New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell faces a possible recall election as violent crime spikes, uncollected trash overflows into the streets and she contends with allegations she had an affair with a member of her security detail.
The first Black woman to be elected mayor in 2018, Cantrell easily won re-election in 2021. But her popularity has waned as the number of murders has climbed, allowing New Orleans to capture a title last year that no municipality wants — the murder capital of the nation.
Her second term has also been plagued by questions about her personal use of a city-owned apartment in the French Quarter and her relationship with a member of her security detail.
Organizers of an effort to recall Cantrell delivered nearly a dozen boxes of signed petitions to the registrar of voters’ office last week, just ahead of a deadline to seek a recall election. Organizers said they gathered enough signatures to force a recall vote.
“We’re talking about our lights, our trash, our streets, our crime, our children,” said Eileen Carter, one of the organizers spearheading the effort.
With a population of 377,000 that is 58% Black, New Orleans had the highest number of murders per capita in the country in the first half of last year, after falling off dramatically in 2019, according to NBC affiliate WDSU of New Orleans.
Homicides in New Orleans had increased about 144% through mid-September in 2022, compared with the first nine months of 2019, according to data from the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a public safety nonprofit. By the end of the year, a total of 265 homicides had been committed in the city, according to official numbers.
“In 2022, we were the nation’s murder capital, how does that happen?” Carter asked.
Cantrell’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Her communications director recently sent a statement to USA Today that said, “The mayor continues to work on behalf of the people of New Orleans. The city just came off a successful and safe Mardi Gras, and crime is down in numerous major areas. Today and every day, the mayor remains focused on delivering real results for the people of New Orleans.”
In January, Cantrell announced the formation of a violent crime reduction task force, saying New Orleans was part of a trend occurring in major cities across the country, where violent crime is rising and the number of officers on the streets is falling because of staffing shortages.
“So far, 2023 has already been met with a significant increase in violent crime, and now with the proper resources at our disposal, I cannot think of a better moment to establish this task force," Cantrell said in a statement announcing the unit.
She said the group of police officers and other public safety officials would be "laser-focused on preventing violent crime in our city" and removing "the most violent offenders from our streets.”
City officials said Cantrell's office has also taken steps to improve garbage collection with two new contracts and other improvements. Service was disrupted for weeks after Hurricane Ida struck in August 2021, and it had already fallen behind because of staffing shortages during the pandemic.
Cantrell, who is married, is also contending with allegations that she had a relationship with a subordinate. The accusation was contained in a divorce filing made by the wife of New Orleans police officer Jeffrey Vappie, who is a member of Cantrell’s security detail. In the petition, Vappie's wife claimed her husband was having an affair with Cantrell, according to the news outlet nola.com.
Vappie said through his attorneys last month that he never admitted to his wife that he and the mayor were in a relationship, according to nola.com. An attorney for Vappie did not immediately respond Tuesday to a request for comment.
Cantrell has also faced calls for an investigation over her use of a city-owned apartment, with detractors saying she's using it for her personal benefit while it's meant for city business only. Cantrell’s office said her use of the apartment is consistent with that of previous mayors.
Recall organizers have not said how many signatures they have collected, but they claim to have reached the threshold to force an election. Nearly 50,000 signatures, or 20% of registered voters in Orleans Parish, are needed to hold a recall election, but that number could change: Recall supporters filed a lawsuit this week claiming the number of active voters in Orleans Parish is actually much lower than officials suggest and could be off by potentially tens of thousands of voters.
The registrar of voters has 20 days to certify the recall petition and send it to Gov. John Bel Edwards. If enough signatures have been collected, Edwards would issue an election proclamation within 15 days.
New Orleans resident W.C. Johnson, 75, said he initially supported Cantrell when she was a member of the New Orleans City Council, but he has changed his mind.
“Cantrell is not a manager, she is not good for the city," he said. "She has mismanaged the Office of the Mayor of New Orleans so badly, we need to get somebody in there that’s going to be able to put the house back in order.”
In a 2022 quality of life survey for Orleans and Jefferson parishes conducted by the University of New Orleans, 31% of city residents said they approved of the job Cantrell was doing, while 62% said they were unhappy with her performance.
The survey found that crime had “a profound effect on the overall quality of life in Orleans” and that residents were “very dissatisfied with the quality of life in the city and say the city has become a worse place to live in the past five years.”
Resident Annette Cranford-Hamilton, 60, who supports the recall effort, said she was the victim of a crime last year when a stray bullet entered her home, “leaving plaster all over my husband” after it struck a wall in the master bedroom.
“I don’t feel safe at all," she said. "I’m afraid to leave my house. I am afraid to drive my car.
“We need someone that’s going to care about our city and fix our city. It’s broken," she continued. "It needs some nurturing, and I don’t feel that Latoya is doing that. I feel LaToya Cantrell is out for LaToya Cantrell and not the people of the city of New Orleans.”