See original article here
She has butted heads with Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who once called her a “loudmouth,” but has since made amends. She won a seat on the New Orleans City Council despite an embarrassing and potentially career-ending incident involving her husband—an attorney for the city—and a marijuana joint.
And she was instrumental is saving her neighborhood from being razed and turned into parkland after Hurricane Katrina submerged it in seven feet of water.
This, in a nutshell, is LaToya Cantrell—the most interesting up-and-coming elected official in New Orleans today. Now that Landrieu is a lame duck—he’s term-limited and his tenure ends in 2018—Cantrell has attracted enough notice that she is frequently mentioned as a possible successor. But she gets a little shaken up when people refer to her as a politician.
“I will always, always be tied to the community and the grass-roots network,” Cantrell says at a recent gathering at St. John Institutional Missionary Baptist Church. She is wearing a turquoise dress and New Balance running shoes and explains that she’s just come from walking a nearby neighborhood, documenting houses that remained blighted. During that event, all of the dozen neighbors who fanned out with her were white. Cantrell mixes as easily with them as she does with the 150 or so African-Americans in the church crowd.
In a city where African-American and white groups often choose to do their own thing, Cantrell bridges the racial divide and can point to a record of getting things done.
“She has a record of success as a community organizer,” says Edward Chervenak, a political science professor at the University of New Orleans. “She’s a coalition builder.” Chervenak notes that Cantrell stands a demographic advantage in a mayoral race, given that 59 percent of voters are African-American and 56 percent are female.
In years past, African-American elected officials in New Orleans came mostly from the civil rights movement. Their focus was making sure constituents got government jobs and contracts and were not excluded from social functions. But Cantrell represents a new generation of African-American officials with broader concerns.
This is on display as she speaks to the church group. She highlights her latest political fight, a measure approved unanimously by the city council in January that bans smoking in the city’s bars, hotels and gambling halls. Cantrell typically tries to find common ground among competing interests. But in this instance, she pushed for the strictest smoking ban possible.
Her concern, she tells the group, is protecting bartenders, customers and musicians from second-hand smoke. The smoke frequently causes death and chronic illness, which, she says, “are more prevalent in the African-American community.”
Cantrell notes that political opposition to the ban continues. The casino giant Harrah’s, which operates the only casino in New Orleans, is pressing for a partial exemption. “I will continue to fight the good fight,” Cantrell promises the crowd.
Chervenak says Cantrell’s laser focus on her constituents isn’t unique—New Orleans residents expect more leadership out of their elected officials now. “Voters are more performance-oriented now,” he says. “They don’t want to see a repeat of the disaster in [Hurricane] Katrina so they are paying more attention to government.”
Cantrell, 43, came of age politically after Katrina and the collapse of the federal levee system that protects New Orleans from surrounding waters. The August 2005 catastrophe killed more than 1,800 people and left 80 percent of the city under anywhere from six inches to 14 feet of water. Cantrell was instrumental in getting whites and African-Americans to work together to rebuild their neighborhood, called Broadmoor.
Cantrell went on to win an open seat on the seven-member city council in 2012, and she won a full four-year term in 2014. Her racially-mixed district reflects the disparate faces of New Orleans. The poorer neighborhoods inhabited by African-Americans remain downtrodden, and shootings there are common. Blight remains, although it has declined.
But in the more affluent neighborhoods, population and job growth are up. Investors are lining up to buy and retrofit historic buildings in the Central Business District and the Warehouse District, which she represents. That puts Cantrell in the middle between developers who petition the City Council for variances to zoning laws and preservationists demanding that she hold the line.
She grew up in the Los Angeles area, in a mixed neighborhood of Hispanics, Asians, whites and African-Americans and came to New Orleans to study at Xavier University. After graduating with a degree in sociology, she went to work for an education foundation in New Orleans that assisted public schools.
Her life changed after Katrina broke the unsound levees, and Broadmoor, was swamped in floodwaters seven feet deep. While Cantrell was still stuck in Houston, a retired General Motors financial analyst named Ernie O’Steen returned two weeks later, before anyone else had come back. The stench of death and decay were overpowering. “It looked like a napalm bomb had hit,” O’Steen, an Air Force veteran, told me in 2007.
A mayoral planning committee held little hope for Broadmoor. Its pro-bono land-use consultant proposed turning the neighborhood into green space that would help absorb future flooding in the city. Residents would be resettled.
O’Steen and the neighborhood’s other white leaders turned to Cantrell, who headed the Broadmoor Improvement Association, an unpaid position. She and neighborhood volunteers found a captain for each of Broadmoor’s 151 blocks, and they created a web page that served as a crucial community bulletin board. In the meantime, Cantrell rebuilt her own two-story home. “We said, ‘our community will return,’” Cantrell said in 2007. “We will make it return. We can’t wait on government. We have to do it ourselves.”