It's tempting to say that Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell made her stunning Saturday night victory look effortless.
Although she got a slow start raising money and meeting other traditional campaign benchmarks, Cantrell harnessed grassroots enthusiasm and stayed above the fray while her primary opponents attacked one another. She finished up by nearly nine points over eventual runoff opponent Desiree Charbonnet, who was wounded early by third-party attacks.
Starting round #2 from a clear position of strength, she survived a potential scandal over her use of a City Council credit card with impressive ease. While much of the city's existing establishment backed Charbonnet, Cantrell coasted to an astonishing 20-plus point victory Saturday.
Yet it's worth taking a moment, as Cantrell and the city enter this new phase, to remember how far she came to get here.
Cantrell grew up in Los Angeles, the daughter of a single mom who worked her way from welfare to a career in social work. She came to New Orleans to go to college at Xavier, and helped pay for it by working in the hospitality industry, which gave her a glimpse into how many New Orleanians live. So did her daily bus ride, which took her through wealthy neighborhoods as well as areas where people struggled.
But nothing tested her like what happened after Hurricane Katrina. Even before Cantrell and her flooded neighbors had a chance to figure out what to do, what resources they could count on and who else hoped to come home, a highly-credentialed city advisory panel floated the idea of turning the Broadmoor neighborhood into green space.
Under Cantrell's leadership, the neighborhood took up the fight, organized and galvanized, becoming a model of ground-up, take-charge recovery. While she parlayed her success there into a City Council seat, she never fully abandoned that storm-the-barricades spirit.
You only had to listen to how often Charbonnet brought up her family's deep roots in the city to understand what Cantrell was up against, how big a deal it is for an outsider to overcome New Orleans' habitual insularity.
LaToya Cantrell soared past Desiree Charbonnet on Saturday to become the first female mayor of New Orleans, winning in a landslide after a har…
But not only did Cantrell's history not hurt. It almost certainly helped.
Outsider politics are decidedly "in" around the country these days. And throughout the campaign, Cantrell was at her strongest when she talked of her decision to make a life and raise her daughter here, of being a New Orleanian by choice.
That clearly resonated with millenials and post-Katrina transplants who flocked to her campaign, pre-election polls showed. And judging by the final result, it resonated well beyond that group. Cantrell's margin wasn't just huge; she won big in just about every corner of the city, including the downtown neighborhoods that were supposed to make up Charbonnet's base. Charbonnet took just 31 of 351 precincts, including 15 in Lakeview.
That could be the result of generational change, but it may also be due to the fact that these days, the city is chock-full of New Orleanians by choice.
Everyone who returned after the storm, and everyone who arrived afterwards, has had to fight to make the city not only whole, but better and stronger than it was before the levees failed.
It's a fight that their new mayor knows all too well.
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