mortgages office. That’s hugely important."
Charbonnet was the city's recorder of mortgages before becoming a judge. Neither office, of course, has more than a tiny fraction of the city's workforce.
Cheron Brylski, a consultant for Bagernis’ campaign, is skeptical that Charbonnet will be able to lure many of his voters. She said prominent members of the white business community have already signaled that they oppose her.
Although all of the major candidates were African-American, Bagneris' votes came largely from white precincts, such as in Lakeview, according to an analysis by University of New Orleans professor Ed Chervenak. And those precincts are, by and large, more conservative than the rest of the city.
Traditionally, black candidates who have large crossover appeal and are able to capture the white vote have won mayor's elections, something that showed to an extent in the primary.
Though Charbonnet matched Cantrell on Oct. 14 in black neighborhoods, Charbonnet suffered in white areas, an analysis by Chervenak found.
Still, the attacks on Charbonnet may already have had their impact, while her campaign has only just begun to dig into Cantrell's record.
The first punch flew in an email blast from Charbonnet's camp on Friday, criticizing Cantrell over the performance of a charter school that she helped start when she was president of the Broadmoor Improvement Association.
After years of low performance, the school received an F grade for the 2013-14 school year and was taken over by the state in 2015, according to the email from Teddlie Stuart Partners, which handles Charbonnet’s communications. “LaToya Cantrell ran a charter school into the ground,” the email said.
Members of charter schools' boards don't typically run day-to-day school operations, but they are ultimately responsible for holding accountable the school leaders who do.
Cantrell spokesman David Winkler-Schmit pointed out that Cantrell was no longer serving as chair of the school's nonprofit board by the time it received the failing grade.
Cantrell’s time on the City Council could also prove to be a fertile ground for attacks, since a record of hundreds of votes can yield a variety of issues where some segment of the community felt they were on the losing side.
There's also the fact that Cantrell is a California native. The runoff may decide whether the conventional wisdom — that only someone born and bred in New Orleans can ascend to the Mayor's Office — still holds up.
If she wins in November, Cantrell will be the first mayor not born in New Orleans since the 1960s administration of Victor Schiro, who was born in Chicago but spent much of his childhood in the city.
Faucheux pointed out that things could be changing with so many newcomers arriving in the city since Hurricane Katrina.
“I don't think most New Orleanians would look at candidates as outsiders if they weren’t from here, necessarily,” he said.