Who will be New Orleans mayor after LaToya Cantrell? These candidates are building campaigns

3 weeks ago

Well over a year out from the election where New Orleans voters will anoint Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s successor, the wheels of a high-energy political contest are starting to turn. The City Council president has begun to marshal the staffers and cash needed to mount a run at the Crescent City’s most coveted office. A second council member, once considered a mayor in waiting, is reviewing polling, leaning toward a run. A state lawmaker, a rising star being talked about for the job, is testing the waters more quietly. Whoever emerges from the field will have to persuade New Orleanians they can chart a better course for a city saddled with dilapidated infrastructure, soaring insurance costs, a shriveling population, a moribund economy and increasingly powerful hurricanes that threaten its foundations.

The race will play out against the backdrop of a period of demographic and political upheaval ignited almost 20 years ago by Hurricane Katrina. The storm carved up neighborhoods and unleashed a new political order — an opaque world marked by hidden alliances, the rise of social media and data-driven polling as well as the fading of old political dynasties. Political insiders expect the field to grow dramatically beyond the three Democrats who are considered early front-runners. Powerful business interests are still deciding how to put their stamp on the election. Infrastructure woes, anxiety over natural disasters and worry over how Louisiana’s conservative state Legislature might seek to shape the left-leaning city are likely to be at the top of voters’ minds. Beyond politics, New Orleanians also may be hungering for someone they feel can deliver the basics.

“Voters are going to be looking for someone who’s policy-oriented, who’s noncontroversial,” said Robert Collins, an analyst and professor of public policy at Dillard University. “We haven’t been back to regular order in years.” Helena Moreno, the council president and former legislator who has emerged as one of the state’s most progressive elected officials, has been interviewing and hiring campaign staff for a mayoral run in recent weeks, according to several people with knowledge of those conversations who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Moreno’s campaign coffers now hold more than $500,000 after she held several fundraisers this year, political insiders say. She recently renamed her political action committee, previously “Helena Moreno for Council,” to “Helena Moreno for the Future.” A statement provided by Moreno did not directly confirm her plans. It said she “appreciates all of the daily support I receive to run for mayor, but at this point discussing the mayor’s race just creates a distraction, and I must and will remain focused on my current job as city council president.” Oliver Thomas, a fixture of city politics for decades whose support runs deep even beyond his New Orleans East council district, signaled in an interview this week that he will likely run, too.

“If polling looks good, as I’m hearing it looks, I will strongly consider that,” Thomas said. “Until that time comes, I’m going to continue to do my job representing my district.” Less clear is the plan of state Sen. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, another rumored mayoral candidate. Duplessis positioned himself during the state Legislature’s three sessions this year as a vocal critic of Gov. Jeff Landry’s conservative goals. Over and over, he strode to the Senate microphone to oppose efforts by Landry and other Republicans to restrict access to abortion, expand firearm possession laws and shield public records. Though Duplessis has raised substantial cash in recent months, political insiders say his plans have not crystallized. Duplessis did not respond to multiple inquiries this week.

People who work in city politics have also floated the name of Arthur Hunter as a potential candidate. Hunter parlayed a brief stint as a New Orleans police officer into more than two decades as a Criminal Court judge, where he was known as a champion for public defenders. Hunter, who finished third in the 2020 race for Orleans Parish district attorney, in a statement said that he’s thankful for the “buzz” around his potential candidacy. “I’m really flattered and happy to work with anyone who wants more for New Orleans,” Hunter said.

The two candidates seen at this point as the likeliest contenders — Thomas and Moreno — cut their teeth in a period of political and social upheaval in the city. Black political organizations that were kingmakers for decades, but whose strength had been in decline before Katrina struck in 2005, saw their power diluted in the disaster’s wake. Katrina sliced up the city’s geography and tore asunder neighborhood-based voter coalitions. The upheaval ushered younger, Whiter residents into some areas previously inhabited by Black voters. Into the vacuum created by the diminished power of groups like the Black Organization for Leadership Development and the Community Organization for Urban Politics stepped politicians with independent profiles, social media savvy and data-driven polling and campaign operations. New grassroots groups, among them Voters Organized to Educate, became newly powerful players.

Moreno represents a hue of increasingly progressive politicians who ascended in that landscape. Born in Xalapa, Mexico, to an oilman and an academic, she moved to New Orleans after college, worked as a television reporter and entered politics with an audacious but ultimately unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2008. She later represented an Uptown district as one of few women in the state Legislature, starting out as a center-left Democrat but steadily becoming more progressive. Her positions on issues like guns and abortion helped elevate progressive priorities into established policy positions in Louisiana Democratic politics, which have traditionally been more conservative than other states. On the council, Moreno has championed policies like utility regulation and higher wages for city workers — and has clashed repeatedly with Cantrell. Thomas has been more likely to vote with the mayor, though he retains a strong independent streak.

He rose from humble beginnings in the Lower 9th Ward, working as an aide for the once-powerful BOLD organization and later for former District B council member Jim Singleton. Thomas ran for his boss and mentor’s old job when Singleton left to occupy an at-large seat and would follow in his mentor’s footsteps again in 1998, winning an at-large council post when Singleton launched a failed bid for mayor. Known for his affability and an ability to connect with working-class people, Thomas even then was viewed as a mayoral favorite. But his rising political brand was badly tarnished when he pleaded guilty in 2007 to accepting $15,000 in bribes from a disgraced political operative. Thomas quickly resigned after his conviction, publicly apologized and served three years in prison.

Voters granted him a second chance when he successfully won a race to represent District E on the council in 2021, making him the only politician in the city’s recent history to hold three different seats on that panel. Many of the headwinds Cantrell has faced — tied to hurricane responses and persistent infrastructure challenges, among others — will face the new mayor as well. The candidates’ task, observers say, will be to persuade voters they can do something about New Orleans’ grinding infrastructure decline, its poverty and its never-ending battle with violent crime — which is still extraordinary among U.S. cities, even as it has dipped sharply over the last year.

Worries over how Louisiana’s ultra-conservative governor and state Legislature might seek to exact their will on New Orleans will no doubt shape the race, too. “I think people really want someone they can trust and who can try to get the city back on track and who can protect us from what otherwise really might be a really rough four years with our current state government,” said Lynda Woolard, a longtime New Orleans-based Democratic activist and grassroots organizer.…Read more by James Finn


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