Something Doesn’t Check Out

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell pitches voters on a ballot proposition she claims would fund an early childhood education program, but read the fine print.

The following commentary is by contributing writer Jules Bentley and does not necessarily represent an official editorial position or endorsement.

Update #2: Step Up Louisiana also released a statement to the Bayou Brief, asserting that the organization “takes no position on Prop 2” but also denouncing “cynical political actors (who) have pitted early childhood education and library funding against one another.”

Update: In response, the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice has withdrawn its support for Proposition 2. The following is a statement from Executive Director Ashley Shelton:

LaToya Cantrell first made a name for herself in the aftermath of the 2005 federal levee failures as a neighborhood leader. Under her stewardship, the Broadmoor neighborhood of New Orleans— not a famous neighborhood, not an iconic part of town— was able to recover far faster and further than much of the city, and Cantrell earned a reputation as a tenacious and savvy grassroots organizer.  

Her success in Broadmoor helped catapult her into elected office. In 2012, she won a seat on the New Orleans City Council, despite being outspent by her opponent six-to-one.

Three years later, on the tenth anniversary of Katrina, in an essay for the Huffington Post, Cantrell wrote of the devastation the flood inflicted on her neighborhood and about how much it meant to her to be able to leverage outside investment to rebuild it.

In one moving passage, Cantrell describes walking through the wreckage of Broadmoor’s library, which was named after Rosa Freeman Keller, a legendary local civil rights advocate whose accomplishments included organizing the lawsuit that desegregated Tulane University. Keller was also the first woman in New Orleans history to serve on a citywide board— the board of the New Orleans Public Library. At the essay’s conclusion, Cantrell presides over the ribbon-cutting for the library’s 2012 reopening of the Rosa F. Keller Library.

In 2012, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu (center) and city officials at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the reopening of the Rosa Freeman Keller Library. Then-City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell (left) beams with pride.

“I heard the excited gasps amid the low murmur of seniors who recalled the library before the levees broke,” she writes. “I heard children squeal with delight as they raced through halls built by perseverance, partnerships and loving hands.”

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call it the crown jewel of Broadmoor’s recovery. 

This history makes it all the more bitter and bewildering that now-Mayor Cantrell has proposed and is now campaigning hard for a trio of interdependent ballot propositions, one of which would slash our city’s library funding by 40% for the next 20 years. 

The renovated and expanded Rosa F. Keller Library and Community Center. Source: Twitter.

Assume the Proposition

The propositions on the Dec. 5 ballot are really just one giant proposition split into three parts. The key that funds the others is Proposition 2, which defunds the New Orleans Public Library. Others have explained the intricacies of the propositions; the upshot is that most of the library money will go into an ambiguous “economic development” slush fund.

If you’re a New Orleans resident and bother voting, I think you should vote no on all the propositions. Always say “no” to the government. No to all of it.

These ballot measures are part of an ongoing trend of turning a public good (in this case, the library) into private assets. It’s the same thing the disastrous charter school movement was, the same thing the scandalous St. Roch Market was: take the people’s resources and hand them off to crooks, all while talking sternly about how it’s necessary and being done for the greater good.

Not only is Cantrell trying to defund the libraries, but she now plans to turn part of the Rosa F. Keller Library into deluxe private office accommodations for Peter Bowen, a controversial recent hire who was brought on amidst a citywide budget crunch as the “founding entrepreneur” of a newly created “Office of Business and External Services.”

Bowen’s previous employer was short-term-rental behemoth Sonder, where he contributed to New Orleans’ affordable housing crisis by turning hundreds of our residential properties into tourist housing. The San Francisco-based Sonder Corp. has more AirBnB listings in New Orleans than any other operator.

Back in Cantrell’s days with the Broadmoor Improvement Association, a Broadmoor resident emailed her complaining that homeless people were living in a nearby abandoned house. Cantrell responded by suggesting the emailer should focus on gratitude that they had a house of their own and not begrudge those less fortunate. 

Learning of that exchange made me a Cantrell supporter, which in turn made it more painful when Cantrell handed a powerful, newly created six-figure city government position to a professional accelerator of homelessness like Bowen, a man who (in the words of the Executive Director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center) “profited off of the evictions of our residents to make way for wealthy tourists.” Giving this serpent a gorgeous refurbished library as his lair is just crab boil seasoning in the wound.

It’s an outrage! The ballot propositions are an outrage. The city lying about them is an outrage. I’m outraged, but outrage won’t defeat Proposition 2. Outrage won’t stop the powers behind it from coming back until they get everything they want, which is everything.

New Orleans Library’s Main Branch.

The Fig Leaf

Of the money taken from the library, $1.5 million will supposedly go to early childhood education. That’s the hook for the heinous and falsehood-infested “Yes on 2” mindwar being waged by the United Way of Southeast Louisiana, the Yes for Children’s Success PAC, and New Orleans City Hall.

The Lens has done invaluable work documenting their falsehoods and the fact City Hall is breaking the law by using its social media accounts to support a ballot measure.

The whole early childhood education angle looks like typical politricks and misdirection, since the promised money will only cover early childhood education for 100 kids and is furthermore predicated on a series of not-even-proposed-yet ordinances that City Council would have to approve and sign into law.

When you examine the massive and sinister alliance built up around promoting Proposition 2, however, the early childhood education funding facet starts to seem like more than just a fig leaf designed to cover the brazen nakedness of Cantrell’s cash grab.

I don’t know exactly what the game is, and I hope we never find out, but based on the involvement of all these charter-school villains my guess would be that it’s some kind of scheme to hand the public’s money to shady for-profit private companies, just like they did with New Orleans schools after the flood.

Is the plan to recreate Bobby Jindal’s voucher system for pre-K daycare? One thing’s for sure, these pro-Proposition 2 groups and individuals are behaving like there’s a lot more than $1.5 million at stake. It’s not impossible they might hope, based on who knows what grounds, that if they help Cantrell drag the library’s funding out of the protection of the dedicated millages, the assistance they’ve rendered will pay off for them later in some way.

As I said, I hope we never find out. 

Cantrell’s repeated lies about the ballot measures are angering, but I feel increasingly that focusing ire on her is falling into a trap. It’s what she’s there for. I excuse none of her failings or misdeeds, but I’ve become much more interested in the people behind the scenes, the people she’s shielding and keeping our attention away from.

While Cantrell may be Proposition 2’s loudest advocate and the face of this horrible plan, it’s important to keep in mind that everyone supporting and advocating for the passage of these ballot measures is party to the same lies and is co-signing the same misinformation campaign.

Their logos bedeck the misleading websites and press releases, and whether or not they succeed in defunding our libraries we should hold them accountable.

Originally published on The Nib.

General Fun with the General Fund

An anonymous librarian detailed in beautiful cartoon form some of the hardships New Orleans library workers faced during the pandemic, including at the hands of the buffoonish new Library Director Gabriel Morley, who aspires to make libraries more like “Uber and Lyft.” New Orleans library staff had to establish their own informal solidarity network, building power among themselves and with their broader community. These skills positioned them to lead pushback against the ballot propositions months later. 

When the city announced furloughs for city employees in October, library staff were initially spared. This was because the library’s funding isn’t in the part of the budget called the General Fund; the New Orleans Public Library has its own dedicated funding through multiple millages, thanks in part to a ballot measure overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2015.

Someone with an ungenerous opinion of Mayor Cantrell’s priorities might think Proposition 2 was motivated by the mayor wanting to shift the library’s funding out of those protected millages and into the General Fund where she and a pliant City Council can do whatever they want with it.

No Next Time for Us

While some announced as Proposition 2 partners have withdrawn, there are a few big names on the United Way of Southeast Louisiana list of partners. One is the Urban League of Louisiana; not a tremendous surprise. The Urban League is former New Orleans mayor Marc Morial’s fiefdom and has a history of performing “Blackwashing” for corporate donors, from big tobacco in the 1990s to fracking companies in 2020. For an organization that runs on millions from oil & gas, Walmart and big banks, carrying a little local dirty water for a scheme like Proposition 2 is nothing serious.

Notable is the younger and usually far more progressive, not to say rabble-rousing, Power Coalition for Equity and Justice. Power joining forces with Cantrell and archvillain Peter Bowen to defund our public libraries was a shock to many New Orleans progressives.

The Power sellout came to light during a Zoom call involving library workers, activists, anti-austerity organizers and a slate of progressive groups the library workers believed were sympathetic to their cause. In the middle of the call Peter Robins-Brown, Power’s Communications Director, dropped a bombshell: Power was signing on with Cantrell, Peter Bowen and United Way in favor of defunding the libraries.

According to someone who was at a meeting discussing the Power Coalition’s endorsement, Robins-Brown told a coalition member “Support us on this, and we’ll support you next time.”

“What do you mean?” a library worker responded. “If this goes through, there is no next time for us.”

(Robins-Brown adamantly disputes this characterization. His comments to the Bayou Brief are outlined in an addendum).*

New Orleans Public Library, Algiers Regional Branch.

Indivisible Inc.

The Power Coalition betraying the New Orleans Public Library and its employees had big ripple effects. The upper reaches of New Orleans’ nonprofit world is a tiny stratum of interdependent back-slappers and reach-arounders— all comfortably salaried in their noble labors for the greater good— and you don’t climb the nonprofit career ladder by making waves or disagreeing with those in Power.

Ben Zucker, co-founder of Step Up Louisiana, “an independent organization with a racial justice analysis that could win on education justice and economic justice issues.” A source with direct knowledge tells me that despite that group’s second principle, “Government Should Be Accountable To Citizens For Its Actions,” when Ben was asked to help save the libraries he demurred, blaming Step Up’s close ties to the Power Coalition.

When Step Up’s membership found out and became upset, Ben’s “concession” was to permit Step Up to host a purely informational Zoom “conversation” about the ballot measures at which both sides were invited to make their cases.

Another sneaky sellout was Indivisible NOLA, part of the #Resist grift cannier corners of the soft left adopted after Trump won.

On the landing page of Indivisible NOLA’s website, under the subheading “ENERGIZING THE RESISTANCE IN NEW ORLEANS,” is a screed calling out bad politicians: “These politicians care more about corporate profits than they do about people’s health, communities, and quality of life. They favor donors over constituents. They traffic in corruption and hypocrisy instead of transparency and truth.”

The “steering committee” of this self-described “quasi-organization” signing on as a Proposition 2 partner earned Indivisible NOLA significant blowback on Facebook, the incubator and prime habitat for boomer groups like this. Indivisible NOLA Vice President Kenny Francis sternly condemned suggestions that his group’s shocking endorsement might have something to do with Kenny’s day job as “Director of Policy & Advocacy” for a group called Agenda for Children, which is also signed on as a Proposition 2 partner.

Agenda for Children is yet another “nonprofit advocacy and service organization” that takes private and public money and is “the largest state provider of child care resource and referral services in southeast Louisiana.” Their staff is a bunch of Aspen Institute fellows and New Orleans charter-school entrepreneurs, including Kenny, who came here from Brooklyn as part of Teach for America.

These nonprofits run by sellouts and crooks are the pious crusaders who demand your donations, your gratitude, your time and energy, who claim they’ll fight for you. New Orleans would do well to remember that when it came time to step up, Step Up stepped back, laid down and blamed the Power Coalition for their cowardice. Let us not forget that the Power Coalition, “whose mission is to organize in impacted communities, educate and turn out voters” chose to side with the aggressive voter-misinformation campaign from City Hall and the campaign of lies aiming to defund our city’s libraries. This is shameful behavior; these are charlatans. These are, in the words of an organizer I spoke with, “the pseudo-progressives who sell out New Orleans’ Black working class time after time after time.”

New Orleans Library- Main Branch.

All Aboard the Honey Wagon

We looked at how a couple formerly respected nonprofits sold out by lending their imprimaturs to this mess, but let’s dig into the really ugly stuff. A lot of this is convoluted, but the specifics, while accurate, aren’t really the point. I want to acquaint you with the texture of it all— the dense, matrix-like weave of indistinguishable con-profits staffed by a tiny coterie of interchangeable neoliberals.

In the United Way’s list of Proposition 2 partners, there’s lots of who you might expect to see at a charter party: Louisiana Charter Schools In Action, Democrats for Education Reform, New Schools for New Orleans. There’s Stand for Children Louisiana, our state’s astroturf offshoot of a national network of PACs that spends hundreds of thousands to elect pro-charter-school school-board candidates. As documented by education reform whistleblower Mercedes Schneider, in its 9/10/2019 filing, Stand for Children Louisiana reported $420,000 in contributions— not one dollar of which came from Louisiana— and spent $168,000 on Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education candidates.

Please don’t confuse Proposition 2 partner PAC Stand for Children with Save the Children, whose PAC is also a Proposition 2 partner, and please don’t muddle either Save the Children or Stand for Children with Agenda for Children, the Proposition 2 partner Kenny Francis works for. Agenda for Children’s tagline is “a voice for Louisiana children and families,” but don’t mix them up with the Louisiana Partnership for Children and Families, another Proposition 2 partner, which is a statewide advocacy organization formed by the Alliance for Children and Families in Louisiana— despite the Louisiana Partnership for Children and Families’ own website incorrectly claiming it came out of The Louisiana Alliance for Children and Families.

In 2014, a lawyer named Melanie Bronfin left her post as Director of the Policy Institute of the Louisiana Partnership for Children and Families to do something new: she founded the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children. It’s “a source of non-partisan, independent information on issues concerning children” and of course yet another Proposition 2 partner. Its current Executive Director is a self-described “Disruptive Innovator working towards smart policies that support young children, families, and Louisiana.”

I name Bronfin because she is one of two registered agents of the Yes for Children’s Success Campaign Committee PAC, the primary entity besides New Orleans city government campaigning in favor of Proposition 2. The Yes for Children’s Success Campaign Committee was founded explicitly for this purpose, and is listed on the United Way of Southeast Louisiana’s website as a partner of Yes for Children’s Success Louisiana, though I don’t think those are separate groups. Maybe since Xavier University, Dancing Grounds, the Community Bookstore and other organizations originally listed as partners for this skulduggery objected and pulled out, some bleary staffer just wanted to tack on as many additional names as possible.

Besides Melanie Bronfin, the other registered agent for Yes for Children’s Success is David Hamilton Simons-Jones.

Two “consultancy” businesses Simons-Jones founded and is a principal of, ResourceFull Consulting and The Verbena Group, LLC, are listed as Proposition 2 partners. Verbena Group LLC is, in Simons-Jones’ own words, just him and his wife, whereas ResourceFull seems to be just him. The former consultancy is a decade old, the other only dates back to 2018, and yet both have managed to land big contracts with the New Orleans city government and various advocacy groups without needing so much as a website or a Facebook page. David Hamilton Simons-Jones is clearly a pro at getting money. After all, he was for years the Chief Development Director (aka fundraiser) for Operation Reach, which raised tons of funds

Simon-Jones was also one of Gambit’s 40 under 40 in 2018. They profiled him as the principal and co-founder of a third consultancy group, Converge, which has since scrubbed any mention of him from its website.

Simon-Jones and Bronfin’s PAC, Yes for Children’s Success, has spent tens of thousands of dollars on advertising, including “Text Messages and Robo Calls.” They gave Trump media advisor Jay Connaughton‘s direct mail business at least $30,000. Where’s this money coming from? According to the most recent reports on the state’s disclosure site, the PAC got only $1000 each from its two registered agents, Melanie Bronfin and Hamilton Simon-Jones, although it claims it got $15,000 worth of “staff resources” from ResourceFull Consulting and $11,025 worth of staff resources from Bronfin Policy Solutions, which isn’t an incorporated business according to the Louisiana Secretary of State and has zero Google results except as a Partner of Yes for Children’s Success on the United Way of Southeast Louisiana’s Proposition 2 website.

Yes for Children’s Success got $3000 from the ACLU, for reasons someone else will need to figure out, and then a Washington D.C. nonprofit called Children’s Funding Accelerator, Inc. gave Yes for Children’s Success $20,000 on October 5 and another $10,000 on November 23rd. Now that’s real money!

As far as individual contributions, they got $5000 from multimillionaire charter-school titan Leslie Jacobs, arguably the local prime mover for New Orleans’ post-K charter school takeover. There’s $1000 from Diana Lewis, former United Way of Southeast Louisiana board chair and Teach for America South Louisiana advisory board member, as well as an underwhelming $300 from Carol Wise, another former United Way of Southeast Louisiana board member who, along with Lewis, founded the United Way of Southeast Louisiana’s Women’s Leadership Council. Yes for Children’s Success got $5000 from some lady in Pointe Coupee Parish who runs an early-childhood education nonprofit that serves as that parish’s official Child Care Resource & Referral Agency. “Inclusive oil and gas executive” Catherine D. McRae also gave $1000. She’s a former Vice President at Shell and now a Teach for America advocate and member of United Way’s Women United Global Leadership Council.

Yes for Children’s Success successfully said yes to lots of “in-kind” donations, including for the weirdly specific amount of $6,974.50 from Stand for Children and $5000 from United Way of Southeast Louisiana.

They got $4,000 of staff resources from Dana Henry, the Executive Director of Institutional Advancement at Einstein Charter Schools. They got $4500 in Campaign Materials and Strategy from Rhea Lewis of the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children– formerly of Converge consulting– and rounding it out a whopping $20,000 ad buy from Washington D.C’s Save the Children Action Network.

New Orleans Library- MidCity Branch.

The Proposition Opposition

That gives a sense of what those who want to save New Orleans libraries are up against: not just a hellbent City Hall but massive national and state organizations, the mecha-Godzilla of “education reform” and a big Loving Cupful of the old-line New Orleans “philanthropy” crowd.

In contrast to the top-down and unilateral decision-making of the astroturf and sellout nonprofits we’ve discussed above, the Save Your NOLA Library coalition— the largest group urging voters to vote No on Proposition 2– came into existence thanks to the courageous self-organization of library staff and a membership-driven organization, the New Orleans chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, holding an all-membership vote.

According to a local DSA member I spoke with, some in New Orleans DSA were also squeamish about contradicting the Power Coalition. Regardless, my source told me, “We had a huge general meeting and a huge debate, and an overwhelming majority of our members supported the campaign. Once that was decided, we went all-in.”

Save Your NOLA Library was able to assemble a coalition of 19 local organizations, including multiple unions. The United Teachers of New Orleans and UNITE HERE unions are among those who decided the same way DSA did, via their membership’s votes. Because their policy is to take the lead from the union with the most impacted workers, however, they had to wait on the larger AFSCME, which (at least nominally) represents public library employees.

New Orleans library workers organized among themselves to pressure AFSCME, including by reaching out to the Central Labor Council, the AFL-CIO affiliate AFSCME belongs to, and were ultimately able to get both AFSCME and local AFL-CIO to join the campaign.

“We’re a grassroots organization,” one of the many working-class New Orleanians who’s volunteered time for the Save Your NOLA Library effort told me. “We don’t have PACs. We’re just canvassing and phonebanking and using social media, but the response has exceeded my expectations. It’s a pretty unusual mix of people and groups, but that’s what libraries do: provide a hub for all these different needs of the community.”

It’s upsetting that clown prince Gabriel Morley, the New Orleans Public Library director as of January 2020, is advocating for the library to be destroyed. It’s demoralizing that he’s joined City Hall’s reprehensibly dishonest campaign, muzzled the librarians themselves, and is using library resources to promote deliberately deceptive misunderstandings of the ballot propositions.

“When we canvas neighborhoods, the average person is confused because of the disinformation,” a Save Your NOLA Library volunteer told me. “Then I spend five minutes talking to someone and they’re like, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me.’ They’re disgusted and amazed.”

Efforts like these very bad ballot propositions won’t stop with this vote. Austerity is on the menu, ushered in by various versions of the legion of doom currently assembled on the pro-Proposition 2 side: alliances between massive national fake nonprofits and small local fake nonprofits, between new tech and old money, between Sonder commando Peter Bowen and control-hungry Mayor Cantrell. This whole ungodly greedy coven isn’t going away, whether or not they succeed in their present effort to destroy one of our city’s only government services worth a damn.

We can’t beat them at the ballot box, not long-term. If we play the game by their rules, we’ll lose. We have to find other ways to fight them. Bolder ways, wilder ways, scarier ways. I don’t think “organizing” or marching or voting is enough, but I’m willing to be wrong. I’m open to the Save Your NOLA Library coalition pivoting into a political force that can pass a people’s budget and defund NOPD.

“I see serious potential in this work we’re doing,” a longtime local organizer involved in Save Your NOLA Library told me. “Organizing city workers and also organizing the communities those city workers serve– it’s a powerful alliance. A lot of us coming into this coalition felt hopeless, but win or lose, we organized. Win or lose, I hope we can take the capacity we’ve built and take the next step, and the next after that.”

“This could be a watershed moment. Austerity is here, and people around the country are organizing. New Orleans can too. We have to let go of the idea that it isn’t possible.”

Peter Robins-Brown, who no longer works for the Power Coalition, has contacted the Bayou Brief regarding the quote a source attributed to him. “The quote you attribute to me was 30 seconds out of multiple hours of conversations that took place in an attempt to find a compromise that satisfied both sides. It’s inaccurate to characterize that tiny part of a much much longer series of negotiations as some sort of officially proffered quid pro quo.”

He also pointed out that the article could be read to suggest he said it during the Zoom call, which was not the case; the language around that has accordingly been clarified.

According to Robins-Brown, several months ago, in late July or early August, a group of early childhood education advocates approached the Power Coalition to solicit its support for an upcoming ballot initiative. While the details had not yet been ironed out, Robins-Brown says the issue was one that the organization had championed. Later, when he first learned of concerns that supporters of the library had with the mechanics of the proposition, Robins-Brown offered to contact Power’s allies in early childhood education programming in order to determine whether or not there was any way the two sides could be reconciled. He further claims that his comment about a pledge for future support was offered as a hypothetical solution and that because he learned that future legislation or a future proposition could not resolve the library’s funding concerns if Proposition 2 were to be approved, he never pursued the idea.

Robins-Brown vociferously objects to the notion that he or anyone involved with the Power Coalition agreed with the idea of defunding the library system.