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Opinion | Raging Against the Machine: LaToya Cantrell’s Landslide Victory

Cantrell’s historic win proves it’s better to out-organize your opponent than to simply outspend them.

Yesterday, LaToya Cantrell became the very first woman elected mayor of New Orleans, and, as a result, for the first time in American history, a state’s three largest cities will all be led by African-American women, a fact made even more remarkable considering that Louisiana has never elected an African-American to a statewide office.

To be sure, history would have been made regardless of whether Cantrell won or lost; her opponent, former judge Desiree Charbonnet, is also an African-American woman. But Cantrell’s landslide victory- she won by more than 20 points (60.4% to Charbonnet’s 39.6%)- was still an extraordinary feat. Her victory also demands a reevaluation of the long-standing assumptions about the relevance and effectiveness of the traditional “machine politics” model that has, in various iterations, dominated Orleans Parish for decades.

As in any election, there are numerous reasons the winner won and loser lost, but the simplest and most accurate explanation is that LaToya Cantrell ran a significantly better and smarter campaign. For the majority of the campaign season, LaToya Cantrell was vastly out-raised and outspent by Charbonnet, who positioned herself as the presumptive frontrunner before placing a distant second in the primary. Cantrell likely preferred her status as an underdog, however. In her first election to the New Orleans City Council, she was outspent 4-to-1 by her opponent; no one opposed her when she ran for a second term.

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Seven months before she declared her candidacy, Desiree Charbonnet quietly began constructing the scaffolding of a campaign. At the time, despite the fact that she had already won previous citywide elections, Charbonnet’s name didn’t appear on anyone’s shortlist for potential candidates. But her ability to build a stealthy and robust campaign operation was impressive and almost immediately catapulted her to the top of the polls. As the election season progressed, however, her campaign became unwieldy and frequently off-message.

In July, she announced a crime prevention plan that, among other things, called for eliminating money spent to ensure compliance with the federal consent decree and redirecting funding for housing programs in order to pay for 100 more police officers. According to several polls, crime was easily the most important issue in the election, but, to many, Charbonnet’s plan seemed workshopped specifically to appeal to a small base of white conservatives. It was not a holistic approach, and the aggressively pro-enforcement components seemed to betray her campaign’s most compelling selling point: Charbonnet’s experience and leadership as a judge in creating diversion programs for non-violent offenders.

Last month, during a forum hosted by the AARP, Charbonnet awkwardly attempted to distance herself from her campaign’s decision to criticize Cantrell for reimbursing nearly $9,000 in city credit card expenses. “Don’t accuse me of writing (the opposition research file). I didn’t touch your documents at all,” Charbonnet told Cantrell. “I didn’t send them to the media. The campaign did that.” To many observers, fairly or not, her attempt to plausibly deny her involvement with the actions of her own campaign reinforced the notion that she was somehow being controlled and scripted by others.

But perhaps the most baffling decision by Charbonnet- and the one most responsible for her campaign’s eventual failure- was to aggressively recruit and promote support from conservative Republicans and from embattled Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro. Republicans comprise only 10.8% of the electorate in Orleans Parish, and in the waning weeks of the campaign, Charbonnet invested a small fortune in courting those voters.

It backfired, severely. Quixotically, Charbonnet spent more than $406,000- more than a quarter of her entire campaign fortune- with the firm of her communications consultant, Kevin Stuart, a white Christian conservative who founded the Austin Institute, a right-wing think tank that, among other things, has promoted anti-LGBT “scholarship.” She also blanketed the city with mailers touting the support of the Louisiana Republican Party and Congressman Steve Scalise, and she refused to distance herself from a white supremacist who paid for online ads promoting her candidacy.

There’s an easy explanation for Charbonnet’s miscalculation: Her campaign consultants treated the election as if was a statewide contest, where an endorsement of a Democratic candidate by someone like Rep. Scalise would be a game-changer, and they failed to appreciate the mood or acknowledge the make-up of the electorate in Orleans Parish. In fairness, their model has been successful in previous citywide elections: Consolidating support from the wealthy, white conservative donor class while simultaneously compensating various civic and neighborhood organizations for their endorsements and support.

It may seem to be an unholy alliance (and it is certainly fraught with tension), but in the past, it has been effective. Indeed, on Election Day in 2015, the same core team of campaign advisors in the Charbonnet campaign littered the neutral ground in New Orleans with yard signs promoting both John Bel Edwards for Governor and “Democrats for Jeff Landry,” the leading Republican candidate for Attorney General. Landry went on to win statewide, and although he did not carry Orleans Parish, he came closer than anyone would have expected.

Yesterday’s election, however, proves that this model- this unholy alliance template- has huge limitations. Cantrell outperformed her own internal polling by more than seven points, and exit polling data revealed she enjoyed majority approval on every key issue.

It also proves that you cannot artificially manufacture goodwill and support. Yard signs may help a candidate gain name recognition, but, as the adage goes, yard signs don’t vote, a truism that any supporter of City Council candidate Seth Bloom, whose signs were ubiquitous throughout the entire city, must now confront.

LaToya Cantrell won because she had worked for the job interview for more than five years, and because, unlike her worthy and admirable opponent, she took nothing for granted. She won because she listened to her community more than to political consultants.

Charbonnet may have had more money, but Cantrell had more enthusiasm and more volunteers, proving again that it’s better to out-organize your opponent than it is to simply outspend them and that sweat equity always pays higher dividends.

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