A rousing cheer greeted New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell when she arrived at a Lower 9th Ward community center Thursday. She was there to join Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, Congressman Troy Carter and U.S. Housing Secretary Marcia Fudge to announce the end of the Road Home program.
Most of the neighborhood residents gathered were short-changed by the program meant to help them repair and elevate their homes after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. While it was Edwards who explained how Road Home recipients would have any remaining Road Home debt waived, it was Cantrell who earned the warmest reception from attendees.
You might not have expected that greeting from a mayor who appears on the cusp of facing a recall election. Organizers claim to be about a thousand signatures away from the needed number to force a referendum for voters to decide if she can serve out the rest of her second term.
Now they’re suing the local registrar and Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, the state’s top elections official, claiming that some 30,000 voters on Orleans Parish rolls are ineligible. If the lawsuit is successful, it would significantly lower the petition signature threshold.
Still, as much work as it took to collect the needed signatures, a recall election will be a far more difficult task in New Orleans, where even mayors under duress have still managed to coalesce enough support to stay in office.
The Road Home was in its nascent stages when former Mayor Ray Nagin was seeking re-election. The consensus opinion was that he had struggled during the city’s response to Katrina, and the kickback scheme that would put him in federal prison had not yet come to light.
However, Nagin’s strategy to cast himself as “our mayor” resonated among voters who felt threatened that monied interlopers were intent on making sure those who the storm had forced to leave the city couldn’t return – and those who remained would be cast aside.
Cantrell appears to have adopted a similar strategy, which is somewhat ironic after she was cast as the outsider from California who came to New Orleans to attend Xavier University. Much of her support in her first run for mayor and reelection came from other transplants who contrasted Cantrell as an alternative to the city’s deep-rooted, generations-old political power structure.
A recall election, if it happens, would not be a cakewalk for Cantrell. She insists she’s done no wrong while evidence mounts that she has used a city-owned apartment on Jackson Square for personal use. There are also questions over whether she broke state law by mailing out flyers to residents that sing her administration’s praise.
Yet amid these and other allegations – as well as a surging violent crime rate – Cantrell has adopted an “us-against-them” approach to hold her ground. Working in her favor is that the recall campaign is bankrolled, to the tune of nearly $500,000, almost entirely by Republican businessman Rick Farrell. He’s wrapped the fence around his opulent St. Charles Avenue home with banners that appeal to voters to sign the recall petition.
State recall rules say the higher the population of a jurisdiction, the lower percentage of voter signatures needed to force a recall election. Organizers have 180 days to gather the needed signatures. The New Orleans petition needs in the neighborhood of 50,000 signatures – more or less, depending on the outcome of the lawsuit – by next Wednesday.
Rain dampened Thursday night’s Carnival parades, but the forecast looks good from here through Mardi Gras. If it turns out organizers don’t yet have the signatures they need, there’s probably no more challenging time to attempt to gather them than the next few days.
It seems sort of Shakespearean that Mayor Cantrell will ride on horseback to her reviewing stand on Fat Tuesday, just a day before the recall petition is due.
It probably won’t be her last rodeo.
Greg LaRose is editor of Louisiana Illuminator and covered news for more than 30 years in Louisiana.