On oak-lined St. Charles Avenue, a grand estate has its fences adorned with giant banners that read “‘Save’ New Orleans.” This was a response to a number of emerging controversies and national headlines alleging the misuse of taxpayer dollars by Mayor LaToya Cantrell. As Mayor Cantrell accumulated notoriety, citizens also pointed to issues that have persisted around the city for years, including stagnant road projects and staggering gun violence.
When outrage came to a head, an official recall petition was filed against Cantrell in August 2022. The recall was a surprise to political experts. UNO political analyst Dr. Ed Chervenak described the recall in a WDSU-TV appearance as “unprecedented.” Karen Carvin Shachat, a political consultant, noted that recalls at this scale are “hard to sustain” after helping organize an attempted recall of former Jefferson Parish President Mike Yenni in 2016 and 2017, which failed due to lack of signatures. After the initial few weeks, momentum tends to dwindle as time intensifies the rate of signatures needed to reach the campaign’s goals.
But the recall effort, named “NoLaToya,” seems to contradict this idea. The petition garnered a sizable chunk of the required number of signatures needed to proceed to a special election, gaining 10,000 signatures in the first month. The NoLaToya campaign has even stepped up their marketing efforts with billboards and TV advertisements in recent months, and launched a direct petition mailing campaign as what organizers describe as an “onslaught approach” to recall the mayor. “Recall Cantrell” signs are new additions to yard sign collections mostly around affluent neighborhoods, about one year after Cantrell’s re-election win by simple majority.
After City controversies unfolded, the NoLaToya recall effort is attempting to make the case that removing Cantrell from office will pave a better future for New Orleans. But what started as a grassroots movement to bring in new leadership may have turned into a campaign driven by emotions and wealthy benefactors to fuel its progress.
Coattails of Outrage
Belden Batiste and Eileen Carter took matters into their own hands and filed a recall petition against the mayor on August 26, 2022. Batiste, widely known as “Noonie Man,” has been on ballots running for various state and federal seats since 2018, and most recently was one of the Democratic candidates challenging Cantrell’s re-election run. He teamed up with Carter, who was Cantrell’s former social media manager. Together, they filed the recall, citing Cantrell’s “failure to put New Orleans first and execute the responsibilities of the position.”
But the process won’t be so easy for Batiste and Carter. To successfully submit the petition, the recall effort must collect the signatures of 20% of registered voters in Orleans Parish within 180 days—that’s over 53,000 written signatures by February 22, later this month. Each signature must then be verified by the Registrar of Voters, after which Governor John Bel Edwards would issue a formal proclamation to allow for a public vote in the primary election. Only then would Cantrell be forced to step down and an interim mayor instated, until voters select a new mayor in a special election that excludes Cantrell as a candidate.
Nevertheless, it’s difficult to ignore the public’s frustration with Mayor Cantrell. The NoLaToya recall released a series of advertisements aimed at humanizing the effort. “I signed,” says a collection of people depicted as ordinary citizens, together spouting a verbal bullet list of high water bills, crime, infrastructure, roadwork, and unaffordable housing. The recall campaign website also keeps a running record called “LaToya’s List,” a haphazard list of grievances that includes the complaint of “TERRIBLE DECISION MAKING.” Other entries include Cantrell’s extravagant travel expenses and frequent personal use of a City-owned Pontalba apartment. Layer that on top of Cantrell’s authoritarian ejection of public housing advocate Sharon Jasper from a City housing commission, power struggles with the City Council, and hidden financial transactions involving City funds, and you have something closely resembling the common patchwork pothole—layers of asphalt that made the problem more noticeable than it was before.
That’s why NoLaToya recall organizers say that waiting until the 2025 mayoral election is too long for New Orleanians who are looking for immediate action plans to address Cantrell’s metaphorical grocery list of problems. The recall effort aims to put action back into the hands of citizens, giving them another opportunity to voice their opinion through civil process. But the campaign’s initial success may have been kicked off by a city prodded into anger and action.
On Shaky Ground
Mayor Cantrell has presided as New Orleans’ first female mayor since elected into the seat in a 2017 runoff election with over 60% of the vote. Nicknamed “Teedy” by her supporters, Cantrell has made some notable accomplishments as mayor. She successfully pushed the Fair Share Legislation, a $50 million-plus funding deal with New Orleans tourism organizations to redirect a “fair share” of hotel taxes toward the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans (SWBNO), the city’s chronically challenged infrastructure agency. A short-term rentals occupancy tax was accepted by voters in 2019 to sustain annual funding (and more tourism advertisements). In the following year, Cantrell erred toward caution and safety in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, even navigating legal battles. Her staunch lockdown and mask mandates demonstrated to voters that she took the pandemic seriously, which—along with a weak slate of challengers—helped earn her an overwhelming re-election victory.
However, Cantrell has had a fluctuating reputation since her early years as mayor and her track record reflects ineffective programs and underperforming appointees. Long before the recall, online adversaries called her “LaToya the Destroya,” a nickname often accompanied by racist rhetoric and frequently used by out-of-parish critics of the mayor, for pitfalls in her proclaimed priority areas. According to her City website bio, Cantrell “remains focused on the issues of public safety, infrastructure, affordable housing and improving the quality of life for all New Orleans residents.” Despite her reported successes, the challenges that Mayor Cantrell adopted when she first took office six years ago continue to linger today.
In early 2019, Cantrell launched the Office of Gun Violence Prevention and a slew of community programs and collaborations, such as CEO Works and Jumpstart, though critics cast doubt on the effectiveness of the office’s crime prevention initiatives as carjackings and gun violence rebounded following the end of lockdown. In the realm of infrastructure, the SWBNO was under federal investigation after a WWL-TV investigation exposed alleged self-dealing among the agency’s officials and contractors, which happened under the nose of the director and Cantrell’s appointee, Ghassan Korban. Overburdened and outdated drainage systems have exacerbated New Orleans’ aging roads cratered with potholes, thoroughly documented on the Instagram page “Look at This Fuckin Street.“
A community pulse-reading of Cantrell’s mayoral performance, the “2022 Quality of Life Survey,” was performed and published by the University of New Orleans last October. It reported high levels of dissatisfaction concerning Cantrell’s job as mayor. Out of 500 randomly selected registered voters from Orleans parish, 62% reported they were unhappy and 35% strongly disapproved of the mayor. Cantrell’s overall approval rating was at 31%, compared to a 57% approval rating in 2018.
Driven by Fear
In the same survey, 83% of respondents stated that crime is rising, which was a 46 percentage point jump since the 2018 survey and means that Orleans residents are five times more likely to say that crime is an increasing problem than otherwise. However, 40% of those respondents have actually been victims of crimes, or knew of family members that were. This might suggest that perceptions in rising crime may be influenced by external factors, such as social media and TV news.
Recall organizers seem to have taken a one-track approach to frame the city’s crime issue. The campaign’s Instagram page is abundantly filled with breaking news re-posts that focus on crime, violence, and more city problems. Alongside news posts is an emotional advertisement featuring a woman whose children were taken by gun violence decrying Mayor Cantrell over inaction that resulted in over 260 murders in 2022. Juxtapose this with when David Jones from Fox 8 said that New Orleans’ high pace of violent crime will reach records set in the 1990s, and Cantrell outright denied it. “That’s not true, that’s not true at all,” said Cantrell, shaking her head. The campaign’s website also features a video titled “New Orleans is Out of Control” to describe a Fox News feature on New Orleans’ police shortage and mismanagement. The campaign’s focus on the proclaimed crisis panders to a crime-fearing crowd living in wealthy and gentrified neighborhoods.
The NoLaToya recall campaign has hosted signature collection events in Mid-City and Lakeview, and the financial report of campaign donations confirms that donors cluster in the 70115 and 70118 ZIP codes—21% and 16% of reported donors, respectively. Additionally, the campaign has been hosting petition signing events at small businesses such as The Bearded Lady Barbershop on Magazine Street.
By October 2022, the campaign raised $63,000, mostly comprised from New Orleans residents donating an average of $95 (According to Nola.com, the committee missed a filing deadline in January and there was no updated filing with the Louisiana Board of Ethics as of press time1In an updated financial report filed on January 31, the NoLaToya recall reported raising $488,188.66 between October 1 and December 29, with $470,000 of those contributions coming from Farrell, bringing the recall’s total donations to $545,836.07, so far.). About a quarter of local contributors live in the Freret and Touro neighborhoods, but almost half of the total contributions came from retired shipwright and industrial executive Donald “Boysie” Bollinger and restaurateur Rick Farrell, donating $10,100 dollars and $20,100 dollars, respectively. According to an October 2022 Nola.com article, crime was a main concern for Bollinger as well, who stated that it was “time for a change” in New Orleans. “I hate the direction the city is going in,” Bollinger remarked. “Crime is the number one problem, by far.”
An Open Opportunity
Farrell, who co-owns the Walk-On’s restaurant chain and CBD-located Copper Vine, is actually the owner of the St. Charles Avenue home with the massive pro-recall banners. “I don’t want someone destroying our city as the mayor is doing,” Farrell told Nola.com. Farrell called on fellow-Republican Bollinger to donate to the campaign. Both have made contributions to a mix of Republican and Democratic local candidates, though Farrell has sent large contributions to numerous national Republican causes and Bollinger happens to be one of the largest donors from Louisiana to Donald Trump’s losing 2020 presidential campaign.
The financial report prompted an opportunity for Mayor Cantrell and her campaign manager, Maggie Carroll, to cast the recall campaign as a “Republican-backed maneuver,” calling out Bollinger and Farrell as “divisive extremist Republicans.” However, Carter claims that the mayor’s office is using the large conservative-sourced donations to undermine the recall campaign and divert the attention to political motives. Organizers have stated that there was no outside influence in the initial petition filing and claimed that supporters are coming from the full political spectrum, having received small donations from citizens with various political alignments (and backing from the start from Democratic perennial candidate Batiste). A successful recall would likely institute a Democratic City Council member as an interim mayor regardless of political backing. In fact, Cantrell’s 2021 bid for mayor could also be considered a “Republican-backed effort” since Bollinger actually donated $5,000 to her campaign, as opposed to Republican challenger Vina Nguyen. Yet, recall contributions from Farrell may well indicate long-standing political contention with the mayor, over issues such as sweep crews uprooting unhoused communities in the city. In 2020, Farrell directly lobbied Cantrell for city sweeps, despite her vocal opposition to the sweep ordinance in prior years.
The support of Republican mega-donors paints an uneasy picture of how big pockets may have sway over the recall campaign’s direction, perhaps more than small grassroots donations. Forcing Mayor Cantrell to step down would present an opportunity to fund candidates whose solution to excessive crime may involve increased policing, for example. It’s uncertain how or if the campaign tracked their donors’ political affiliations. Nonetheless, if the recall succeeds, it becomes possible for donors to sway the tide when it comes to a potential special election.
In response to the Republican donations, Carroll stated that the recall was orchestrated to “discredit the first Black woman Mayor of New Orleans.” Batiste retorted that this was the mayor “playing the race card,” attempting to steer the conversations away from Cantrell’s legitimate shortcomings. However, the racial divide among the recall’s possible supporters should not be ignored. Citywide surveys imply that the Black population of Orleans Parish shows less dissatisfaction with the mayor than the white population. According to the aforementioned UNO Quality of Life Survey, 43% of Black respondents and 19% of white respondents approved of Mayor Cantrell, meaning Black respondents were about twice as likely to approve of the mayor. City Council District A, a heavily white-populated stretch of neighborhoods from Lakeview to Audubon, had the lowest approval rating of the mayor at 23%, compared to a 45% approval rating for District E in New Orleans East. The citizens satisfaction survey by the New Orleans Crime Coalition ties together mayoral dissatisfaction with rising crime concerns on a racial basis: 63% of Black respondents and 86% of white respondents disapprove of Mayor Cantrell’s handling of crime. Despite crime being a priority issue for both white and Black populations, the justification to sign the recall petition seems stronger for white folks who fear that the city is “out of control.”
On a radio talk show hosted by Republican former Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, organizer Carter denied notions of racist intent behind the recall, saying that it has “nothing to do with [Cantrell] being a Black woman.” Carter pointed to important city issues for Black voters, such as fair housing. The City Council reinstated community advocate Sharon Jasper, a Black woman, to the board of the Housing Authority of New Orleans after she was removed by Cantrell. The Council called Cantrell’s general claims of misconduct and neglect of office against Jasper “insufficient.” The NoLaToya website also lays out Cantrell’s own failures to Black community members, including delays in relocating Gordon Plaza residents and attempts to move City Hall into the Municipal Auditorium in historic Armstrong Park. The recall has palpable support from Black citizens who have felt that their trust has been broken by the elected mayor for failing to act in the best interests of Black communities.
Dissatisfaction with the mayor has different causes for different people. There is overwhelming disapproval of the mayor among white New Orleanians with a focus on rising crime, while others argue Cantrell has failed the city’s Black residents just as much on broader issues. But as a result of these criticisms, some voters have hesitated to sign the recall petition due to worries about potential racist motivations behind the recall, according to Carter. Supporters living in the most gentrified and affluent neighborhoods may be causing a rift in the campaign movement along racial and political lines, which could be contributing to these concerns. While many believe that the mayor isn’t solving the city’s problems, disunity among even critics of the mayor may be weakening the momentum the campaign had experienced in its first few months.
During Normand’s interview, Carter stated that the recall also aims to set a precedent for accountability and transparency of elected officials. “This isn’t just about the mayor,” Carter said. “This is across the board. This is for every elected official.” However, she notes that the political landscape and timing of the recall may have factored into a lack of support from the City Council, which has been keeping the mayor in check. Since welcoming new members at the end of 2021, the City Council has been engaged in a strenuous counterbalancing act of the mayor’s authority in hopes of establishing accountability measures upon Cantrell’s department. Most recently, the City Council has won financial oversight over the Sewerage and Water Board and requested investigations into financial transactions of public money into the mayor’s non-profit, Forward Together New Orleans.
The New Orleans City Charter states that the interim mayor to replace Cantrell would be one of the at-large councilmembers, either President Helena Moreno or Vice President JP Morrell. Over the last few years, both Moreno and Morrell have been actively participating in this shifting power dynamic, most notably sponsoring the successful City Charter amendment that gave the Council authority to approve or deny the Mayor’s 14 City department appointees. “This city has not been run well in a long, long time,” Morrell remarked, during the session to place the amendment on last November’s ballot. “We’ve allowed mayors for 300 years—300 years—to pick all of their people without any oversight.”
But Morrell has cast aside any interest in the mayor’s seat and has expressed firm dedication to his current role as councilmember, despite being favored by some as the pick for interim mayor. Moreno, on the other hand, has expressed prior interest in running for mayor in 2025, but doubled down on immediate City Council duties. “It is up to the people to decide the fate of this recall, but I can’t be distracted by it,” said Moreno. District council members would decide who will act as mayor until the special election.
Regardless of the outcome of the recall or special election, the Council has created a much different governmental power structure, one that removes executive autonomy from the mayor and forces cooperation with the Council. The new administrator would have to work carefully with the City Council to tackle the urgent priorities of the City, but it is plausible that changes won’t be apparent enough for recall supporters given the increase of Council oversight. Even if successful, the recall has caught the municipal government at a time when necessary changes were already in motion, which likely diminishes the recall’s impact.
A City in Limbo
After a deluge of controversy and political struggles, Mayor Cantrell faces a reckoning on February 22. Organizers last reported having received about 39,000 signatures as of late-January, a little over four weeks before the deadline. The NoLaToya campaign plans to continue gathering signatures to meet state requirements, targeting areas with low turnout with hopes that the directly mailed petitions will carry them toward a Cantrell-free mayorship. Carter and Batiste are preparing to volley another round of 120,000 direct mailers, advertisements, and neighborhood canvassing. But it remains unclear whether the campaign can reach its goal of 53,700 signatures in its final days.
An additional wrinkle to the recall’s effort is a possibility that the lengthy verification process significantly delays any special election. The Registrar of Voters needs 20 days to verify signatures and the governor is allotted 15 days to declare an election. To allow for enough time, the call would have to be made quite soon—in early February—for the special election to appear on the April 29 ballot, or else remain in limbo until October 14, based on possible election dates allowed by state law.
Top photo: Mayor LaToya Cantrell at Essence Fest, 2019 (photo by Joshua Brasted)