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The Beleaguered Queen of New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS — “As a mayor, you should not be twerking. You should be working.” That’s what Belden “Noonie Man” Batiste told me when discussing his efforts to recall Mayor LaToya Cantrell of New Orleans, the first Black woman to lead the city, who has often been filmed dancing.

Batiste is a small, bespectacled man who emphatically punches his hands and churns his forearms like the paddle wheel of a steamboat when he speaks. He is an energetic activist in the city and a serial candidate who has suffered serial losses, including for mayor. And he has raised serious concerns about the Cantrell administration, which has struggled with police retention, suspect spending and travel, charges of corruption, sanitation and particularly crime.

But his twerking comment exposes a pettiness that has convinced several of the Black women I spoke to in the city not only that Cantrell is being held to a higher standard than a white man would be but also that she is subject to a kind of sexism specific to Black women: misogynoir, as it’s called.

The effort to recall Cantrell is as complicated as the city itself, where even the saints sin. And yet one thing is clear to me: The murder rate is nowhere near as bad as in the mid-1990s when men ran the city and never faced the threat of losing their jobs this way.

To be sure, Cantrell, who refused to be interviewed for this column, has faced constant accusations of impropriety. This month in a divorce petition, the wife of a police officer on her security team accused a “Mrs. L.C.,” whom local news outlets later identified as Cantrell, of engaging in an “ongoing sexual relationship” with her husband.

Cantrell not only denied the accusation; she scoffed it off, saying, “By the time I complete my tenure as mayor, I would have slept with half of the city of New Orleans, based on false accusations that come my way, sometimes daily.” But the underlying facts of the accusation are quite serious. According to the local Fox affiliate this month, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is investigating the time she spent with the police officer, as well as her relationship with the police department as a whole.

If she is felled by the feds, she wouldn’t be the first. The city’s former mayor Ray Nagin was convicted of 20 counts of corruption, bribery and fraud in a kickback scheme. He was never recalled.

Furthermore, New Orleans has its own way of considering personal indiscretions. In a city with the apothegmatic mantra “Laissez les bons temps rouler” (let the good times roll) and celebratory, hedonistic sensibilities, sexual dalliances barely make a ripple.

But for someone like Cantrell, that may not be the case: We live in a country where a president (Donald Trump) can be accused of sexual assault without being removed from office, where a governor (Ralph Northam) can be accused of dressing in blackface and Klan regalia without being removed from office, where a congressman (Jim Jordan) can be accused of ignoring allegations of student athletes being molested, without being removed. This election in New Orleans raises a simple but pressing question: Do Black politicians, particularly Black women, have access to the same long leash?

I have no desire to defend bad behavior or poor choices, but equitable punishment for wrongs committed is as important to equality as equitable reward for good.

Cantrell, for her part, has attempted to cast the recall effort as partisan and racist, calling it a Republican maneuver to “discredit the first Black woman mayor.”

That is a hard case to make. Yes, two wealthy, white Republican donors contributed about half of the money raised for the recall, Batiste told me, but both people who organized the recall are Black, as is Cantrell’s opponent, Desiree Charbonnet.

Still, there is undoubtedly a racial element to this recall: Most of the white people I spoke to in bars and on the street in New Orleans this week supported the recall; most of the Black people didn’t.

Tuesday afternoon, I wandered into Cafe Lafitte in Exile, an unassuming corner bar on Bourbon Street that bills itself as the oldest continuously operating gay bar in America and a favorite haunt of famous writers like Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote. There was a smattering of day drinkers, mostly white men with white beards.

I talked with a gaggle of locals who unloaded a torrent of complaints about the mayor, but when I asked if any would like to be quoted, they all demurred. Some had connections to the city, but they collectively voiced a fear of retaliation — an understandable instinct on some level because Cantrell has a confrontational nature. (In 2021, she was filmed in a heated confrontation with a man in a bar, leaning into him and saying: “It’s me. Latoya is me. What you got to say to me?”)

Hers is an unapologetic, bare-knuckles kind of politics that endears her to many, particularly Black people, but leaves others aghast.

She is often described as real and raw. She is unvarnished and uninhibited, and I saw that up close when I interviewed her in her offices in 2018. But there is a line where brusqueness becomes bullying, and Cantrell sometimes seems to cross it.

She has a grip on the city. Whether she’s holding it by the hand or by the throat depends on whom you talk to. But she has a firewall of defense that will likely help her keep her job.

But again, the question hangs in the air: Is her behavior worse than that of all the men who came before her? It seems to me that Cantrell is being punished not only for performance but also for being an aggressive outsider in a time of internal crisis — for not being a native of the city, for not being part of its dynastic political lineage, for not exemplifying the New Orleans bourgeoisie. All things that once worked in her favor but now work against her.

But as Edward E. Chervenak, the director of the University of New Orleans’s Survey Research Center, told me, “historically, people really love their mayors.” To trigger a recall vote for Cantrell, Batiste and his fellow organizers will need to get about 54,000 signatures by Feb. 22, and as of this week, they were about 15,000 signatures short, with the city heading into Mardi Gras. “Until Mayor Cantrell, the mayor was king,” Chervenak told me. “Of course, now she’s the queen.”

That tendency to royalize the office, in the end, may shield her, even if she has shown an impulse for Marie Antionette-ish excess and aloofness while her city suffers.

But if she survives the recall attempt and the investigations, she has to realize that her city is hurting and needs healing, that the recall effort is a significant vote of no confidence that can’t simply be written off as sour grapes, racial hostility or the handiwork of a vengeful enemy. Furthermore, it’s not a win if people don’t sign a petition because they are afraid to.

She will need to regain the trust of the voters who drifted away from her, and that will need to start with a humility and nonaggression that may seem foreign to her.

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