New Orleans Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell didn’t set out to make history. But as the city celebrates its 300th anniversary this year, she, too, will become part of its story as its first female mayor.
For nearly 30 years, the Xavier University grad has been making New Orleans her home and the people her community. It’s apparent as Cantrell and her team sit with The Root for lunch at the city’s famous soul food restaurant Dooky Chase’s. Before the waiter can even take her order, no fewer than five people stop by our back-corner table to congratulate the mayor-elect, to thank her or to just say hello.
“People feel like they matter,” Cantrell explains concerning how she’s been able to connect with her constituents. “And I think that’s why you see how the people respond to me because, I believe, they feel and they realize that I’m for them.”
Cantrell, a longtime resident of the Broadmoor neighborhood, became the president of the Broadmoor Improvement Association just a year before the levees broke after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. When then-Mayor Ray Nagin’s recovery commission put forth a recovery plan that included not rebuilding Broadmoor and many other predominantly black neighborhoods, but instead turning them into parks, Cantrell and other leaders of the community fought back to make sure those neighborhoods would be restored.
After winning election to the City Council in 2012 and 2014 and introducing a bill that the council unanimously passed to ban smoking in restaurants and bars in the city, Cantrell sought out the highest office in the city. (Because of legislative and city-charter changes, Cantrell, who was elected Nov. 18, will be sworn in May 7.)
“My vision [for New Orleans] is for real inclusion and real equity in this city to where we truly are meeting people where they are regardless of who and race, as well,” she says. “That manifests itself in many different ways: in real growth and opportunity; being able to be connected to not just a job but professional growth opportunities as well; starting your own business; the quality of education is the same no matter where you are.”
Mentioning the fact that New Orleans’ incarceration rate is nearly double the nationwide rate, Cantrell shares her commitment to strengthening community support to decrease crime, and re-entry programs to help the formerly incarcerated have another chance at a full life.
“We’re trying to build people up so that they can feel their worth in their city,” she says of her upcoming administration’s focus on the most vulnerable.
“That’s how I’m going to measure myself: How am I impacting the most vulnerable?” she adds. “People who have done well, they’ve done well and they should be able to continue to do well, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of those who cannot and do not have an opportunity to do well.”
Recently, Cantrell released her transition plan, consisting of six committees, 19 subcommittees and 12 working groups that will advise the mayor-elect on policies in key areas—from transportation to education.
“We will be focusing on neighborhood stabilization, economic development and growth, public safety [and] infrastructure improvements as well as healthy families,” says Cantrell.
But the key to both her election and her upcoming administration, she says, will be accountability.
“New Orleanians will tell you straight,” she says. “So accountability is continuing to be accessible; having, again, that ability to listen to people. You’re accountable by being able to demonstrate that you have listened because it needs to culminate into some level of action that impacts people.”
That action, she says, must be open to scrutiny: “When you remain accessible, that means you’re not hiding from them, so you’re always open to the criticisms, the feedback, the input, the ideas—and I just plan to continue to be that way.”
As an example, Cantrell shares the story of one of her supporters, “Ms. Helen,” who texted her the day before our chat: “She said, ‘It’s amazing. A woman who was homeless can text the next mayor. How is that?!’ And I say, ‘Ms. Helen, nothing’s changing!’ That gives people hope that they’ve been a part of something and will continue to be a part of something.”
Acknowledging that women, and particularly black women, are the backbone of society and have been socialized to nurture communities, Cantrell also shares ideas for electing black women to office, not as a trend or an anomaly, but as something communities will get behind consistently.
“We have to support women who are doing the work on the ground and being intentional about it,” she says. “There are women every single day turning it out, doing the job, and are overlooked. They’re not elevated. They need that support on the community level, not just with money, but also just having their backs.”