Leliani Heno To Challenge Mayor Latoya Cantrell

Photo Courtesy of Leliani K. Heno

Lakeview resident Leliani K. Heno, founder and chief executive of the popular X-Trainers personal training brand, will seek the office of Mayor in New Orleans’ fall elections. A graduate of Abramson High School, Heno says voters should elect her because she was born and raised in New Orleans and understands the culture.

“I have the leadership skills she (Mayor LaToya Cantrell) does not. They include listening, communicating, sharing, transparency and living by example,” Heno explained. An accomplished author, life coach and private trainer to corporate executives, Heno has frequently appeared on national television programs as a fitness expert. 

She attended the University of New Orleans where she received an undergraduate degree as well as an MBA. Heno’s X-Trainers brand was successful enough that she sold several franchises. Heno also buys, renovates and sells properties in the mid-city area. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, she partnered with Whole Foods on a healthy meal delivery service and still works with area chefs on customized meals for her private clients.  

Heno considers herself part of New Orleans gumbo. Her heritage includes African, French, Spanish, Creole, and Pacific Islander, hence her Hawaiian first name. Heno is a fiscal conservative but socially progressive. “I’m anti-label because labels mean different things to different people. I think they are used to place people inside boxes. I usually see all sides of an issue,” she explained.

Heno has always been registered as an Independent and scoffs at the idea of adjusting her party affiliation to Democrat to have a better chance of winning. “Changing my personal choices just to gain a vote feels inauthentic to me. Integrity is something our current mayor is clearly lacking. I want change far more than I just want to win,” Heno continued.

She readily admits that she doesn’t like politics with all its “fighting and bickering.” She also wanted to make sure she was “cut out for the job” of mayor before announcing her candidacy.

Heno was initially motivated to run for office after her fitness and life coaching businesses were shut down for the second time during the COVID-19 pandemic. She immediately lost $80,000 in corporate contracts to competitors operating in Jefferson Parish, which remained open during that same period.

Heno said she became “all in” the race when she heard Mayor Cantrell call Irvin Mayfield “a true son of the city.” Cantrell made those remarks during an early June performance by Mayfield at the Magnolia Mansion. “Mayor Cantrell should understand her influence over people. How could she think that a man who has stolen money from the library system is a person New Orleans youth should look up to? How can she say she wants to reduce crime but then puts a criminal on a pedestal? What kind of example is she setting? The mayor of New Orleans must be seen as someone who is responsible,” she exclaimed.

Heno hasn’t paid herself a salary since March 2020. She passed up a funding opportunity from the Small Business Administration which she considered a “forced” loan. Heno did collect unemployment that she used to pay her trainers, all independent contractors.  

She pays them between $20 and $30 per hour because she “most definitely” values their work. Heno is also a big supporter of living wage legislation. She respects waiters who are not rushing back to work for $2 or $3 per hour plus tips and agrees that other hospitality industry professionals deserve to be paid more.

Although her expenses remained the same during the pandemic, Heno did not want to go into debt by borrowing money. “It’s not my choice if you force me to get a loan that I don’t need otherwise.” Heno felt blessed that she was able to keep up with her business expenses and personal living costs as well as pay her taxes on time. ”I paid everything I owed. It was the right thing to do. I expect everyone should pay their taxes when they come due,” a direct reference to Mayor Cantrell’s prior tax problems. 

Heno also alleges that Cantrell is not listening to the community. She signed the Armstrong Park petition that is demanding a more transparent public process and attended the recent rally and march. “Every community group I visit with talks about problems or suggestions they have presented to the mayor and haven’t gotten a real response. That’s not the way community service is supposed to work,” Heno explained. 

Photo Courtesy of Leilani Heno

She also believes that Cantrell has failed the citizens of New Orleans East and other neighborhoods by not giving them a seat at the table when decisions are being made. “If you say you are going to be transparent why won’t you let New Orleans East residents know how you came to your decisions on the redevelopment of the Six Flags site?”

Heno yearns for a more inclusive government where the community works together. “It would be a group effort where ideas would be put on the table. No one will get everything they want. But if the majority works together we can bring our city back.”   

From her years at Abramson High School Heno remembers the glory days of the Plaza in Lake Forest and all the jobs it provided for young people at the skating rink, the bowling alley, the movie theater and in the shops. During that era, Heno said, young people were “workforce ready.” Today, she believes that non-college-bound students should be getting opportunities in high school to learn a trade.

“Some kids are not interested in college, they don’t feel smart or they may have learning disabilities. For them there is nothing to do, no outlet in school,” Heno explained. She recommends that 14 to 16 years olds be taught to work with their hands. “Everything is connected. Teach them to fix or make something.”  

Heno wishes that many of the concrete slabs in New Orleans East parking lots could be turned into green spaces. Teenagers could be hired – and paid market rate – to cut the grass and take care of the landscaping. By hiring a 14-16 year-old, young persons can learn simple job skills like how to be polite, make eye contact, take direction. “Don’t just give them a job. Treat them with respect. Train them to be an adult. Fourteen to 16 year-olds can handle it,” she said.   

If a young person has committed a crime such as carjacking, he or she would have to work as part of a community service obligation but without pay. “They’ve already taken something away from someone. They have to give back.”

Heno also thinks that New Orleans is too soft on some juvenile offenders. When a 16-year-old is arrested in Jefferson Parish, he or she is shackled, given an orange vest and forced to appear in front of a judge as part of “a walk of shame,” she says. The arrested is also immediately seen by a social worker. Chances are in Jefferson Parish they will not be automatically released and therefore less likely to immediately commit another crime. More than a few New Orleans youth are arrested for crimes they commit in the suburbs.   

Heno believes that many of today’s juveniles were born to parents who have made bad decisions in their lives and that the children are often raised by their grandparents. “These parents and grandparents want their kids to have consequences for their actions. They don’t learn anything if they can get out of jail for $50.”   

She thinks it would be much easier to solve crimes if NOPD officials did a better job of protecting witnesses. “Someone knows something about every crime. Currently witnesses don’t have any police protection beside at night in a hotel. There is no way I would divulge any information if the police could not take care of me,” Heno continued.

She too has been a crime victim. Her car was broken into on two occasions while parked Uptown and she was threatened in the French Quarter, an act she considered a hate crime.

Heno also thinks it would be appropriate if city government could provide funds to businesses that suffered during the pandemic. Grants could be allocated to business in operation at least five years who have paid their taxes on time. This would not be a lump sum payment but instead paid over two years based on the amount of available funding. 

“Small businesses are the heartbeat of the city. While we may market artists and musicians, we don’t take care of the people. New Orleans is not trying to be Los Angeles. We are not turning into Rodeo Drive. But we need to take care of community,” Heno continued.   

She is starting her fundraising with her own personal donation of $5,000 and has raised another $5,000 online from 50 donors who have contributed approximately $100 each. ”I have some strong supporters behind me and a number of fundraisers and meet-and-greets planned. A lot of donors are waiting until after qualifying to write me a check.”

Heno is a member of the Unitarian Church. She is in a same-sex relationship with an e-commerce entrepreneur who has two daughters. “We are engaged. I have folded them into my life.” 

Would New Orleans elect a second woman of color as mayor? Would they vote for an Independent, a trainer, a life coach to business executives, a serial entrepreneur, a woman in a same sex relationship? 

Gay mayors have become more prevalent in America and around the world. Take for example Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, former Houston Mayor Annise Parker in Houston, former Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, former Berlin, Germany Mayor Klaus Wowereit, former Manchester, England Mayor Carl Austin-Behan and America’s most well-known former gay mayor Pete Buttigieg, now Secretary of Transportation.

As Heno’s candidacy illustrates, there will be choices for New Orleans voters to consider in this year’s race for mayor. Other lesser-known candidates who are expected to enter the race include Luke Fontana and Belden Batiste. Qualifying begins Wednesday, July 14.   


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