NEW ORLEANS — The murder rate in New Orleans had surged, becoming the nation’s highest. Car thefts were nearly constant, basic city services were lagging and critics organized a recall campaign against Mayor LaToya Cantrell, accusing her of giving up on her job.
The effort failed in March. But Ms. Cantrell, dogged by personal scandals as well as her city’s considerable problems, is still facing skepticism, even among people who opposed recalling her.
New Orleans’s struggles are similar, on some level, to those facing other American cities where the coronavirus pandemic has given way to an unease over crime and quality-of-life issues.
But in New Orleans, the recent turbulence has been compounded by an exhausting history of inefficient bureaucracies, deep-seated political corruption, entrenched poverty and a water system so decrepit that city officials regularly issue boil-water orders. Then there are larger existential factors, including an economy increasingly dependent on tourism and the threats posed by climate change to a city that is largely below sea level on an eroding coast.
To some residents, the challenges seem too complex to blame on the mayor, or for them to feel anything but resignation about the city’s future. P. Town Moe, a local rapper, celebrated the end of the recall effort last month by performing a song called “The Recall Is Ovaaa” live on Instagram — not because he supported Ms. Cantrell, he said, but because removing her would do little to change the course of things.
“It doesn’t matter to me who’s in office,” he said. “Because we always get the same outcome.”
Ms. Cantrell, the first Black woman to be elected mayor of the majority Black city, took charge of New Orleans in 2018 with a reputation for being brusque to those in power but solicitous toward average residents, particularly those who felt their neighborhoods had been neglected. Her popularity soared with her steely response to the pandemic after Mardi Gras in 2020 became an early superspreader event.
But after easily winning re-election in 2021, Ms. Cantrell was besieged by new crises, most notably Hurricane Ida — after which trash pickup collapsed and has yet to fully recover — and a crime rate that continued rising through 2022. The number of murders last year, while falling far short of the peak in the early 1990s, was the highest since Hurricane Katrina. Fears over carjackings, in particular, grew as thieves roved the city. Exasperation mounted with crater-pocked roads and error-ridden, runaway utility bills.
Critics argued that Ms. Cantrell, a Democrat, had become distracted and defensive. They needled her for taking economic development trips to Switzerland, and to the French Riviera at a cost of $43,000 over four days. They criticized her for spending much of her time in a city-owned apartment in the French Quarter typically reserved for official business.
“Her attitude was the rules didn’t apply to her,” said Virginia Baldwin, a resident of the city’s Uptown area, who voted for Ms. Cantrell in her first election but supported the recall effort.
A local television station, WVUE, aired surveillance footage last fall showing Ms. Cantrell spending hours at a time in the apartment with a city police officer assigned to her security detail. The officer’s wife had filed for divorce, claiming infidelity on his part with someone referred to as “L.C.” in court documents obtained by local journalists.
The City Council voted unanimously last week to bar city employees from using any city-owned property as a residence.
Ms. Cantrell, whose spokesman said her schedule was too busy to accommodate an interview for this article, pushed back, telling a reporter for The Times-Picayune in a text message, “By the time I complete my tenure as mayor, I would have slept with half of the city of New Orleans based on false accusations that come my way sometimes daily.” She added: “If I were a MAN, you would NOT be texting me” about the claim, which she dismissed with a crude term.
The debate over Ms. Cantrell’s performance has been knotted with questions of race and class. A review of a sample of recall petition signatures by The Times-Picayune found that white residents in more affluent neighborhoods were far more inclined to support the recall. Nearly 76 percent of the signers in the sample reviewed by the news outlet were white, and 15 percent were Black; overall, a little more than a third of the city’s voters are white and a little more than half are Black.
The findings prompted the recall’s detractors to argue that those promoting it were more worried about property crimes in their relatively safe neighborhoods than the persistent bloodshed from gun violence in poorer, predominantly Black ones. There were also concerns that Ms. Cantrell was being judged more harshly because of her gender and particularly her race.
Uncomfortable with the idea of ousting a mayor whose election had broken barriers, Nia Weeks opposed the recall effort, even though she was well versed in the city’s problems.
“No one that I knew really agreed with the idea of her being recalled — they didn’t like the optics or the way it felt,” said Ms. Weeks, a co-founder of Detangled, a group focused on boosting Black civic participation. “At the same time, people are disappointed in how things are doing in our city. So they are straddling this weird fence.”
Eileen Carter, who is Black and was a lead organizer of the recall, rejected the idea that it was driven by sexism or racism. She believed that Ms. Cantrell had become disengaged at a time when the city sorely needed a strong leader. “It seemed like she didn’t want to do her job,” Ms. Carter said.
The mayor is still occasionally viewed as a political outsider, having grown up in Los Angeles and moved to New Orleans in 1990 to attend Xavier University of Louisiana. She married into a prominent judicial family and led the Broadmoor Improvement Association, a nonprofit in her Uptown neighborhood, overseeing the neighborhood’s redevelopment after Hurricane Katrina. She was elected to the City Council in 2012.
Ms. Carter worked as Ms. Cantrell’s social media director early in her tenure and witnessed her swift responses to resident requests for services, like repairing specific streetlights or filling potholes. “She taught us that quality-of-life issues mattered,” Ms. Carter recalled.
But after Ms. Cantrell started her second term last year, as crime worsened and controversies engulfed her, her combative approach alienated many residents who had appreciated those qualities as she battled the pandemic.
During Mardi Gras in February, when someone riding a float apparently flashed a middle finger at her while passing the City Hall viewing stand, Ms. Cantrell responded in kind.
Last fall, when the City Council threatened to dock her pay because she had used city funds to pay for first-class and business-class upgrades on flights to Europe, she described the expenses as a “matter of safety, not of luxury.”
“Anyone who wants to question how I protect myself just doesn’t understand the world Black women walk in,” she said in a statement at the time. She ultimately agreed to pay back about $30,000 to the city.
The recall effort began in August — led by Ms. Carter and Belden Batiste, a longtime Black activist whose own mayoral bid foundered in 2021 — with a handwritten, single-page petition to the Louisiana secretary of state. The reason they listed: “Failure to put New Orleans first and execute the responsibilities of the position.”
But a few months in, the campaign gained steam as Rick Farrell, a conservative white businessman, poured more than $590,000 into it and strung banners in front of his Uptown mansion encouraging residents to sign on.
In March, local election officials determined that the drive had fallen short — by roughly 18,000 of the nearly 45,000 signatures needed to put a recall question on the November ballot. Since then, Ms. Cantrell’s office has posted near-daily videos of the mayor meeting with city departments and overseeing infrastructure repairs.
“No matter the barriers that are thrown in our way, we continue to deliver,” Ms. Cantrell said at a news conference this month.
She had good news to report: Homicides, carjackings and armed robberies were down in the first quarter of the year compared with the same period last year. More guns were being seized. More officers would soon be patrolling the streets.
Even so, unnerving episodes persist. On Friday night at Mandina’s Restaurant, a popular Creole Italian spot in the Mid-City neighborhood, a server was shot and killed and a tourist visiting for the city’s popular jazz festival was wounded as other patrons ducked for cover.
The police said the server, who was outside the restaurant, had been targeted by the assailants, and that the tourist, who was inside and struck by a bullet that penetrated a wall, had not.
Ms. Baldwin said that as frustrated as she was with crime — her car was stolen in December — she did not fault Ms. Cantrell for it entirely.
“I blame her for not tending to the Police Department and seeing what they need, and I don’t even know if that’s fair,” she said. “I don’t know what she can do.”
On a recent evening, regulars walked and biked over to the Friendly Bar, a corner hangout in the Marigny neighborhood, where William Leon was boiling crawfish, sausage, potatoes and corn for $20 a tray. “It’s like no other city,” he said, though he added that his catering van and his other vehicle had both been broken into twice recently.
Jodie Flowers, an artist, said the evening captured all that she loved about New Orleans: the easygoing vibe, the sense of community. Still, one of her roommates had his bicycle stolen multiple times — and that, she said, was partly why she signed the recall petition.
But beyond her lack of confidence in Ms. Cantrell is a lack of confidence in the city’s ability to flourish no matter who is in charge.
“It’s time for someone new,” Ms. Flowers said, before adding with barely a pause, “but the next one isn’t going to be able to do anything.”