The first thing that happened was a shipwreck. On the evening of May 7, 2018, after the new mayor and city councilmembers had second lined away from their swearings-in and began arriving for the mayor’s inaugural ball at Mardi Gras World, a barge crashed into a pier near the venue causing a section of the wharf to collapse. The damage did not extend into the party space, however. The unfazed attendees continued with their dancing. “Thankfully there was no loss of life!” the mayor tweeted. The new mayor, LaToya Cantrell (D), who had told supporters on election night that she was not interested in “taking from the rich and giving to the poor and all that kind of crap” could set about the task of making good on that promise.
But first she had to figure out how to break her marquee (and apparently accidental) campaign promise to rid the city of its much maligned traffic cameras. The task of sorting Cantrell’s contradictory statements on the matter into a coherent policy fell to her Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montano. A puzzling hire in his own right, Montano was brought here by Cantrell from Albuquerque, New Mexico where, as chief of staff to the mayor there, he implemented a Bloomberg grant program to establish a creepy predictive policing experiment he said would "create an algorithm, essentially, that can help the DA and the judges identify repeat offenders.” Montano explicitly argued for intrusive policing when he appeared before City Council to discuss the traffic cameras. He told the Council that cameras could be replaced with more traffic enforcement officers who would then conduct more random searches and checks on the people they happened to stop. Seeing no downside to the exact policy regime that has enabled racist and murderous police across the country, Montano chillingly suggested this approach would not only crack down on crime but also raise city revenues. In fact, Cantrell and Montano would add an estimated $500,000 to the city budget that year by stepping up traffic enforcement and instructing officers to impose the maximum fines on people they stop.
Of course, the traffic cameras were never removed. Instead, they were shuffled around town to emphasize school zone enforcement. Later, Cantrell would weaponize those cameras against drivers reducing the ticketing threshold by 2 miles per hour without first informing the public. And although subsequent questioning by City Council plainly showed this was a deliberately misleading and cynical revenue grab, the mayor remained belligerent and unapologetic. All of this is typical of Cantrell’s embrace of intrusive surveillance, brutal policing, and bullying behavior that would only intensify along with the successive disasters afflicting her term in office.
The first and most frequently recurring of those disasters emanate from the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board where outmoded and poorly maintained facilities regularly subject residents to boil water orders or can leave them vulnerable to damaging street flooding after any given afternoon thunderstorm. With an especially bad year for flooding in 2017, Cantrell came into office under pressure to get something done. Naturally her first move was to threaten residents with water shut-offs if they got behind on their bills. Even though the agency’s faulty billing software had saddled some 17,000 residents with chaotically absurd debts, Cantrell showed no mercy in calling them “delinquent bad actors” unwilling to “pay their fair share.”
“Fair share” would go on to become a favorite slogan of Cantrell’s as she launched a campaign ostensibly meant to direct more tourism derived tax revenue toward S&WB infrastructure. But the agreement she eventually struck actually ended up granting even more power and public money to the city’s privately run tourism agencies and to the convention center in exchange for, primarily, a one time lump sum payment to the city for infrastructure work which does not even begin to meet the actual need. In fact much of the haphazard road and drainage work that has frustrated New Orleanians in the years since, has been financed through a subsequent $500 million bond sale. So the supposed “fair share” we’ve ended up with is a situation where the city’s richest and most powerful business interests have increased their status, while ordinary citizens have been squeezed to pay more.
In 2019 the disasters began to compound. In July, there was another major street flood. In August there was an even worse one raising new questions about the city’s honesty with residents about the state of their infrastructure. Pursuit of those questions crossed into the realm of the sublime with the extraction of an abandoned Mazda 626 from a drainage culvert. Whether it had anything to do with solving the problem or not, Cantrell used this as an opportunity to demand greater control over the Downtown Development District’s finances.
Her apparent aim at the time was convincing DDD to “roll forward” its millage rates in order to capture maximum revenues from skyrocketing property tax assessments, a result of the runaway gentrification affecting housing costs in the city. But many of the city’s dedicated tax millages are controlled by independent boards charged with spending the funds for a legally designated purpose rather than on patronage doled out at the discretion of the mayor. As we will see, this is not the only case in which Cantrell has bucked these constraints in pursuit of greater power. With regard to DDD, it seems the mayor has finally gotten her way. This year Cantrell strongarmed the DDD into placing one of her lieutenants as its CEO likely giving her the control she had been seeking.
Catastrophe struck again in October when a major hotel project downtown collapsed killing three workers, injuring dozens, and disrupting life and commerce for months with an ongoing carnival of wobbly cranes and botched demolitions. The husk of the Hard Rock would remain a blight on the heart of the city for the better part of two years serving daily as a symbol of the criminal negligence, exploitative labor practices and deeply corrupt politics that had caused it to appear. The aftermath of the collapse drew new attention to a murky and semi-privatized building inspections system already the subject of investigations by the Inspector General and by federal prosecutors. It also generated a further web of confusing investigations and counter-investigations by different entities including the City Council, the Inspector General, the federal government, and the Cantrell administration all operating in competition with one another. Cantrell’s in-house investigation is noteworthy, though, because 1) It appears to have begun in secret, 2) The Cantrell administration has released incomplete and contradictory explanations as to its purpose. 3) Cantrell has lashed out defensively at other probes run independent of her oversight.
An OSHA report accuses contractors of “willful” safety violations. Further reports are said to indicate deliberate criminal acts on the part of engineers and other contracting firms. But no charges have been filed. One positive result this month is the City Council has updated its responsible bidder ordinances in ways that could crack down on some of the more egregious violations committed by the Hard Rock contractors such as the exploitation of migrant labor and misclassification of workers outlined in this op-ed by Ursula Price and Tiger Hammond. However, the new law contains a few curious exemptions. Plus the mayor will have considerable influence over the rules governing its enforcement. Which is one reason to remain skeptical. Especially when we consider the mayor’s long list of political contributors which includes numerous area building contractors and well known anti-union activists. One contributor in particular that stuck out to us in this context was the $10,000 Cantrell has received from California tech millionaire Diann Eisnor. Eisnor’s latest venture is something called byCore, which is an app designed to take advantage of anti-labor laws such as California’s infamous Prop 22 in order to gigify the building trades.
In December there were more emergencies. Something Cantrell officials are still calling a “cyberattack” happened at City Hall. Whatever it was, it caused the city to spend about $4 million “recovering data” and replacing about 500 computers. It’s too early to tell what effect that may or may not have had on any of the Hard Rock investigations. Also, a turbine exploded at the Sewerage and Water Board as if to add an exclamation mark to that agency’s troubled year. A later investigation would attribute that incident to “operator error.” But the public was reassured that “going forward, it's always nice to have a computer that checks us as we're doing what we're doing, making sure that we don't make a big bang out of making a mistake.” Hopefully that computer is sufficiently resistant to “cyberattack.” 2019 was an exhausting year of disasters. In 2020 there would be plenty more where that came from.
Carnival 2020 was marred by bad weather, cancelled or rescheduled parades as well as the deaths of attendees crushed by floats in two horrifying incidents. The public inquiry into the causes and possible fixes for such tragedies began immediately and is, in fact, ongoing. Among the most common public complaints: 1) The packed crowds along a single parade route burdened beyond its capacity; 2) New time limits imposed on parades to make their way along the route which may be causing them to move at unsafe speeds. Both of these problems arise because the city prioritizes the tourism industry’s greed for profit and NOPD brass’s imperative to avoid overtime pay above the safety and well being of revelers and residents. However, Cantrell has already floated a plan for Carnival 2022 that would further consolidate parade routes and exacerbate the overcrowding.
And then, the pandemic. It isn’t necessary for us to recap the details of the global disaster we are still living through. But we can say that Cantrell’s response has been nowhere near as laudable as her campaign narrative presents. While it is true that the city imposed more aggressive masking and social distancing rules than those set at the state level, those rules still objectively amounted to doing the bare minimum necessary to protect people. In many ways they were not even that.
Cantrell’s instinct throughout the pandemic, as always, has been to protect the interest of the wealth holding class while unleashing her ire on the already marginalized. This is why her first move was to call together the city’s most powerful “business leaders” and ask them what they wanted from her. They wanted a tax break. She gave it to them immediately even as she acknowledged it might have to be paid for by hundreds of layoffs. Her first attempt at setting social distancing rules for bars and restaurants was completely ineffective, in part, because it had been written for her by industry lobbyists. This class bias would continue as the city selectively enforced the rules against neighborhood bars while allowing more tourism-focused activities to go on. Cantrell even personally invited more visitors to come down for Mardi Gras 2021 even as tourism officials were blaming locals for the continuing spread of the virus. Cantrell carried this slander further when the tourists she invited proved lax about following the masking and distancing rules. She responded by threatening to take away locals’ unemployment benefits.
Once the vaccines became available, Cantrell persisted in her ideological fixation on “personal responsibility” as the key to ending the pandemic. The rush to re-open music venues and schools would prove premature with the rise of the Delta spike. But by that point the course was set. Cantrell has clearly drawn a line between who matters and who doesn’t in a pandemic. During an early press conference, she bristled at a reporter’s question about releasing non-violent offenders from jail during the emergency with a curt, “uh no.” During and interview that June she would affirm her hostility to the same question responding, “You’re worried about criminals catching coronavirus? Tell them to stop breaking the damn law.”
Cantrell will probably be familiar with a famous quote from her Brother Mayor Rahm Emmanuel who once advised policymakers to “never let a crisis go to waste.” Or maybe, like former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, she has also read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. Whatever her inspiration, she has not been shy about making big “paradigm shifting” moves amid the chaos.
The biggest of these was the reorganization of the city planning, permitting and land use departments under something called the Office of Business and External Services or OBES. The scheme, which Gilbert Montano describes as a "paradigm shift" is an exercise in regulatory capture. The goal is to take the mission of these agencies, protecting public safety and quality of life from the hazards of profit-driven development, and change it to a focus on assisting the profit-seekers in getting around those protections. As if to drive the point home, the person they hired to implement the new vision, Peter Bowen, came directly from the short term rental business where he made his own fortune monetizing the gentrification of New Orleans neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods, “are businesses in my mind,” said Montano at the time in the clearest signal to date that everything and everyone in the city is up for sale.
Among the things that went up for sale shortly afterward was the New Orleans Public Library system. Cantrell had an idea to drastically re-work the library’s dedicated millage that would have slashed its budget by at least 40 percent. The money would then be redirected into entities that fell more directly under her control, including parts of the newly organized OBES. Cantrell’s attack on the libraries was similar to her grasp at control over the DDD. In each case we see the mayor seeking more direct control over dedicated property tax revenues. But in this case there was also an element of hostility toward a workforce known to be organizing in response to her indifference to their safety. Ultimately the scheme failed with voters. Perhaps in part because the mayor’s blatant lies about it in the press had reached absurd levels, but also because it revealed a ruthlessness in her that, while always present, is rarely so obvious to the public. It is that same ruthlessness that powers her, still very active, drive to move City Hall to the Municipal Auditorium despite the strenuous opposition of the surrounding Treme community. It is that same hostility to workers that motivates her tacit support of Metro Disposal’s decision to use prison labor to break a strike. It is the same ruthlessness and hostility that is behind her repeated attacks on the City Civil Service Commission. Last year she broke the law while moving to replace one commissioner she considered “biased toward union interests.” This year she leaned hard on the commission to prevent it from hiring an attorney known for representing workers.
The latest (though probably not final) disaster to hit New Orleans during the Cantrell era was Hurricane Ida. Ida came on shore on the anniversary of our most famous disaster, Hurricane Katrina. The storm lived up to that terrible legacy in its own right. Our city and region will suffer its effects for years. It’s sobering to think that Mayor Cantrell will have a heavy role to play in all of that during her second term. Her response in the immediate aftermath does not inspire optimism. As residents struggled through a citywide blackout to survey damage, check on neighbors, and feed one another, Cantrell only threw up obstacles while obsessing over “looters” which she mostly had imagined.
Most of the city’s ire over the following weeks was focused on Entergy. But Cantrell has largely been on Entergy’s side of things. In 2019 she took the unusual step of intervening in a dispute between Entergy and its regulator, the New Orleans City Council over a rate case. Which is to say she went out of her way to help Entergy force higher bills on its customers in exchange for a one time payment to the Sewerage and Water Board. That deal didn’t quite come together but Cantrell’s move did affect the negotiations in Entergy’s favor. Two years later, the major elements of the deal seem to be falling into place anyway. Entergy is promising to build SWB a new substation (mostly paid for by SWB and public financing, however) and are on the verge of imposing higher rates on their customers. There’s plenty more to say about Entergy’s villainy in general, but it will suffice for now to note the mayor has never even tried to stop them from getting anything they want.
The other main villains to emerge after Ida were nursing home owners and managers responsible for at least seven deaths. The city has also come under criticism for not acting sooner to protect elderly residents in publicly funded but privately run housing. Cantrell has come in for criticism for apparently filming a campaign video during the days when all of this was still happening. “Nobody died,” says Cantrell in the video. “Thankfully there was no loss of life!” she had tweeted on inauguration night. Not only do these disasters repeat, sometimes they almost seem to rhyme.
Take a look around New Orleans in late 2021 and you will find it much worse for all the wear. The pandemic has left our service workers more precarious even as the ownership class of the tourism industry is better funded through public dollars. Housing costs are higher than ever while the real estate interests who fund our politics have even more wealth. There are surveillance cameras everywhere but the traffic signals don’t work. The streets still flood. The intelligentsia speculates about an indefinable sense of “malaise.” If one were to travel the gauntlet of malfunctioning lights along Loyola Avenue from the collapsed Hard Rock site to the collapsing Plaza Tower, one would inevitably pass City Hall along the way. The mayor who goes to work there every day recently said to anyone who might find a reason amid all of this to complain that “maybe New Orleans is not for you.”
But is LaToya Cantrell for New Orleans? There is the question that this election should have addressed. But given the field of challengers, it very likely will not. Not since 1946, when Chep Morrison defeated Robert Maestri, has an incumbent mayor lost a bid for re-election in New Orleans. This is one reason no established politician with designs on becoming mayor even attempts a challenge. The shrewd contenders will bide their time until the seat is open. Let’s be honest: The last four years have been hellish for many of us in New Orleans. The catastrophic weather, global pandemic, and a cascading international economic breakdown have acutely affected New Orleanians in the form of a lack of stable, adequate employment, inflated costs of living, and a general lack of financial security, much less upward mobility.
It is not at all unreasonable to think any given incumbent would be at risk in such a situation, but there are reasons to doubt that this will affect the election in such a way that challengers are able to reverse this historical trend. Vina Nguyen (R) is one of two outsider contenders who has had significant fundraising success. In the profoundly unlikely event she can match that success electorally, she would become the first Republican Mayor of New Orleans since Benjamin Flanders left office in 1873.
For one, Nguyen’s base of support is not within New Orleans at all, but over in more well-to-do parts of Jefferson Parish. At least, that’s what the extra-Orleans locations of several of her fundraisers and meet & greets indicate. Many residents of our neighboring parish have deep connections to the city of New Orleans, but a particular strain of reactionary white conservative Jefferson Parish residents, with living memory of post-integration migration to the Orleans Parish suburbs - “White Flight” - wish to reshape New Orleans into something akin to the city they left. They often fixate on candidates like Nguyen in hopes that they might accomplish that one way or another.
Perhaps more than any other candidate, Nguyen presents herself in direct contradiction to the LaToya Cantrell that Louisiana conservatives love to hate. That means a hyper-fixated rejection of essentially all COVID safety protocols. Until very recently, Nguyen’s campaign relied on mask mandate opposition as a major wedge issue, but Mayor Cantrell has essentially pre-empted this criticism by lifting the mandate. It should be noted that Nguyen refuses to vaccinate herself and spreads propaganda contradictory to established medical science, yet insists she is not an anti-vaxxer.
Nguyen enjoys the official support of the state Republican Party, the Orleans Parish Republican Executive Committee, and the Greater New Orleans Republican PAC, which is as close to unanimous institutional Republican Party support as possible for a candidate for New Orleans mayor. So when she includes “DIVERSITY” front and center on her platform, it’s with the caveat that safety is key to diversity. To Republicans, safety means policing, and Nguyen is no exception. Beyond her COVID policy and support for law enforcement, her campaign is hollow. Nguyen simply wants a New Orleans with more police and more COVID, and that would mean less of New Orleans as we know it.
Leilani Heno (No Party) is the second of two candidates opposing Mayor Cantrell with notable fundraising, which can be credited to her somewhat prominent position in the local small business community through her fitness training business. She’s had the grindset, so to speak, from an early age, claiming to have started her first business when she was seven. Like her base of fellow small business owners who are angry with the incumbent, her most substantive differences from the Mayor in terms of policy are limited to COVID protocols; that is, Heno opposes most of them, but also rejects the anti-vax label. Ultimately, while more conservative in some rhetorical ways, there is little to actually distinguish Heno’s perspective on the office and vision for the city from the incumbent.
Her most prominent endorsement comes from current Orleans Parish School Board member and former State House District 98 candidate Carlos Zervigon. She also touts support from an LGBT group called Rainbow Advocates, but the only relevant Google result for that organization is an announcement from City Council at-large candidate JP Morrell’s campaign, also claiming Rainbow Advocates’ support. Still, even without much in the way of institutional or establishment support, Heno attracts a grab-bag of Cantrell haters by virtue of her willingness to define herself as an anti-LaToya. One of her main taglines is even “VOTE for a LOCAL New Orleanian,” more likely than not an underhanded reference to Mayor Cantrell’s California origins. But to reiterate, there is little substantive difference between the way Heno seems to understand the mayoralty and the way Cantrell wields the office, and the only extraordinary quality that distinguishes Heno from the other long-shot candidates is her fundraising.
Joseph Amato (I) is a candidate with an odd mix of progressive, moderate liberal, and right-wing policies in his platform. In a long list of long-shot candidates, Amato is clearly among those trying the hardest to look like a classic, moderate establishment candidate, despite some slightly off-kilter policy preferences. Amato may just be trying to appeal to as many people as possible without believing in much of anything, or really having an idea of what voters want. Think kind of like former presidential and New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang: maybe he hit the nail on the head a couple of times at best, but then you notice something weird later on.
Amato wants to raise the minimum wage to just $12 an hour, and merely $8 an hour for tipped employees, which is simply inadequate. On top of that, he wants to provide tax breaks to businesses to pay for it. He wants to compensate musicians and hospitality employees for lost work and income, provide rent forgiveness, and even form a musician’s health care union- but he also wants tax breaks on landlords. Amato wants light rail, free ferries, no more traffic cameras, a program to supply blighted properties to the unhoused for free, and a “monthly citywide red beans and rice cook off.” But he also wants the police to have a lot more money and “all the support they require.” He loves the idea of locally contentious, tourist-focused things like more pedestrian malls and short-term rentals in the Quarter. Amato is throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks.
With an equal-but-opposite approach to politics from Amato, the fairly technocratic Matthew Hill’s (I) platform avoids a lot of material issues and policies that could be placed on a left-right axis. Instead Hill, an “executive coach,” “serial entrepreneur,” and “change management specialist” apparently sees the Mayor’s office more as a managerial and bureaucratic institution than a political one. You see, if we simply made government work better and “more efficiently,” all our problems would just melt away! Why do the streets flood? Poor management, of course, not climate change, which goes unmentioned in Hill’s materials. This perspective towards government leadership does ultimately betray, or at least imply, implicit ideological convictions and inclinations.
In keeping with his experience and technocratic perspective, Hill’s website features pages for “leadership,” “management,” and “maintenance” before a more typically politically “policies” page. A big part of Hill’s campaign is his advocacy for the use of the Lean Six Sigma program in city government. According to Hill, Lean Six Sigma is a “systematic set of troubleshooting and problem-solving tools to improve processes, reduce waste, upgrade operations, provide better communication, lasting improvements, and developing the workforce in any organization” developed by Toyota and Motorola. It probably works great for those private corporations at doing what massive capitalist enterprises do, i.e. making money, but when applied to local governance, it seems like it probably means layoffs of city workers and austerity. He describes other cities that have employed the system as “leaned-out.” Frankly, city services, from those administrative resources at City Hall to trash pickup and utility regulation and maintenance, are already far too “leaned-out.” Local government should be hiring more public employees, represented by strong unions, and expanding direct control over more sectors of city infrastructure, especially those ceded to private interests like Entergy, Metro Services, Richard’s Disposal, and so many others, to better provide for residents’ needs. The money’s there, it’s just being gobbled up by the bosses at those private businesses - and NOPD, with their 60% share of the total city budget.
On the subject of policing, Hill likes it, he loves it, and he wants more of it. In fact it seems to be the only part of government he wouldn’t want “leaned-out.” Even though he says he realized during a harrowing gunpoint robbery of his home that “when you are being robbed the police cannot protect you… The only thing protecting you is the attitude of the people around you,” he evidently thinks the way to change people’s attitudes is by hiring more cops and giving them more leeway in how they interact with the general population. No more federal consent decree, which placed the notoriously brutal and poorly managed department under federal oversight in 2010 into the present day. Even though NOPD already burns nearly two-thirds of our city budget, Hill wants more to buy his inflated police force nicer shoes, better uniforms, and new toys to gas, shoot, and spy on New Orleans residents.
Eldon Delloyd “El” Anderson (D) has run for office before without much success, and was once disqualified for failure to file taxes, an old standard for New Orleans elections. His website is defunct, but on his Facebook page he cited mentorship from a line of former Mayors: “Dutch” Morial, Sidney Bathelemy, Marc Morial, and Ray Nagin, who spent time in prison for corruption charges committed during his time at City Hall. Anderson has copied the Chick-fil-a logo for his campaign materials, for some inscrutable reason. It doesn’t seem to be a political choice, so your guess why is as good as ours.
Regardless of these quirks, Anderson is passionate when he talks about his advocacy for at-risk youth. His introduction to this work, and to City Hall, came through his time at Kingsley House, a nonprofit involved with Head Start programs, senior care, and other similar community services, and through his role as a playground supervisor for NORD. He has also worked with youth on probation and parole as an employee of Juvenile Education and Training, where he prepared kids for their return to regular schooling. Anderson is also a longtime promoter for Take Fo Entertainment, a notable local record label.
Manuel “Chevrolet” Bruno (No Party), when asked during his first run in 2002 why he was running for mayor, answered simply, “because I need a job.” In each of his unbroken consecutive mayoral runs since (with one hiccup in the form of a 2014 early withdrawal), actor and comedian Bruno has campaigned under the slogan “A Troubled Man for Troubled Times,” and since 2017 with the apt addendum “Trouble Never Ends.” Bruno is known for his dry and sarcastic sense of humor, which he readily employs in debates and questionnaires. For example, when asked what he’s most proud of in New Orleans, he answered, “my house,” just before indicating what he’d most like to change about the city was, understandably but impractically, the weather. His answer to the first question of the Save Your NOLA Library candidate survey, “Do you support the passage of the full library millage renewal on the December 11th ballot? Why or why not?” was, presumably in reference to the survey itself, “this will be hard.” He also promised library staff raises, objecting only to scant parking at libraries. In 2017, he provided the following supplemental comment to Ballotpedia on their candidate survey: “Peace, Love, and Vodka.”
Some of Bruno’s regular bits have since become common sense policy proposals; for example, the legalization and taxation of cannabis to fund infrastructure (“And with what's ever left over, we can use it to grow more pot.”). He even seems to have a passing familiarity with a few phrases in our socialist lexicon: “We've got problems in our city … We need a radical, revolutionary change,” a sentiment Bruno has repeated across campaigns. Even so, Bruno remains a bit behind the times; in spite of all his humor. In his rare sober moments (no pun intended), he recommends increased police funding and presence as the best solution to the city’s public safety issues, even when explicitly presented with other multiple-choice responses including “increased economic opportunities” and “public outreach/education programs.” Rather than incarceration, Bruno advocates sending juvenile offenders to “education camps,” a distinction without a real difference. As entertaining as Bruno can be as a character, we have little faith in his ability to win or to deliver meaningful change for the working class.
Belden “Noonie Man” Batiste (D) is back, of course. Noonie Man has been at this for over 20 years. It’s kind of his hustle. When he’s not running for office, Batiste is active in the Yellow Pocahontas Mardi Gras Indian tribe, which lends him a degree of respect and cultural influence in New Orleans. Regardless, Noonie Man has never won an election, and never appeared in a runoff.
Nonetheless, this time around Batiste has picked up perhaps his most notable endorsement in all of his years on the campaign trail. The local moderate-progressive New Orleans Coalition, possibly partly out of offense at Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s no-show at their candidate forum, gave Noonie Man the nod in what the establishment local political press deemed a major surprise. It’s tempting to dream that Batiste will finally reach critical mass after 20-plus years of campaigning, and pull off a miracle runoff appearance - he has more name recognition than anyone else running for mayor, except the incumbent herself, after all - but we’re not holding our breath.
His last campaign was in the Louisiana Congressional District 2 special election to replace Cedric Richmond, eventually secured by now-Congressman Troy Carter. This race was notable in Noonie Man campaign history for the outbreak of a feud between him and sitting New Orleans City Councilmember Jay Banks, after the Councilmember took it upon himself to pay Batiste a visit at Batiste’s own home, ostensibly out of the kindness of Banks’s heart and concern for Batiste’s mental health. Batiste contests this narrative vociferously, claiming that Banks was retaliating against Batiste for the latter’s comments about his then-opponent Karen Carter Peterson, a political ally of Banks, which is certainly just as plausible as Banks’s explanation, if not more plausible. Whatever actually happened, it is certainly interesting that a sitting councilmember felt the need to personally involve himself at all with the activities of a perennial long-shot candidate. Only in New Orleans?
Batiste has long staked out policy positions that we admire, sometimes proving himself downright forward-thinking. When he campaigned for Congress, he called for a $22 per hour minimum wage, estimated by the Data Center as the necessary salary for a “modest but dignified” life in New Orleans . However, this progressive spirit does not extend into the realm of policing, one of the few subjects where Batiste sounds the same as any bog-standard establishment candidate. His solutions to the problems facing NOPD are mostly based on increased funding for training and better equipment “needed to do their jobs, especially in mental health care,” as well as protecting and advancing NOPD’s role in crafting future crime abatement policy, in the typical guise of compassionate reform that establishment candidates have embraced for decades now. There is something truly disheartening about the tendency for even the most off-the-wall, unapologetically anti-establishment local candidates to be as subservient to the interests of police as any run-of-the-mill candidate. Somehow, all the humor and imagination dissipates. It is our deep and sincere hope that progressive candidates in future elections are more willing to take on the most racist, violent, and parasitic forces in our city: the alphabet soup of state and local police agencies that terrorize working class New Orleanians on a daily basis.
The name Byron Stephan Cole (No Party) may sound familiar to some of our more online readers because of his semi-viral moment a few months back, a video he posted on Instagram of his chastising a transplant treating his neighborhood, as transplants unfortunately often do, like some kind of a playground. Cole took issue with his neighbor’s decision to illegally use her car to block off a street. The episode sparked a city-wide online discussion of individual responsibility for gentrification.
Cole’s actions were generally well-regarded by online onlookers and his immediate neighbors featured in the video, that latter category being Cole’s apparent primary base of supporters, if the high concentration of his yard signs emanating from the 7th Ward block where Cole lives is any indication. Cole considers himself a community activist defending his neighborhood, perhaps at least in part because he is the son of the late Dyan French “Momma D” Cole, a fact he is quick to reference in campaign material; his yard signs include “MOMMA D’S SON” between the date of the election and his ballot number. Momma D was the first woman to serve as president of the New Orleans chapter of the NAACP, and was known as an outspoken and sometimes acerbic advocate for her community - even directly confronting then-Senator Barack Obama on the 2008 campaign trail to demand a fair shake for Black people under our racist criminal justice system. While Momma D was undoubtedly a powerful and quintessential advocate for her city, it’s up to the reader how relevant her accomplishments are to her son’s campaign.
To his own credit, Cole spoke out against inflated police funding during his previous mayoral run in 2017, accurately describing much of the police budget as “fluff,” identifying poverty as the main culprit in New Orleans’s crime issues, and pointing out that hiring more cops rarely actually does what pro-cop advocates say it does, namely reducing overall crime rates. He also makes the important point that rich, white neighborhoods get more preferential treatment from NOPD, in the form of shorter response times, than black and poor neighborhoods. Relative to his fellow long-shot candidates, Cole evidently has a much more sophisticated and critical perspective on the role of police in our city, placing him closer to our chapter’s and our national organization’s commitment to abolition than Noonie Man or Manny Chervolet, for example.
In spite of his own advocacy and his family’s history, Cole does not always hit the bullseye on issues concerning disenfranchised New Orleanians. He is a noted transphobe, once ranting extensively on Facebook about pronouns. While he may be an effective advocate for some 7th Ward neighbors, given this bigoted perspective, we don’t believe Cole would be an effective advocate for all New Orleanians.
Luke Fontana (D) used to be pretty cool. A self-described “legendary civil rights attorney and social activist,” Fontana cut his teeth as a young lawyer for Save Our Wetlands Inc. defending coastal environments as early as the start of the 1970s. At the same time, way way before people in the mainstream or with a significant platform were really talking about this as a major problem, Fontana was admonishing the “plastic subdivisions and urban sprawl” characteristic of the postwar decades in the United States. He even once challenged Congressman F. Edward Hebert, then a giant in local and state politics with a substantial degree of national influence, on the basis of opposition to the Vietnam War in 1970. In the field of civil rights, Fontana was involved in the fight for school desegregation, and in 1995 he won a first-of-its-kind landmark case representing the widow of Charles Cheetham, a Black man murdered by NOPD, and secured something over $800,000 for the Cheetham family. Pretty cool, right?
Well, as we see all too often, even most countercultural Boomers were liable to lose their luster through the waves of reaction in the decades since. His most notable legal activities today involve challenging Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s COVID policies, demanding “not another festival canceled” and whining that Bourbon Street was closed last Mardi Gras. These are perhaps Mayor Cantrell’s most reasonable policies, and given the effect COVID had on working families in and around our city, Bourbon Street and Jazzfest could wait a bit, for locals’ lives. One page of his personal website features a graphic demanding an FBI investigation into Dr. Anthony Fauci’s role in creating COVID-19, as well as his “addresses” to various national political figures, including President Biden, on the subject of the “Great Reset,” a conspiracy theory embraced mostly by the far-right positing that the pandemic was planned as a means to drastically reinvent society, “New World Order” style. Sure, the rich exploited the pandemic and got richer and the poor got poorer, but that’s not by any means a new order. That’s just the disaster capitalism we here in New Orleans especially have become used to, and lines up with the usual way of doing business in this country.
Nathaniel “Nate” Jones (I) loves the Saints, as his many gameday posts on his campaign Facebook page can attest, and wants to raise the minimum wage for city workers to $17. Those are the pros. The cons are pretty big. Jones wants 300 more cops, pits the interest of undocumented immigrants (not his phrasing) against victims of Ida, and opposes vaccine mandates. He prioritizes “crime and tourism” and considers “getting tourism back on track” the city’s biggest challenge for the next ten years. Our readers know they face much more pressing challenges living in New Orleans: making rent, the climate crisis, a lack of basic city services, and a private electric utility that can raise rates arbitrarily and charge “recovery fees” after natural disasters, with next to no meaningful pushback from regulators - take your pick. Jones couldn’t have a worse priority for the next ten years.
Johnese Lamar Smith (D) “is a living legacy,” as she describes herself. “I don't have to wait to die to leave one.” Unfortunately her platform is disappointing. Her conception of the ideal mayor is a combination of cop and businessperson: “neutralizing crime and stabilizing the economy,” the latter mostly from a business-friendly perspective, are the mayoralty’s top duties. Smith does call for a $20 per hour minimum wage, but that’s the best she’s got going for her. She doesn’t have much of a vision: “The greatest challenges over the next decade is unforeseeable,” Smith says, but we know there will be storms. We know it will get hotter. We know the rent, and cost of living in general, will go up. We know at least partially what we can and must do to deal with these problems. A candidate for mayor ought to at least know those problems exist.
Douglas Bentley (I) doesn’t have much of a campaign or platform, just a pretty sparse website and Facebook page. Maybe you can help him fill in the gaps; he’s taking suggestions.
Reginald Merchant (No Party) has even less than that, with no website or campaign social media that we could find. He apparently did not give a working number or email when qualifying.