By Anitra D. Brown
A recall of Mayor LaToya Cantrell would be great for the organizers and supporters of this effort and for the elite business community that has been at odds with the Mayor ever since she exhibited the moxie to challenge some of their directives and wishes, like placing the health and wellbeing of our most vulnerable Black and Brown citizens above business profits and revenue by enforcing COVID-19 restrictions and keeping New Orleans closed during the height of the pandemic.
Recalling Cantrell would also be a boon for the heirs of the old political establishment who have been waiting for nearly 50 years to fully regain control.
But where does that leave the rest of New Orleans, especially Black political leadership?
Whether you are Team Cantrell or not, a successful recall of a Black Mayor does not bode well for the broader context of Black political leadership in New Orleans. To believe that this recall only affects Mayor LaToya Cantrell is to have a myopic view of the impact of an aggressive, political assault against the city’s first Black woman mayor or any high-ranking Black political leader.
Who is Behind This Recall?
The Tribune has publicly stated its position that local wealthy business interests have their hands in it, because . . . well, they have their hands in everything that involves power and money.
The Mayor’s own camp suggests it is D.C.-based Republicans. Don’t scoff. Sure, such a declaration might beg the question why would big-money Republicans with ties to the Beltway be bothered with recalling the Mayor of New Orleans?
I am taking a stab in the dark here, but maybe for the same reason big-money Democrats from New York and California have been dipping into and destroying public education in New Orleans for 17 years – money and power.
Maybe it’s the same reason Mark Zuckerberg stuck his nose . . . and money into the most recent race for Orleans Parish Sheriff, but I digress.
Simply put, let’s not act as though outside forces have never wielded power and used money to sway politics and caused change in this city for whatever reasons suited them.
Oh, and let’s not also act as if we don’t know that some of the local folk who have made public displays of support for this recall effort have also made sizable donations to the National Republican Congressional Committee, the Republican National Committee, various state Republican parties, various Republican-leaning PACs and several individual Republican candidates in both the 2022 and 2020, to the tune of more than $670,000.
Now does that mean D.C.-based Republicans have orchestrated this recall? I just cannot say that.
Here is what I can say. Republican-led efforts to remove Democrats from office using recalls as a back-door way to defeat Democratic leaders that they could not beat in regular elections have taken place quite a bit in recent years. They are still taking place.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom was able to smash the Republican-led recall effort against him last year, with a great deal of thanks owed to Black voters in that state who understood that Black Republican Gary Elder was much more of threat as it relates to issues that matter to them.
California state Sen. Josh Newman was not so fortunate in 2018. The Republican-led recall against him was successful and resulted in the Democrats losing their majority in the California state senate for a little while. He was replaced by Ling Lang Chang, the same Republican candidate that he defeated in 2016 for the seat. In a twist, Newman won the seat again in 2020 beating a fellow Democrat in the primary and Chang in the general election. Newman’s ability to get re-elected just two years after his recall suggests that recalls are often less about what the electorate wants and more about political maneuvering.
As I type this very column, the GOP in Colorado is celebrating its success, having recently received the all-clear to begin collecting signatures to recall Colorado state Sen. Kevin Priola, a former Republican who publicly expressed his objection to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and had grown so tired of waiting for fellow Republicans to denounce the insurrection and Donald Trump that he changed his party affiliation to Democrat. By the way, that’s the reason for the recall. Colorado Republicans are calling foul because Priola switched parties. Never mind that he only switched parties because of the Republicans failure to call out domestic terrorism and treason within its own ranks.
If you don’t believe me, then believe Colorado Republican Party Chair Ken Buck who, according to media reports, said “We need to teach them how to spell R-E-C-A-L-L,” at his acceptance speech in March.
In Nevada, both Democrats and even Independents have been the target of Republican-led recalls for the past several years as the GOP works feverishly to gain control of the legislature there.
I won’t belabor the point. But let’s not act as if Republicans across the country have not added recalls to their box of voter suppression tools in attempts to hold on to or gain seats in state capitols, in Congress and in governor’s mansions across the U.S.
So forgive me if I don’t think it is a far-fetched notion that the Democratic mayor of a solidly Democratic city in an otherwise solidly Republican state could become the target of Republican-led attempt to influence a gubernatorial race that is about two years away.
But it really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if it is the restaurant industry . . . or Beltway Republicans . . . or the local wealthy business elite behind the recall.
It could be all three rolled into one—local wealthy Republican business owners with friends and interests in the Beltway. And it does not change the fact that a successful recall of LaToya Cantrell is bad news for Black political leadership and the Black citizenry in New Orleans.
The question is “What are y’all going to do about it?”
And another thing . . . I would never say that Mayor Cantrell is always right. But I will say she is not anywhere as near as wrong as they are painting her to be. And she has made some good decisions for the city of New Orleans and the people who call it home. If Black leadership in New Orleans allows this recall to happen to LaToya Cantrell now, it will deserve whatever happens to it next.
This is Bigger than all of Us
Even if I could (I do not, but let’s say I could) concede to the microscopic possibility that the real organizers of this recall did not purposefully set out to cripple Black political power for years to come. It does not stop this recall campaign from having that effect. And intent follows the bullet.
When Black elected officials are impugned, whether rightfully or with NO legitimate cause, it often leads to a general distrust of Black political leadership in a way that does not happen when White political leaders, or those of any other race, face similar circumstances.
When Black political leaders are called into question, even other Black folk utter ridiculous things like “we just won’t do right.”
Black political leadership in New Orleans can’t take that kind of hit right now, especially undeserved.
Any real political capital and power that Black leaders have in New Orleans is still a relatively new thing. The first Black mayor was elected only 44 years ago. Even if we count the efforts of Dutch Morial’s predecessor, Moon Landrieu, to usher more Black New Orleanians into City government, we are only talking about maybe 50 years. The city is more than 300 years old. Black political power is still fresh and fledgling compared to the establishment; and once again, it is under attack.
Anyone who thinks attacking Black leadership has not worked to change the course of things in New Orleans before should consider that New Orleans only got its first White mayor in 32 years only after a Black mayor ended his final term and left office in the midst of probes and investigations.
The Winds of Change Keep Changing
Dutch Morial’s history-making win in 1978 ushered in a succession of Black Mayors. And with the city’s demographics solidly majority Black for many years, reaching its peak in 2000 at 67 percent, the probability (or rather the near impossibility) of New Orleans ever electing another White mayor was a real topic of conversation, even concern for some. Folks can act like it wasn’t . . . it was.
There were several attempts over the years: Ron Faucheaux, Sam LeBlanc, Donald Mintz . . . Donald Mintz, again. By 2002, the old political establishment and elite business community had essentially stopped trying. In fact, they were so resigned to the notion that a White mayor would probably never get elected again that they hatched a plan to ensure that they at least chose the Black person who would be the mayor.
That’s why they plucked political novice Ray Nagin out of his executive suite at Cox Communications.
There was not a single major White candidate in the 2002 mayoral race. Instead, Ray Nagin — fashioned as a political outsider who would bring change and rid City Hall of “corruption” — was put into the race that also featured former NOPD superintendent Richard Pennington, Judge Paulette Irons, and former City Council members Jim Singleton and Troy Carter.
Nagin and Pennington squared off in the runoff, and Pennington lost, largely because he could not shake his ties to former Mayor Marc Morial, who at that time had been cast as a political pariah by the mainstream media.
To be sure, the opposition did all they could to connect mayoral candidate Pennington to the man who had brought him to New Orleans to get a handle on the crime problem that was actually the worst New Orleans had seen. For his part, Pennington did just that. As NOPD’s superintendent, he was successful. He could have been mayor. Perhaps, he should have been mayor.
I hate to pull scabs off of old wounds, but there is a bit of history about which we must be honest. Much like it is now, Black leadership was under attack back then. Think back to the mid-1990s through the earlier 2000s. As Morial’s tenure ended, words like “patronage” and “corruption” led nearly every headline. It was so bad that young people who might have considered offering themselves to public service cringed at the notion, leaving a vacuum in the pool of emerging Black leaders to this day. If the treatment of Black leaders at the time was any example of what they could expect, they wanted no part of it.
But the so-called corruption that Ray Nagin was supposed to be ridding City Hall of was little more than propaganda—smoke and mirrors used in an attempt to convince New Orleanians that there were misdeeds during the previous administration.
Recall that they tried everything they could to get something — anything — to discredit former mayor, Marc Morial, but to no avail. Not only did they fail, but the former mayor remained relevant and ultimately positioned himself as the leader of one of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization.
But that didn’t matter in 2002, not here, at least. Back then, Pennington, the man that spearheaded a drastic reduction in the widespread crime that crippled New Orleans in the mid-1990s, proving he knew how to get things done, could not get elected mayor because those whose life’s work it is to attack and malign strong Black political leadership made sure to paint him as a vestige from Morial’s time in office.
Anyway, Nagin won the 2002 mayoral race; and his relatively uneventful first term was almost at its end when the unimaginable happened – Hurricane Katrina. That was the first game changer. The natural and man-made disaster that changed New Orleans forever paved the way for an orchestrated change in demographics.
Of course, if you still think that traditional public housing was torn down and replaced with fewer subsidized units to “de-concentrate” poverty as if being poor is like fruit juice OR if you believe New Orleans East was earmarked to become green space and parks after Katrina because people love the outdoors, bless your heart. The Road Home was a road to nowhere for many Black homeowners, whose claims were often so undervalued that they could not afford to rebuild in New Orleans, for a reason.
Although Nagin’s “chocolate city” comments did not sit well with those who had chosen him just a few years before, the business community and old political establishment hoped that the gift of Katrina was enough to get a foothold in City Hall again. It wasn’t. Dispersed New Orleanians returned to the cast their votes in 2006 and Nagin was re-elected for another term.
And during that term, everything that he had ever done wrong . . . and some things he hadn’t done . . . were scrutinized. He left office under a cloud of federal probes and with an indictment looming over his head over trivial things — granite and oh, yeah, trips. Maybe, Black mayors should just stop traveling.
At any rate, as Nagin left office, Black political leadership in New Orleans had to contend with the lingering notion that Black leaders were inept and corrupt.
It isn’t a new narrative. In fact, it is the same one they have used since Reconstruction.
Black folk have even bought into it. In 2010, New Orleans was still more than 60 percent Black, and Mitch Landrieu, who had tried twice before and failed, won in a landslide, with 65.5 percent of the vote in the general election. It didn’t even go to a runoff. Landrieu defeated second-place finisher Troy Henry, a businessman who was making his first foray into politics, who trailed far behind with less than 14 percent of the vote. The only other Black candidates of note in the race were Judge Nadine Ramsey and former local housing advocate James Perry, who barely earned five percent of the vote combined.
And let’s not forget New Orleans’ first Black district attorney, Eddie Jordan, who did nothing wrong except have the audacity to think he could choose his staff of assistant district attorneys and that maybe, just maybe, some of those prosecutors ought to look like the majority of the people who live in this city. For his trouble, he got slapped with a federal employment discrimination lawsuit, and New Orleans got Leon Cannizzaro as its next DA.
And another thing . . . if LaToya Cantrell had actually done something worthy of recall, I would say let the chips fall where they may. But, she has not. New Orleans has issues, and everyone needs to work harder. But this recall is not about the city’s issues.
The organizers of this recall are reaching deep into their BS bags as they bring up issues like the Wisner Trust, Gordon Plaza and a threat to cancel Mardi Gras.
First of all, the Wisner Trust should have expired in 2014 during Mitch Landrieu’s administration. And it has been a source of political and legal wrangling between Wisner heirs and other beneficiaries almost since it was created. Let the courts figure out what happens to the Wisner Trust and let’s move on.
Secondly, Gordon Plaza residents have been seeking to be made whole for more than 30 years. They have been failed by at least three other administrations. Now all of a sudden, Gordon Plaza is a reason to recall Cantrell. Either the recall organizers are stupid or they think we are.
Finally, the Mayor suggested that the City may not have enough police to effectively and efficiently put on Mardi Gras 2023 and it nearly caused the folk who make big money off of Carnival riot. But I am still looking for the lie.
If we are to believe mainstream media headlines, sexual assault calls have been downgraded because of police manpower issues, and still folk are ready to fight over floats rolling across the city next Carnival. Get your priorities straight.
But recall organizers will gladly use longstanding issues that predate Cantrell, like Wisner and Gordona Plaza, or ridiculous ones like outrage over her threat to cancel Mardi Gras 2023 so long as it helps paint Black elected leaders with broad brushes of ineffectiveness, ineptitude or, even worse, depravity. And when that happens it will deter other Black leaders from running for elected office and allows an unfair, untrue stereotype to deepen.
That is where we are headed again if this recall is successful—a chilling effect caused by a contrived and twisted narrative about Black leadership that will be strengthened as demographics continue to shift. New Orleans is no longer 67 percent Black. Hell, it’s not even 60 percent Black. A declining Black population and sustained attacks against Black elected officials will weaken Black political leadership.
It won’t happen suddenly. The shift will be gradual, looking a little different in 10 years, a little more so in 20 years and unrecognizable in 40 years . . . until one day . . . there won’t be a single parish-wide elected official.
Anitra Brown is the managing editor of The New Orleans Tribune and the opinions expressed in this column are hers. She has 25 years experience as a journalism educator and journalist, covering politics, social justice issues, lifestyle and culture across southeast Louisiana, and in other locales across this great nation including Washington, D.C.; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; and Houston, Texas. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.