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Charles M. Blow: Opposition Siege of New Orleans’ First Black Mayor Reflects Sexism and Discrimination


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“As mayor, she shouldn’t be twerking [estilo com requebradas do quadril]. I should be working.” That’s what Belden “Noonie Man” Batiste told me when explaining his efforts to unseat New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, the first black woman to lead the city, who was often filmed dancing.

Batiste is a short, bespectacled man who, when speaking, claps his hands together emphatically and rotates his forearms like the paddle wheel of a steamboat. He is an energetic activist in the city and a serial candidate who has suffered many defeats, including for mayoralty. And he raised serious concerns about the Cantrell government, which has struggled with police arrests, suspicious spending and travel, allegations of corruption, sanitation and, most importantly, crime.

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But her comment about twerking exposes a meanness that convinced several of the black women I spoke with in town not only that Cantrell is being held to a higher standard than would be used for a white man, but also that she is being subjected to a specific type of sexism for black women: the so-called misogynoir.

The effort to revoke Cantrell’s mandate (called a recall) it is as complex as the city itself, where even the saints sin. However, one thing is clear to me: the homicide rate is nowhere near as bad as it was in the mid-1990s, when men ran the city and never faced the threat of losing their jobs that way.

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Admittedly, Cantrell, who declined to be interviewed for this column, faced constant accusations of impropriety. This month, in a divorce petition, the wife of a police officer on his security detail accused a “Mrs. LC,” whom local media later identified as Cantrell, of engaging in a “long-term sexual relationship” with the husband.

Cantrell not only denied the charge; she scoffed, saying, “By the time I finish my term as mayor, I’ll have slept with half the city of New Orleans, according to false accusations that come my way, sometimes daily.” But the facts underlying the accusation are quite serious. According to the local Fox channel affiliate, this month the FBI is investigating her time with the officer, as well as her relationship with the police department as a whole.

If she is reported by the feds, it wouldn’t be the first. Ray Nagin, the city’s former mayor, was convicted of 20 counts of corruption, bribery and fraud in a kickback scheme. It was not subject to recall referendum.

Also, New Orleans has its own way of regarding personal indiscretions. In a city with a “Laissez les bons temps rouler” (Let the good times roll) mantra and hedonistic, celebratory sensibilities, sexual adventures barely stir.

But for someone like Cantrell, that might not be the case: We live in a country where a president (Donald Trump) could be accused of sexual assault without being removed from office; where a governor (Ralph Northam) could be accused of wearing blackface and Ku Klux Klan attire without being removed from office; where a congressman (Jim Jordan) could be accused of ignoring allegations of molested student athletes without being impeached. This election in New Orleans raises a simple but pressing question: Are black politicians, particularly black women, entitled to equal slack from the leash?

I don’t want to defend bad behavior or bad choices, but equitable punishment for wrongdoing is just as important to equality as equitable reward for good.

Cantrell, for his part, tried to brand the attempted recall as partisan and racist, calling it a Republican ploy to “discredit the first black female mayor”.

It is a difficult thesis to defend. Yes, two wealthy white Republican donors contributed about half of the money raised for the recall, Batiste said, but the two people who organized the referendum are black, as is Cantrell’s opponent, Desiree Charbonnet.

Still, there is undoubtedly a racial element to this initiative: Most white people I spoke to in bars and on the streets of New Orleans this week supported the recall; most blacks do not.

Cantrell is the kind of straightforward, straightforward politician that endears her to many, especially black people, but leaves others horrified. She is often described as short and thick. She’s outspoken and uninhibited, and I saw that firsthand when I interviewed her in her office in 2018. But there’s a line where bluntness becomes intimidation, and Cantrell sometimes seems to cross it.

She has dominion over the city. Whether you’re holding her by the hand or by the neck depends on who you’re talking to. But she has a wall of defense that will likely help her keep her job.

But, again, the question hangs in the air: Is her behavior worse than all the men before her? It seems to me that Cantrell is being punished not just for her performance, but also for being an aggressive outsider at a time of internal crisis – for not being native to the city, for not being part of its dynastic political lineage, for not exemplifying the New York bourgeoisie. Orleans. All the things that used to work in her favor but now work against her.

But, as Edward Chervenak, director of the Survey Research Center at the University of New Orleans, said: “Historically, people have really loved their mayors.” To trigger a recall vote for Cantrell, Batiste and his fellow organizers will need to gather about 54,000 signatures by Feb. 22, and this week they were short of about 15,000 as the city got into the spirit of Mardi Gras. .

“Until Mayor Cantrell, the mayor was king,” Chervenak said. “Of course, now she’s the queen.”

This penchant for ennobling office may, after all, protect her, even if she has shown a Marie Antoinette-like impulse toward excess and indifference while her city suffers.

But if she survives the recall attempt and the investigations, she will have to realize that her city is hurting and needs to be healed, that the recall effort is a significant vote of no confidence that cannot simply be dismissed as “sour grapes”, racial hostility or work of a vengeful enemy. Also, it’s not a victory if people don’t sign the petition out of fear of doing so.

She will need to regain the trust of voters who have turned away, and that will need to start with a humility and non-aggression that she may find foreign.

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