The group seeking to recall New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell reached an unusual settlement with Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin on Wednesday that makes its task easier by lowering the number of signatures needed to put a recall on the ballot from about 50,000 to 45,000. The deadline for election officials to finish verifying the petitions that the NoLaToya campaign submitted last week is March 22, though the mayor’s detractors have stubbornly refused to say how many they turned in.
Cantrell, who like almost every notable politician in the Crescent City is a Democrat, made history in 2017 when she became the first Black woman elected mayor, and she won re-election four years later with 65% against several little-known foes. Last year was a difficult one for her administration, though, as New Orleans had more homicides per capita than any other city in America during the first half of 2022, and it went on to record more murders than it had in any year since 1996. New Orleans has also struggled with trash pickup since Hurricane Ida hit in the summer of 2021, problems Cantrell has argued she’s addressing with new contracts.
The mayor has been the subject to several unfavorable news stories about her personally as well. One involved $30,000 in first-class flights to Europe that she eventually agreed to reimburse the city for after weeks of resistance. Others have focused on her appearance at a trial in support of the family of a 14-year-old carjacker and allegations Cantrell has been living rent-free in a city-owned apartment in violation of ethics laws.
On top of all that, the estranged wife of a member of the mayor’s security detail accused her husband, Jeffrey Vappie, of having an affair with the married mayor. Cantrell has denied the allegations, saying in January, “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.” An attorney for Vappie also insists his client never told his wife about an affair, though he didn’t address whether or not one had ever happened.
Cantrell’s detractors began collecting signatures in August to oust her, citing what they called her “[f]ailure to put New Orleans first and execute the responsibilities of the position.” The effort is led by Eileen Carter, a former city worker, and Beldon “Noonie Man” Batiste, a perennial candidate who took 5% against Cantrell in 2021. But while both are Democrats, the mayor’s team had sought to cast the campaign as a "Republican-backed maneuver"—a charge that proved merited after campaign finance reports revealed that almost all of the $488,000 NoLaToya brought in during the final quarter of 2022 came from Rick Farrell, who was one of Donald Trump’s largest donors in Louisiana.
Cantrell has continued to use Farrell, who is white, as a weapon against the recall campaign by invoking the legacy of Jim Crow in this majority Black city. This week she said of Carter and Batiste, who are also Black, “[E]ven Black people in the Black community have been used—to be the focal point, to be the ones leading the line, so to speak—but absolutely not leading it with resources, like this recall campaign.” Cantrell’s own campaign, though, had just $7,000 on-hand at the end of December to fight back if the recall makes the ballot.
That’s still a big “if.” NoLaToya had until last Wednesday to collect signatures from 20% of "active" New Orleans voters. The target dropped from 53,400 to 50,000 last month after the secretary of state’s office determined that about 17,000 people listed on the voter rolls should be classified as “inactive,” meaning they’ve both moved without submitting a new address and haven’t “voted in the last two federal elections or any other race in between.” (Inactive voters can become active again if they cast a ballot or confirm their address.)
NoLaToya, though, went to court to argue that another 33,000 voters were also wrongly classified as active. On Wednesday, the campaign and Ardoin, the state’s Republican secretary of state, reached a settlement in which Ardoin’s office agreed that 25,000 people would not be considered active “for purposes of the recall petition.” This deal, which was endorsed by a judge later that same day, means that recall proponents need only 45,000 petitions even though no voter’s status would actually change as a result of this agreement.
NoLaToya submitted its signatures on the day after Mardi Gras accompanied by a brass band that Batiste and Carter danced along with, but the celebration may have been premature. Recall expert Joshua Spivak says that an average of 20% of petitions are rejected in American recall campaigns, and we don’t know how much of a cushion NoLaToya has because the campaign still won’t say how many signatures it turned in—even though the information is considered a public record.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune and NoLaToya reached their own settlement last month under which the recall committee agreed to give the paper a copy of each submitted petition on Feb. 22. However, NoLaToya further demanded $15,000 to cover the cost of copies, to which the paper responded by asking a judge to hold the campaign in contempt.
So what happens if, after all this, there are in fact enough petitions to force a recall election? Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards would have 15 days to select a date, though it’s not clear if he’d have any option other than to schedule it to coincide with the Oct. 14 statewide all-party primary.
The recall election, whenever it might take place, would then present voters with a simple yes or no question asking if Cantrell should be removed. No one has released any polls testing how such a recall would go, though a September survey from the University of New Orleans showed the mayor in bad shape with a 31-62 approval rating.
If “yes” were to take a majority, the mayor would leave office and the all-Democratic City Council would choose one of its two at-large members, JP Morrell or Helena Moreno, to serve as acting mayor. A special election would then take place for the remainder of Cantrell’s term in which all candidates, regardless of party, would compete on a single ballot, with a runoff occurring later if no one were to earn a majority. (Cantrell would be barred from competing.) No matter what, though, there will be an election for a full four-year term in the fall of 2025, when Cantrell is currently scheduled to be termed out.