Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
How the mayoral race about criminal justice reform became a race about credit cards.
On November 18, New Orleans voters decided to elect city council member LaToya Cantrell over former municipal judge Desiree Charbonnet to succeed Mitch Landrieu as mayor. The two candidates were the last standing from a crowded October 14 primary, assuring New Orleans that its next mayor would be a woman for the first time in the city’s history.
Cantrell inherits the city as it enters its tricentennial celebration next year, and hence she will help shape what the beginning of New Orleans’ next 300 years will look like. One of the main questions in that shaping: Will New Orleans remain a city where correctional facilities rule everything around it, or can the new mayor transform it into a model for addressing public safety without a reliance on jails and prisons?
This is a perennial issue come election time in New Orleans, given the high levels of crime plaguing the city and the legacy of overactive policing that bred the city’s notorious incarceration rate. The criminal justice question was of particular importance in this election, however, because of the wide range of criminal justice reforms installed in New Orleans during the last few years. The city finally began taking seriously the city’s dire lack of resources for providing indigent defendants lawyers by allotting more funding for the public defender’s office in 2017. Independent and civilian police monitoring have gotten stronger (perhaps too strong for police appetites) and the city’s police department and jail are still under federal oversight for their histories of abuse and corruption. The next mayor will determine whether these reforms and the federal monitoring are continued, strengthened, or left to die.
Criminal justice reform was once one of the top issues during the primary run of the race. Once the runoff election began, however, that issue got eclipsed by another issue: credit cards. It was exposed early in the runoff race that Cantrell had charged thousands of dollars to her city-issued credit card, which is supposed to be used for city purposes only. Cantrell reimbursed the city for charges that fell in the “gray areas” of whether they were city-authorized, but this aroused suspicions that she did so only because she knew it was wrong. Whether these accusations are, in fact, unlawful—and the matter still hasn’t been resolved—remains a dark cloud over Cantrell’s victory.
What happened to criminal justice, though?
While that gets hashed out, it’s important not to lose sight of the issue of criminal justice reform. New Orleans is already heavily invested in such measures, having initiated in recent years diversion programs to help steer certain defendants away from jail, to revamp how bail is assessed, and to relax penalties for marijuana use, just to name a few. Cantrell voted to pass many of these measures as a city council member (she may have helped boost the conversation around decriminalizing marijuana in 2012 when her husband, a city attorney, dropped a joint in court chambers). Charbonnet implemented many of these measures when she served as a municipal court judge, and created a jail diversion program specifically for sex workers.
It appeared during their race that there was little difference between them on criminal justice issues or other major issues: They both want to make housing more affordable, bring jobs, fix the streets, and all the usual mayoral brouhaha. But their actual commitment to these platforms—especially support for criminal justice—was called into question by the prominent people supporting them, whose actions seemed diametrically opposed to some of these reform plans.
Behind Cantrell was Leslie Jacobs, a business exec known by Forbes as one of the “world’s most powerful educators,” but also known to many in New Orleans as the person responsible for the city’s controversial new education landscape. Jacobs has been one of the primary engineers of sweeping education reforms that have proven wildly unpopular among many black New Orleanians, including the state takeover of New Orleans’ public schools and the complete charter makeover of public schools since Katrina.
Jacobs was also behind a political action committee that became notorious in this election for its outsized outsider influence on the city’s mayoral race. The PAC was criticized for slinging heavy mud at the Charbonnet camp, accusing her of, among other things, taking money from strip club owners.
Behind Charbonnet stood Blair Boutte, a powerful bail bondsman in the city who the Southern Poverty Law Center sued earlier this year over allegations of some seriously skeevy business practices, such as resorting to kidnapping and extortion for recouping bail fees. Perhaps more controversial is Charbonnet’s support from New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, who is the subject of several major lawsuits filed against him in the last month alone. One lawsuit, filed by the national ACLU, charges Cannizzaro with using phony subpoenas to coerce witnesses to appear in court under threats of jail penalties—a discovery made by the nonprofit investigative news site The Lens, which is also suing the district attorney.
Cannizzaro has been livid about the city council’s decision to reduce his office’s budget in order to beef up the city’s public defenders office, which has been running on empty for years due to its faulty funding formula. He would like to restore the funding distribution between his office and the public defenders’ back to the wildly imbalanced ratio it was at before, but Cantrell, as a city council member, and now as future mayor, stands in his way.
The Cannizzarro connection was truly puzzling, especially for criminal justice reformers in the city, many of whom know Charbonnet as one of the more progressive judges. Charbonnet responded to criticism about her Cannizzaro ties that it’s crucial to “partner with” the district attorney to get criminal justice reform done. Meanwhile, Cannizzaro was not merely an endorsement on paper. He become a central character in the mayoral runoff election and arguably helped steer it away from criminal justice reform issues.
How the race became about credit cards
On October 25, Cannizzaro said that anonymous complaints were sent to his office about Cantrell’s city-issued credit card spending habits. She used the city card for personal expenses such as expensive restaurant bills and drinks at bars, which she paid back. Cannizzaro kicked those complaints to the state attorney general, which triggered an investigation by the state legislative auditor into the credit card activity of the entire city council (it has since emerged that most city council members have been reckless with their credit accounts).
The investigation didn’t begin in earnest until this week given that the deadline for city council members to submit their credit card records to the auditor was last Friday. However, the announcement alone could have had the kind of chilling effect for undecided voters (and there were many) that FBI James Comey’s announcement about his investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails had in the weeks before the presidential election. Ultimately, it didn’t. But the Charbonnet camp seized on opportunities through the very end of the runoff to liken Cantrell’s alleged offenses to those of former Mayor Ray Nagin’s, which landed him in jail—a penalty that Charbonnet’s camp has been keen to remind the public about.
And so an election that was once, in no small part, about how to more humanely treat people accused of breaking laws, became about how to treat a mayoral candidate who was accused of breaking laws. New Orleans’ reputation for corruption is arguably as bad as its reputation for incarceration, and fraudulent credit card use is, indeed, no trivial matter. What the voters were faced with at the polls this weekend was deciding which was the more egregious use of taxpayer money—jail beds and prison bars or restaurants and cocktail bars?
They chose Cantrell heavily in every city council district, which means voters are mandating her to follow through with all the progressive reforms and changes she campaigned on, for criminal justice and beyond. It also means that the credit card usage issue is less of a priority for most New Orleans voters—but that doesn’t mean the issue is going away. The state auditor is still investigating this, and there have been whispers that a federal investigation is pending, too.
This article is part of our project “The Presence of Justice,” which is supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge.