A collapsed building, a deadly Mardi Gras and a cyber attack. That was not enough. A global pandemic was thrown in for good measure. All of this during mayor Latoya Cantrell’s first two and a half years in office. Yet, in the face of this and more, she has made tough decisions and stood her ground to serve the best interests of the city and its people. For that, she is our person of the year.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell points to her faith in God as the one thing that holds her steady and keeps her focused as the city’s top executive. She serves the people of New Orleans, and even when things are challenging and in the face of crisis and criticism, her faith, and the earnest belief that she is in the right place at the right time doing the right thing sustain her, she says.
“My faith is real, and I am grounded in my faith,” Mayor Cantrell says. “I am supposed to be doing what I am doing.”
Mayor Cantrell recently sat down with The New Orleans Tribune to discuss the roughly two and half years she has already spent as mayor, the year and half or so ahead of her, challenges, triumphs and her plans for re-election.
To be clear, what Cantrell is doing and has been doing since assuming office in May of 2018 is leading the city of New Orleans through unprecedented times. Arguably, no mayor has been at the helm during a more critical and trying period than right now, with tests and challenges on diverse fronts. It has not been any one thing, such as an issue with crime, or the economy, or a hurricane. It has been all of that—and then some. And she has handled it with a steadfast resolve to do what is best for New Orleans and all of its people. For that reason, The New Orleans Tribune has named her our 2020 Person of the Year.
A native of Los Angeles who first came to New Orleans in 1990 after graduating high school to attend Xavier University, Cantrell is the first person not born in New Orleans to be elected as its mayor in more than 50 years with the 1961 election of Chicago-born Victor Schiro being the first.
Before serving as the District B representative on the City Council, she was active in the Broadmoor community she calls home, joining the board of the Broadmoor Improvement Association and serving as its president and helping to found and lead the Broadmoor Development Corporation in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to help residents of the community return and rebuild after the storm.
Doing the seemingly impossible is not at all new for Cantrell. As a city councilwoman, she successfully led the charge to ban smoking in restaurants, bars and casinos in New Orleans. And in one of her first battles as Mayor, she took on the city’s giant and well-funded tourism industry, demanding and successfully negotiating a fair share deal designed to ensure that the city receives more revenue from the more than $200 million in taxes generated by hospitality taxes to help support vital city services. Along with industry leaders and Gov. John Bel Edwards, Mayor Cantrell struck a deal that provided a $50 million upfront payment in 2019 to help address drainage infrastructure and needs and another $17.5 million to be paid out over a five-year period in addition to a $26 million in annual funding to also address infrastructure needs.
Tests and Challenges
Since becoming mayor, Cantrell has seen more than her share of tests and challenges. There are the flood events that have tested the city’s aging infrastructure. Of course, flooding in New Orleans is not uncommon at all. But on a Wednesday morning in June of 2020, more than 100 streets across the city flooded when just a few inches of rain fell over a few hours. The constant fear that every hard rain event could result in high water on city streets, damaging property and threatening lives and livelihoods, serves as a reminder that the city’s drainage system and infrastructure are as fragile as ever 15 years after Hurricane Katrina.
Cantrell says she has taken the challenges faced by Sewerage and Water Board seriously.
“As Mayor, I have only missed maybe two Sewerage & Water Board meetings,” she says. To be sure, it was the needs of the city’s aging drainage system among other infrastructure issues that she was fighting for when she pushed her fair share plan early in her administration.
In October of 2019, there was the collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel that cost lives, stretched city resources and put the city’s permit and building inspection processes under scrutiny. Three people died in the accident. Falling debris and an unsteady structure forced the closure of some businesses near the collapsed hotel and shut down portions of Canal, Rampart and other streets. While one of the victim’s bodies was recovered soon after the collapse, the bodies of two other workers remained for months, with the last victim’s body just being recovered this past August. Cleaning and other costs associated with the building’s collapse have cost the city more than $12 million. And Mayor Cantrell has led the charge to force the owners and developers of the building to pick up that bill. A lawsuit to recover those costs was filed by the city in August.
“Our city was harmed. Our people were killed. No amount of delay or denial or excuses can change that fact, and we will not allow those responsible to evade responsibility for the damages they have caused to our city,” the Mayor said in a statement about the filing of the lawsuit.
About a year ago, in December 2019, the city’s technology was compromised in a cyber attack that all but shutdown government and exposed problems with the city’s computer system, resulting in an emergency declaration. The recovery effort has cost the city more than $7 million so far.
Then there was the deadly Mardi Gras of 2020, during which two parade goers were killed by Mardi Gras floats in separate incidents—one within a week of the other. The accidents prompted the Mayor, Police Chief Shaun Ferguson and other city leaders to quickly implement emergency measures such as an immediate ban on tandem floats for the remainder of Carnival 2020 while also looking into other long-term changes for the future.
And just when the city and its people thought they might catch a break, the COVID-19 pandemic surfaced in Louisiana. While every parish in Louisiana has now reported cases of COVID-19, Orleans Parish was the epicenter of the pandemic at the early stages. However, today, it is third in the state for confirmed COVID-19 cases, behind Jefferson and East Baton Rouge Parishes.
To combat the deadly virus, Mayor Cantrell, in concert with the leaders from the city’s health department, has implemented some of the strongest restrictions, with New Orleans mandates on closures, reopening and mitigation steps. The city’s COVID-19 restrictions have often been tighter than statewide orders and it is a fact that has put the Mayor in the crosshairs with some regional neighbors and city business leaders.
Early on, Mayor Cantrell made a bold move, calling for the cancellation of large-scale events such as Jazz Fest, Essence Festival, French Quarter Festival and the like—activities that draw hundreds of thousands of visitors to the region and are main vessels of the city’s hospitality and tourism industry. She has gone on to effectively cancel Mardi Gras 2021. While organizers of these events complied with the Mayor’s recommendation for the sake of public health, she came under fire for that decision, with the leader of the Jefferson Parish Chamber of Commerce publicly criticizing Mayor Cantrell for the moves she decided were necessary to protect the lives of the people she was elected to lead.
Not all the criticism has come from outside of the city. In April, while COVID-19 was still extracting its toll on New Orleans, especially among the city’s Black residents disproportionately impacted by both the health and economic effects of the pandemic, a group of New Orleans businesses owners took out a full-page ad taking aim at the mayor and calling on her to reverse direction on her recommendations regarding canceling major events.
Yet, as one local media outlet noted, the ad calling on Mayor Cantrell to reopen New Orleans in less than two weeks appeared in the local daily newspaper on the same day as eight pages of obituaries—a sign of the COVID-19’s deadly impact on the city and region. And that is one reason the Mayor is not swayed by the criticism. First, she understands that it comes with the job.
“Every decision you make is always scrutinized,” she says.
The Double Standard
But foremost, she is committed to doing what she thinks is best for all New Orleanians, especially those who can’t afford to take out full-page ads in the local daily, even if it means she will be ridiculed by those who can. Still, as the city’s first Black woman mayor—the first woman, in fact—she is keenly aware that at least some of the disapproval of her decisions is couched in bias.
“That has been a part of the fabric, Cantrell candidly says. “It’s not fair, and it doesn’t feel good. I don’t think it’s deserving. I think if I were a man, I would have a statue by now based on what we have been able to do. But a lot of the things go unacknowledged simply because I am a woman and I am Black. The decisions I have had to make haven’t been popular, but are necessary. It’s almost like you have to fight the same battles even though you have demonstrated that you can make sound decisions. Still, every decision you make is always scrutinized. I even feel the pressure; it is like it comes harder from White men. It’s unacceptable. It really is.”
It is not the criticism that ruffles her feathers. That comes with the job. It is the way it is often tendered—publicly and in a scolding tone that suggests that the sources of the criticism are speaking to an underling or a reprobate—instead of the duly elected mayor of a major American city.
Reflecting on the full-page ad placed in the city’s daily by local businessmen criticizing her COVID-19 recommendations, Mayor Cantrell questions whether those who take issue with her on decisions she makes as mayor would do so in a different manner if she were not Black and a woman, “The day you send me your letter, the next day you have a full-page spread. So you already paid for a full-page ad. Unbelievable. But that was the dog whistle. And it was round up the troops and it played out that way.”
To be sure, Mayor Cantrell is not the only one who feels this way when it happens. There are others who at times call out this double-standard for what it is as The New Orleans Tribune has done before. For her part, however, Mayor Cantrell often seems to ignore it—at least publicly, focusing instead on the business at hand—mostly because that is what the people of the city elected her to do and partly because she knows if she did just about anything else—showed any sign of annoyance, rage or wrath, she’d be pegged as the “angry, Black woman.”
“In some cases, that may be how they want to paint me. But when I don’t give them that, it is difficult,” she says. “I know that I am here for a reason and I have a job to do so I have to continue to be grounded, literally in my faith because that is how I stay humbled and reminded that it is bigger than me.”
Most of all, Mayor Cantrell does not let those or other critics dim her light or thwart her mission to serve the city. When she talks about successes of her tenure, negotiating the fair share deal is certainly among them. But she also points to helping lead the city to a more sound fiscal standing.
Eyes on the Prize
The Mayor talked about those achievements with The New Orleans Tribune and touted them during her annual State of the City Address as well.
“The City’s improved credit rating, which my team achieved last year, put us into a stronger financial position before this pandemic hit. Our financial team uncovered millions that sat unspent for decades. We called together the Board of Trusts, a body that had not met in three decades, and we released over $1 million in funds, some of which hadn’t been touched in almost a century.”
The passage of a $500 million bond proposition in November 2019 is another administration highlight that the Mayor sees as a boon for the city. The money from the sell of those general obligation bonds in 2020 will help fund long-term capital improvements in drainage, storm water management, bridge, street and road projects, help maintain public buildings and equipment along with helping the city address affordable housing needs.
It is a success that will keep New Orleans pushing forward in difficult times, Cantrell says, noting that improvement projects have continued across the city despite the pandemic.
“Our 2020 bond initiative will function as a local stimulus. I have worked closely with our City Council to ensure that we issue a large enough bond package to rebuild infrastructure and infuse funding into our economy all at the same time,” she said during her state of the city address. “Our 2020 bonds, totaling more than $280 million, are part of the $500 million that (voters) overwhelmingly approved with your vote last November.”
When asked if she saw the recent failure of the three-part millage as a referendum on her as mayor, Cantrell says, “no”. Instead, she sees it as a sign—one that Black New Orleanians must also recognize, she says.
“What I do is I look at the numbers. It is very important we do that. When you look at who voted for it, the majority of African-Americans did. When you look at who stood to gain the most, it is African-Americans in this community. So you had a shift where Black folk didn’t turn out like we thought they would have based on the polling, based on the outreach and all that. And then you had something contentious on there with the library. So, turnout was low. Black folks voted for it. The White community did not, and what that means to me is that Black folk really need to stand up (for the things that their communities need).”
The proposal would have restructured a current tax to fund infrastructure and maintenance, early childhood education and libraries, affordable housing, blight removal and economic development. So as far as she is concerned, she, LaToya Cantrell, was not on the ballot on December 5. The needs of a community with members who are already marginalized and disenfranchised were.
“That is what was on the ballot. Early childhood education—it’s Black children who need those seats. Seventy percent of our third-graders can’t read right now at the third-grade level. That’s us,” Cantrell says. “In terms of economic development, again, the 40,000 people getting unemployment or even being denied are majority Black people. If we don’t pay attention and be careful, in the next 15 years, we will not be the majority in this city. So that is what it means to me when I dissect the vote of Dec. 5. What are the priorities of this city in order to move folk from poverty to real transitional wealth in order to grow in this community, which is what we say we want? But if we don’t vote for that, how are we going to get it, especially when the numbers in the Black community are declining.”
It is true. LaToya Cantrell was not on the ballot on Dec. 5, 2020. But she will be on Oct. 9, 2021. As she looks to the next several months, she intends to continue the work she has started.
She will be seeking re-election, of course. She believes her record will speak for her and compel New Orleanians to send her back to City Hall for another four-year term.
“Judge me on what I have been able to do in two and half years—take on challenges in order to move this city forward and be very open and transparent and honest about it. If I remain consistent like I have been over the last two and half years, I will definitely make sure I leave the city better off than how I found it.”