“We’ve Got Your Back”, Cantrell Purrs Almost Convincingly, but Does She?

Photo Credit: Jenn Bentley, Big Easy Magazine

Which New Orleans elected leader really has the people’s back? Is it Mayor LaToya Cantrell who is making that claim in the midst of the city’s worst crime wave in years, or Councilmember Helena Moreno who just completed almost three years as City Council president and believes “when we all come together, great things can happen”? With less than six weeks remaining in the historic campaign to recall Cantrell, the mayor is fighting back with a somewhat lackluster list of accomplishments that is sure to disappoint most voters. Moreno, who many believe has her eyes on the mayor’s office, released a much more substantive report which gives voters a clearer picture of how a tenacious, motivated woman can tackle major issues. 

Of course Cantrell and Moreno play different roles in New Orleans city government. The former heads up the executive branch, the implementers. The latter now serves as the council’s vice president in the legislative branch, the rule makers and funders. The Council lays out a framework and allocates funding so the mayor can execute policy-driven initiatives that benefit citizens. Unfortunately the results highlighted in Cantrell’s report are frequently less than robust. 

It’s not just their roles that set Cantrell and Moreno apart, it’s their management style. Moreno is a hands-on leader – always listening to the community, learning new ideas, and empowering those around her. Under her leadership, the Council often pulls together as one team when tough decisions must be made. Moreno’s report reflects on the accomplishments of the entire City Council but it’s evident she has been charting the course. 

Cantrell is much more hands-off. Former staffers believe she does not always inspire greatness from her employees. Rumors persist that she is divisive, belittles people and uses inappropriate language. Cantrell also likes to engage with the community but mostly at settings that are more social than work-related. Critics claim that openness and transparency are not hallmarks of her administration. 

Despite New Orleans’ moniker as America’s murder capital, Cantrell’s report prioritized her public safety accomplishments. She focused on the appointment of Interim Chief Michelle Woodfork, an establishment insider, whose selection Cantrell wants to make permanent despite a charter change which mandates City Council and community involvement. On January 5, 2023 the Council passed a resolution calling for a nationwide search. Redeploying 75 officers from desk duty to the field and staffing the new Citizens Academy with 75 civilians are also nice gestures but won’t put a dent in reducing crime. Did it have to take calls from the NFL and NBA about cars being broken into during sporting events before the NOPD figured out how to increase patrols on those streets?   

In the area of public health, the Cantrell Administration touted the 68 coordinated public health outreach and cleaning efforts at homeless encampments and stated that a mere 495 homeless citizens have been placed in permanent housing since 2018. The remaining thousands of unhoused men, women and children have had no choice but to return to the streets. The Cantrell administration should be ashamed of the living conditions the homeless – many of whom suffer from mental health issues – endure under the Claiborne overpass, the Pontchartrain Expressway, and by the Morial Convention Center. Mental health services for this population, really for all New Orleanians, are basically non-existent and must be immediately addressed with specialized facilities and trained staff.  

At a time when the need for affordable housing is exploding due to the recession and increased mortgage rates, Cantrell’s team claimed “real results” despite that only 2,000 affordable housing units have been constructed during the last six years. Building 2,000 units every other year would be a much better indicator of “real results.”  

Although having received millions in federal dollars, even the administration’s signature youth and families programs only reached a miniscule number (less than 200 in 2022) of participants desperate for such services. At this rate it will take decades for the majority of targeted constituents to access the leadership, parenting and job skills training they need to succeed.

Outside of the tourism industry, New Orleans’ success in economic and workforce development is almost exclusively the direct effort of GNO Inc.’s hard work. In many instances, the city plays only a minor role. The new Biomedical Epicenter is a big deal but could take a long time to reach its goal of positioning the city as a “global center of excellence in health care specialties.”

Considering all the problems with Sewerage and Water Board’s billing practices and the 55 infrastructure projects encompassing 2,800 city blocks which have been languishing, the Cantrell administration still applauded the “significant progress” made on tackling aging infrastructure. Do the residents who can’t drive down their streets for months at a time consider the program a success? Significant progress is also relative for residents whose homes always flood whenever a hard rain falls.

Finally, in the area of City Services the Cantrell administration singled out the 101 demolitions completed citywide, a pitiful milestone considering the vast amount of blighted properties that need to be torn down.   

In contrast to Cantrell, Councilmember Moreno has pressed for change, efficiency and increased accountability – all stepping stones in building the foundation for a city that will be safer and more affordable.  Moreno says she is focused on implementing comprehensive public safety solutions that attack the roots of violence in the community. Examples include the new Criminal Justice Data Hub, quarterly reporting to the Council by criminal justice agencies, fee-free stolen vehicle recovery and additional funding for the NOPD DNA lab to end the backlog of crimes of sexual violence.

Moreno has chosen to address climate change by mandating that all public office buildings constructed or rehabilitated meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification. She worked with the Council to fund the purchase of 100% zero-emissions vehicles for public operations. Moreno pushed the merger of the Sewerage & Water Board and city drainage maintenance operations that has improved the management of the city’s critical water drainage system.  

Moreno is supporting small business growth in the food, beverage and live entertainment industries by reforming the permitting process and making it easier for stakeholders to operate. The new balance also provided safeguards to ensure the integrity of neighborhoods. Moreno recently spearheaded a groundbreaking initiative that will eliminate $130 million in medical debt for New Orleanians through an innovative partnership with RIP Medical Debt.  

She led the way for the City Council to commit millions from the American Rescue Plan Act to relieve eligible Entergy customers from high utility bills. Finally, Moreno supported the residents of Gordon Plaza by helping fund relocation costs. Perhaps Moreno’s greatest accomplishment is her unique ability to lift the spirits of citizens, many of whom have become fatigued by crime, the rising cost of living, and the lack of racial harmony.  

Cantrell’s time in office has been marred by numerous missteps, some of which have led to an investigation by the FBI that focuses on purchases made by her stylist for clothing, jewelry and other items using campaign and other unknown funding sources. At a January 4, 2023 press conference, Cantrell stated that she is not “affiliated directly” with the investigation. On the same day Fox 8 News investigators Lee Zurik and Dannah Sauer reported that the FBI investigation has been expanded to include Cantrell’s former NOPD security officer Jeffrey Vappie, their relationship, and the time the duo spent together in the city-owned Pontalba apartment.  

Some citizens are uncertain about the remaining steps in theunprecedented effort to recall Cantrell. If the campaign successfully garners the 53,000 signatures of registered votersby the Ash Wednesday deadline, Governor Edwards would call the election on Cantrell’s future for October, 2023 to coincide with other state elections.

If Orleans Parish voters permanently remove Cantrell, Cantrell must step down from office. She will most likely be replaced by City Council President J.P. Morrell who would serve an Interim Mayor.  An election for a new mayor would take place in the spring of 2024.  Recall campaign officials remain hopeful that they will collect all the signatures needed by February 22. “We want to thank the thousands of citizens who have already responded to our call for signatures,” said recall chair Belden Batiste. “Our work is not yet done. We need everyone who is holding a petition to sign it and bring in your sheets. We’ll even pick them up. Crime is still getting worse every day. Change is desperately needed. Let’s bring it on.”

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