In Louisiana's signature city, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell is under siege

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New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell is under siege as Louisiana's signature city is on pace to be the murder capital of America, garbage collection is cut in half, extravagant travel expenses pile up and a recall petition circulates.

"A large portion of the city is very frustrated and very scared," City Council Vice President JP Morrell said in an interview with USA Today Network.

Cantrell, a Democrat who was reelected to a second term less than 10 months ago, has seen her popularity slide quickly after earning generally high marks while navigating the city through the COVID-19 crisis, where her persistent mitigation mandates are largely credited with tamping down the infection.

"Two-and-a-half years ago she had a 70% job approval while doing an excellent job of steering the city through COVID, making difficult decisions, sticking with them and flattening the curve very quickly," said Clancy DuBos, who has been covering New Orleans politics for five decades.

"But it turns out that notable performance masked her glaring weakness. As good as she was at managing the COVID crisis, she has not been as good at managing the city," said DuBos, who provides political commentary for Gambit and WWL-TV. "City services across the board are in free fall."

Last week the escalating criticism culminated with perennial fringe political candidate Belden "Noonie Man" Batiste and Cantrell's former social media manager Eileen Carter filing a petition to recall Cantrell.

Recall efforts face long odds in Louisiana with the last successful removal of an elected official coming in 2016, when voters in the small town of Washington in St. Landry Parish ousted their chief of police.

But triggering a recall election for Cantrell will be considerably more daunting, requiring signatures from more than 53,000 registered voters within six months. Organizers said they have secured more than 3,000 signatures in less than a week.

"I'd expect a flurry of signatures early, but the tough part is sustaining the momentum because the bar is very high," DuBos said. "The two people leading it don't have the gravitas of culture bearers or established leaders, but they do appear to have an organization."

Cantrell finally addressed the recall this week through her city communications director and her campaign staff, who said the effort is backed by Republicans and rooted in racism.

In this Nov. 5, 2019, file photo, New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell speaks at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the newly built main terminal of the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in Kenner, Louisiana.
In this Nov. 5, 2019, file photo, New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell speaks at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the newly built main terminal of the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in Kenner, Louisiana.

"The recall effort to undermine and discredit the first Black woman mayor of New Orleans is quickly being exposed as a Republican-backed maneuver by people with an agenda," her campaign said in a statement released late Tuesday. "It fits into a long history of taking away our vote and our voice."

And while her campaign acknowledges New Orleans is suffering an "epidemic of crime," the campaign said that is true of every city following the pandemic and said it will take a unified effort to reduce crime.

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"It's a personal vendetta orchestrated by out-of-state political consultants pushing an agenda that's hostile to the voters of New Orleans," Cantrell's city spokesman Gregory Joseph said in a statement to USA Today Network. "As always, Mayor Cantrell will continue working diligently on behalf of the people of the City of New Orleans."

But Cantrell's critics aren't limited to Republicans or white voters.

"This revolves around the basic fact that citizens on many fronts don't feel like they're being heard and see a lack of urgency in the mayor to address the problems," said Morrell, a Black Democrat who formerly served in the Louisiana Senate.

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Morrell said he won't weigh in on whether he specifically supports the recall, but he did say, "If you're an elected leader it should be a wake-up call. I think those who support it see a recall as a last-ditch effort."

Recall petitioners Batiste and Carter are also both Black Democrats who said during an interview on WWL radio the mayor "has failed to put the city first."

"I don't hate the mayor, but I want what's best for the city," Batiste said on WWL. "When you're not doing your job you must be held accountable."

Like DuBos, Morrell said New Orleans' residents are most frustrated with crime, followed by what they consider the erosion of basic city services.

"I don't know if the mayor has acknowledged publicly our tremendous crime problem," Morrell said before Cantrell's campaign staff statement Tuesday. "The mayor is too concerned about perception to admit something the world already knows."

Cantrell's campaign said: "Crime is deeply personal to the mayor. She has an altar in her office where she prays over funeral programs of gun violence victims. She has embedded herself at NOPD roll calls to get a strong grasp of department needs ..."

DuBos said New Orleanians are questioning the "competence" of the administration's ability to manage the day-to-day operation of government.

Morrell agreed.

"A lot of it has to really do with the nuts and bolts of basic government," Morrell said.

Garbage pickup has been reduced to once a week despite residents paying for twice-a-week collection.

"Garbage really has people upset," Dubos said. "When you're a southern city where it's hot and humid eight months a year once a week isn't enough. We have literally dozens of traffic lights that haven't been working for more than a year."

Most recently, the mayor has drawn criticism for what many consider lavish first-class and business-class flights to foreign countries to market the city - upgrades that racked up more than $29,000 in fees that may conflict with city travel policy.

Cantrell defended her travel expenses during a press conference last week, saying,  "Business class in terms of travel is what I do. Particularly in this environment to ensure my safety."

Meanwhile, Cantrell's security traveled in economy.

City Council President Helena Moreno called the travel expenses "egregious" in a tweet.

"I definitely want the mayor to be safe. So if she felt she needed security, she should have flown economy class with him. PLUS…these are taxpayer dollars and travel agencies I’ve reached out to say these tick prices are also not norm and egregious," Moreno tweeted.

"I don't think the travel would be so controversial if everything else was going well," Morrell said. "But we need all hands on deck, and it's hard to have all hands on deck when the captain is gone on a cruise ship.

"It's hard to justify traveling around the world when you're boarding a plane to leave the problems back home and we have plenty of problems back home."

Greg Hilburn covers state politics for the USA TODAY Network of Louisiana. Follow him on Twitter @GregHilburn1 

This article originally appeared on Lafayette Daily Advertiser: New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell under siege in Louisiana signature city