With less than a month before the New Orleans mayoral race is decided in a runoff election, candidates LaToya Cantrell and Desiree Charbonnet debated the issues facing the city in two different Uptown settings on Tuesday — first before hundreds of college students at Tulane University, and later with the Alliance for Good Government.
The event at Tulane — organized by a group that includes student representatives from all the city’s major universities — drew more than 300 people, and showcased some of the differences in policy and style between Cantrell and Charbonnet.
In her opening statement, Cantrell her work on the City Council had focused on creating affordable housing, but insisted that the issue does not only apply to low-income families. With the cost of living rising so dramatically in New Orleans, Cantrell said, housing affordability may now be affecting as much as 70 percent of the city’s population.
Charbonnet drew on her experience as a municipal court judge to say that crime is her top priority, but that incarcerating nonviolent offenders is not a solution. She described her creation of diversion programs to help the people who appear on petty charges repeatedly as an instance of looking at old problems in new ways, and stressed that the city cannot attract new business until crime is reduced.
The students then posed a number of questions of their own:
- Rental housing conditions | Cantrell said the rental registry she has proposed will hold landlords accountable. Charbonnet said she would prefer to recruit the Tulane and Loyola law clinics to help students handle complaints.
- Prostitution | Charbonnet said she used diversion programs to help women escape the conditions that led them into prostitution. Cantrell discussed the need to treat them as victims, but criticized the practice of sending witnesses fake subpoenas — which has drawn Charbonnet supporter Leon Cannizzarro Jr. into a national controversy.
- Immigration policy | Both said the city should not be involving itself in the enforcement of federal immigration law, and described themselves as leaders on the issue in their own arenas. Charbonnet pointed out that she speaks Spanish so she was able to communicate with immigrants in their own language in the courtroom, and Cantrell touted her work on the City Council on a “welcoming cities” policy with features such as pay bonuses for bilingual police officers.
- Traffic cameras | Cantrell promised to remove them, calling them “burdensome” to residents and criticizing the 30 percent of revenue given to the camera vendor. Charbonnet also said she does not like them, but said the revenue is built into the city budget, so she would remove them over time, while leaving those in school zones.
- Oil industry litigation | Asked if New Orleans would join a pending lawsuit by other parishes against the oil industry for damages to the wetlands, Cantrell talked about her work with the “Women of the Storm” group that successfully lobbied Congress after Katrina to send more oil and gas revenues back to Louisiana. On the lawsuit itself, Cantrell said she would look into it but work with the industry as well, to try to find a solution that does not drive those companies out of the city.
Charbonnet questioned whether New Orleans would even have legal standing to join the lawsuit, since the city does not directly abut the Gulf of Mexico like the other parishes. She did say, however, that the city needs even more of the proceeds from the taxes on the oil and gas companies.
- New Orleans East crime and development | Charbonnet said that while another substation might sound like a good idea in such a large area, police commanders don’t care for them, as they take officers off the street to staff them. The area needs new retail, Charbonnet said, but the city should provide incentives so there is less risk to developers.
Cantrell said that the New Orleans East area is so geographically large that it does make sense to consider reorganizing the police district. Attracting business to the area will only take place if the city does a better job of basic services, getting the “trash out of people’s eyes” on major corridors, Cantrell said.
About an hour after the event at Tulane concluded, the two candidates met again across the street at Loyola Law School before the Alliance for Good Government for a mostly different set of questions.
The first question was on the structure of the mayor’s office, and whether the candidates would retain the system of deputy mayors created by Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Both said they would end it.
“I don’t see why there’s a need for all these deputy mayors,” Charbonnet said. “I just think that’s too much money gone to those positions.”
Cantrell said she has not promised any jobs to anyone.
“I will be focused on building from within,” Cantrell said. “I have not been on this campaign trail promising anything. The only thing I have promised is to be fair, firm and friendly.”
The Alliance asked a number of questions as well:
- Asked why voter turnout is so low, both candidates agreed that residents have lost faith in their government, and promised to seek to involve more people in the process of government.
- On homelessness, Charbonnet reiterated her experience with diversion programs, and said that treatment centers like Odyssey House should be given more support as a more productive alternative to jail. Cantrell described her work towards the creation of a low-barrier shelter and promised to bring that project to fruition.
- On sexual harassment, Cantrell described herself as a champion of workers, making New Orleans workplaces smoke-free to improve the health of musicians, servers and casino workers. On the issue of women specifically, she described her involvement in efforts to crack down on human trafficking and the abuse of women in strip clubs.
Charbonnet promised a policy of “zero tolerance for harassment of any form in my administration,” describing an experience swiftly firing an older male court employee found to have been making constantly inappropriate remarks to a young woman she hired. She lamented the culture of sexual harassment as an impediment to women achieving success in the workplace, and said she wants to build up young girls to be powerful enough to oppose it for themselves.
- On license-plate reader technology by police, Cantrell praised the devices as “a great step in the right direction,” allowing police to find cars either stolen or used in crimes without the risk of racial profiling. Charbonnet said the issue approaches the line between the right to privacy and the need for public safety, and said safeguards should protect people who are driving the car of a wanted person from going to jail in their stead.
The Alliance ultimately gave its endorsement to Cantrell.