New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell speaks to an audience at the Andrew P. Sanchez Multi-Service Center in the Lower 9th Ward on Feb. 16, 2023. She joined other officials to announce the end of the Road Home program. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)
Organizers of a recall petition to oust New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell had until 4:30 p.m. Wednesday to file their petition with the required number of verified signatures to force a special election on the matter. A successful recall in a city this large would be unprecedented, as standards to remove elected officials in many other states are far steeper in Louisiana.
“It’s never had one against a state-level office, state legislator or governor or anything like that,” said Joshua Spivak, a researcher who has tracked recall efforts nationwide. “This would be by far the most prominent recall in the state’s history.”
At least 20% of valid voters in New Orleans needed to sign the recall petition to bring about an election to remove Cantrell. Organizers said Wednesday they have crossed that threshold but would not provide a specific number, citing a recommendation from their attorney according to WVUE-TV.
Beldon “Noonie Man” Batiste and Eileen Carter started the recall drive in August. Batiste is a longtime vocal critic and frequent longshot candidate against the political establishment in New Orleans. Carter, the sister of former state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, was once a staffer in the Cantrell administration.
With nearly $500,000 in support from New Orleans businessman Rick Farrell, the recall campaign funded an omnipresent multimedia advertising campaign and held regular signature-gathering drives across the city. Organizers showed up Wednesday in front of City Hall in a van wrapped with “NoLaToya” decals to deliver boxes of signed petitions to registrar of voters, just a floor below the mayor’s office. A brass band accompanied volunteers to the front door.
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Spivak, a senior fellow at the University of California-Berkeley’s California Constitution Center, said well-funded recall campaigns typically see a much higher rate of success.
“Occasionally, they’ll succeed without a ton of money,” he said. “But just the reality of American political life, especially signature-gathering campaigns, … there’s a lot of money dropped to get these things on the ballot.”
A recent pair of California recall drives advanced to voter referendum, thanks in part to substantial financial support. In San Francisco last year, District Attorney Chesa Boudin was removed from office in a campaign that had $2.7 million in contributions. Gov. Gavin Newsom survived a 2021 recall attempt, one of several around that nation spawned during the COVID-19 pandemic. Those behind the effort to remove him from office collected $4 million in donations.
Recall elections are far less frequent in Louisiana compared with other states because the hurdle to clear is much higher here, Spivak said. Louisiana’s recall law has a sliding scale for the rate of signatures required based on a jurisdiction’s population. The smaller the municipality or parish, the higher the percentage of signatures needed. The larger the population, the lower the rate.
In New Orleans, the recall threshold is 20% of active voters – the same rate it would be in a statewide effort. California only requires 12%.
Batiste and Carter have sued Orleans Parish Registrar Sandra Wilson and Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, claiming that voter rolls have not been effectively purged. The organizers say there are about 30,000 people in Orleans who should not be counted as voters.
If it turns out the plaintiffs are corrected, the number of signatures needed for a recall election is less than 50,000-plus originally stated. Neither Wilson nor Ardoin have responded directly to the claim in the lawsuit, although Ardoin has noted Gov. John Bel Edwards vetoed legislation that would have required more frequent audits of parish voter rolls.
Wilson now has 20 days to review the petition signatures to ensure their validity. The organizers claim to have used technology to verify signatures as they were being gathered. Even then, Spivak said, a 20% rate of invalid signatures is not out of the range of normal.
“Usually, you would want a very nice cushion,” he said. “And in this case, that would be 60,000 signatures.”
Should the signature count reach that level, Spivak said the odds are against Cantrell surviving a recall election. He anticipates the well-funded campaign to remove her from office would continue to attract support.
“Throughout the country, I’d say the total is about 60% of officials who face a recall vote are kicked out and another 6% or so resigned,” he said.
If enough signatures pass muster, it’s then up to the governor to set a special election date. Another option would be for Edwards to add the recall to the October primary, which Spivak said is more likely given the cost of a special, stand-alone election.
Should voters decide to remove Cantrell from office, the New Orleans City Council would then have to appoint one of its at-large members to serve as interim mayor until a separate special election could be held to choose someone to serve the remainder of Cantrell’s term.
Councilman at-large JP Morrell has said that he would be willing to lead the city on an interim basis, with the anticipation that Councilwoman at-large Helena Moreno would run in the special election for mayor. The city charter doesn’t prevent Morrell from running for mayor if he were to serve on an appointed interim basis.
Other notable recalls
Cantrell’s possible expulsion would be the first involving a prominent U.S. mayor since Miami-Dade County voted out Carlos Álvarez in 2011. His popularity waned after he supported a taxpayer-backed new stadium for the Florida Marlins pro baseball team and then touted a property tax increase to finance raises for local government workers. That included a 15% boost for the mayor’s staff. Billionaire Norman Braman poured his money into the Álvarez recall.
In 2003, California voters removed Gov. Gray Davis from office, leading to the ascendency of Arnold Schwartzenegger to the state’s highest post. Opposition to Davis mounted after he decided against enforcing a voter-approved proposition that barred illegal immigrants from the state’s public health care and education systems.
Another notable successful recall in California involved future U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who was ousted as San Francisco’s mayor in 1983. Groups behind her removal included the anti-racist White Panther Party and the city’s gay community, which balked at Feinstein’s veto of a proposal that would have extended city employee benefits to same-sex partners.
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