City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell surged past former Municipal Court Judge Desiree Charbonnet to achieve a first-place finish in Saturday’s mayoral primary,
Cantrell and Charbonnet will face off in a Nov. 18 runoff to decide who succeeds two-term Mayor Mitch Landrieu. That battle will make history no matter who wins, as either would be the first woman to hold the city’s top political job since its founding in 1718.
When all the ballots were counted, Cantrell had 39 percent of the vote to Charbonnet’s 30 percent.
Throughout the election, the race was largely among Charbonnet, Cantrell and former Civil District Court Judge Michael Bagneris, who placed third with 19 percent of the vote.
Cantrell enters the runoff with both a strong lead and a broad base of support across the city, winning precincts from the Jefferson Parish line to New Orleans East. That includes many parts of the downriver neighborhoods that had been seen as Charbonnet’s main geographic base, as well as Broadmoor, where Cantrell built her reputation as a community activist in the years after Hurricane Katrina.
“We know that it’s not over, we have work to do, and we are determined, we are committed and we will always be about what each and every person in our city needs to reach their full potential in the city of New Orleans,” Cantrell said in an appearance before her supporters shortly after 10 p.m. “We know that we are world-class, we know that, but each and every one of our residents need to feel that they’re world-class.”
Charbonnet largely won New Orleans East and parts of Gentilly, near where she grew up, as well as Algiers. She also has the backing of much of the city’s political establishment and enters the runoff in better financial position, though that could change quickly as the runoff approaches.
“Tonight is a shining step toward our dream, the dream of a better New Orleans,” Charbonnet said after chants of “Desi! Desi!” filled the room at her election night party. “But there are miles to go and work to do before we get there. I want to thank each and every one of you for your support, your vote and most importantly, your prayers.”
Saturday's vote sets up a contest between two candidates with very different styles and very different supporters.
Cantrell is a 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.
Charbonnet is a 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 campaign so far has centered on the same issues that typically dominate local races, like the persistence of violent crime, poverty and potholes.
Under a revised election schedule that moved the primary from February to October, it was supposed to play out without the distractions usually posed by Mardi Gras and football season. 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.
The campaign never congealed around a single issue or theme. Crime, pledges to bolster the ranks of the New Orleans Police Department and promises to fix the streets stood out as the primary issues as most campaigns ramped up over the summer, but all were soon overtaken by drainage and management concerns in the aftermath of the Aug. 5 flooding.
But nothing seemed to grab the electorate as a whole, and turnout was only about 32 percent. More than 35 percent of voters turned out for the 2014 primary that saw Landrieu coast to re-election, and nearly 33 percent had turned out four years earlier.
As he formally conceded, Bagneris thanked his supporters and congratulated the two women. “It was an interesting journey, and the journey comes to an end for me tonight,” he said.
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 she was aided by an army of volunteers who used both traditional tactics like calls as well as social media.
Charbonnet, meanwhile, steeped her campaign in style, as evidenced by the snazzy announcement party she held at the Sheraton Hotel and the chauffeur she paid to drive her around. She unleashed glossy proposals for solving the city’s major problems, one issue at a time, and mostly appeared polished on debate stages.
Such pizzazz was made possible by a massive war chest, with her campaign raising than $1.4 million over the course of the year.
Cantrell, after starting off slowly, ended up raising about half that total, about $741,650. Bagneris trailed with about $705,000.
Bagernis, making a second run for mayor after unsuccessfully challenging Landrieu in 2014, started out seeming like an afterthought in the race. But 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 without a vote of the people -- he was able to consistently poll in the same league as Charbonnet and Cantrell.
Compared to his opponents, who could often come across as scripted or meandering, Bagneris tended to do well in the multitude of forums that dotted the campaign calendar, earning chuckles over some of his most well-worn lines.
Much of the primary’s energy was provided by political action committees that emerged to try 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.
But in a counter move, Charbonnet dismissed the attacks as sexist suggestions that she would be controlled by her male allies. She also turned the tables on those behind the attack ads -- notably, education reform advocate Leslie Jacobs and reality TV star and real estate magnate Sidney Torres -- and pointed up controversial parts of their histories.
And in the end, she still made the runoff.
With the race tight until Saturday, Charbonnet, Cantrell and Bagneris increasingly began to mete out some attacks of their own. The three had some particularly sharp exchanges during a televised WWL-TV debate in the final week, with Charbonnet rapping Cantrell for voting to levy an extra penny of sales tax at Magnolia Marketplace in Central City and Cantrell criticizing 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.
Cantrell, in her Saturday night speech, pledged not to attack her opponent in the runoff.
Perhaps the key question of the runoff will be whether Cantrell can capitalize on the enmity between Bagneris and Charbonnet.
That would create a dynamic similar to the one Ray Nagin rode into office in 2002. Like Nagin, Cantrell would be entering a runoff facing a formidable candidate backed by much of the city’s political establishment but with the votes and resources of the white Uptown business community and the endorsements of The Times-Picayune and The Gambit.
The New Orleans Advocate does not endorse candidates.
Neither candidate is lacking for a base of support already.
Charbonnet enters the race with the backing of 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.
Business consultant Troy Henry, also making his second try for mayor, came in fourth with 6.4 percent of the vote, and Tommie Vassel, a certified public accountant, earned 1.4 percent.
All the other candidates got substantially less than 1 percent of the vote each.