NEW ORLEANS — When LaToya Cantrell raises her right hand Monday to take the oath of office, she will make history, becoming the first female mayor in New Orleans’s 300-year existence. Her installation also means that Louisiana’s three largest cities — New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport — all have black female Democrats as their leaders.
Deep South Louisianaalso will have two black women leading cities that rank in the top 100 by population, joining four other such cities nationwide: Atlanta, Baltimore, Charlotte and the District of Columbia.
Some here say the rare feat has occurred in an otherwise politically red state because of its staunchly Democratic blue oases, much like quirky Austin in conservative Texas or liberal Louisville in Kentucky coal country. Louisiana overwhelmingly supported GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump in 2016, while Democrat Hillary Clinton carried all three of the state’s largest cities, where minority voters make up a bigger share of the electorate.
Some experts and voters point to Louisiana’s deep challenges, which disproportionately affect minority communities, as being a driving force for change. Income, employment and life expectancy here lag behind most of the country, issues that have motivated the three mayors. Each said the idea of serving the public — especially the ability to improve the lives of those in their communities — has been a driving factor in their public lives.
“I think the women who have been able to succeed have been able to focus on issues that mean a lot to the state of Louisiana,” said Rosalind Blanco Cook, a political science professor at Tulane University and president of the League of Women Voters of New Orleans.
Some voters in the three cities said they have grown tired of the usual candidates and want to give someone else — notably women — a shot at accomplishing what others have not.
“It’s probably happening because citizens have seen what a man can do in office, and it’s not been all good,” said Darren Broussard, 31, of Baton Rouge. “Why not put a woman in there and see if she can try some other things out?”
Even Republican operatives in Louisiana — while unable to resist a slight dig at their ideological counterparts — applaud the trio.
“Our cities have been mismanaged and mis-run by Democrat men for a very long time,” said Elbert Guillory, chair of the Louisiana Republican Party’s minority outreach committee and a former Louisiana state senator. “Although we vote Republican as a state most of the time, we are open to good people and good ideas, and these three politicians presented good ideas to the populace. They have been warmly embraced — not just accepted, but warmly embraced — by Louisiana.”
That embrace is all the more exceptional in light of the marginalization of black women in the politics of the South, says Louisiana State University’s Nichole Bauer.
“Black women have long been the standard-bearers in politics of both black women and of women generally,” said Bauer, a political science professor. “They are doing a lot of the heavy lifting to preserve and protect their communities.”
Ollie Tyler, now 73, became the first black woman in Louisiana to win a major mayoral race when she prevailed in the 2014 election to lead Shreveport. It was not a trajectory many would have predicted; Tyler grew up the seventh of nine children on a cotton farm along the outskirts of the city.
“I had a tough time as a girl, and as a black girl,” she said in an interview, broadly referring to the early death of a sibling, abuse in her household, and the ravages of poverty and discrimination in the segregated South. “There was very little hope, but I had dreams and I had goals.”
Her early adulthood was no less traumatic. In 1968, when she was 23, Tyler shot and killed her abusive first husband during one of many domestic violence episodes in their brief marriage. Law enforcement investigated, court records show, but no charges were ever filed. “Although it has been almost 50 years, I do not like reliving that horrible time in my life because I feel like I’m being victimized all over again,” Tyler said in a written statement. “It is only by the grace of God that I survived that dark day and continue to move past that tragedy in my life and not allow it to define my future.”
The Grambling State and LSU graduate went on to become a teacher and then rose to the highest ranks of the state’s educational system. She retired in 2012 after 43 years in education and did volunteer work locally before being convinced to run for office.
A few hours south of Shreveport, in the capital city of Baton Rouge, Sharon Weston Broome also had an improbable rise.
Broome was raised in Chicago, where her parents met after leaving the Deep South. As a third-grader in Illinois, she remembers being called into the classroom across the hall. There, a teacher told her and other students about a black boy who had traveled from Chicago to Mississippi, where he was murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman. The teacher told the students that this boy — Emmett Till — was her son.
“That was a story, a part of my life, that I never forgot about,” Broome said.
Broome spent summers visiting relatives in Louisiana, finally moving to Baton Rouge when she was 22. “Never during those trips did I think I’d be mayor one day,” she said.
Now 61, Broome ran at a time when Baton Rouge was still reeling from the summer of 2016: the police shooting of Alton Sterling, which sparked violent clashes between civilians and law enforcement; flooding that devastated the city; and the shooting ambush of six Baton Rouge police officers, three of whom died.
Broome defeated Mack “Bodi” White, a Republican, in the race for Baton Rouge’s office of mayor-president. (Baton Rouge leaders serve as both mayor of the city and president of East Baton Rouge Parish, the most populous parish in the state.)
The year after Broome’s election, it came time for Louisiana’s largest city, New Orleans, to elect a new leader as incumbent Mayor Mitch Landrieu had hit his term limit. Two of the 18 candidates in an open primary made it to a runoff — both Democrats and both black women.
“It was always which woman was going to win, not whether a woman was going to win,” said Ashley Brown Burns, a political science professor at Tulane University.
Cantrell grew up in Los Angeles, where she was raised by a single mother and, she recounted, witnessed how the crack epidemic “rocked my family inside out.”
“Being someone who comes from a very humble background and beginning, those are things you carry with you and that are a part of who you are,” Cantrell said. “You may see things a little differently because you are connected to them in a different way.”
Cantrell came to New Orleans for college and has lived in the city for decades. She first became active in New Orleans politics as president of the Broadmoor Improvement Association. The Broadmoor community had been all but wiped out by Hurricane Katrina, and some city advisers proposed razing the area and turning it into green space. Cantrell, now 46, led the effort to block this movement and to secure investment in the now-revitalized neighborhood. Boosted by this experience, she went on to win a seat on the New Orleans City Council in 2012 and served in that position until last week.
During the mayoral campaign, she faced scandals involving her use of a city credit card to make personal purchases and her debt to the IRS for back taxes.
“In many ways, this was the turning point in the race,” said Burns, the Tulane professor. Cantrell “gained strides instead of falling back. For the people of New Orleans, she became one of them. She faced some of the same challenges that New Orleanians face every day.”
In November 2017, Cantrell won the runoff election, collecting just more than 60 percent of the vote, making her the first female mayor in the city’s history.
While women — and black women in particular — are gaining in numbers in Louisiana’s mayoral suites, they remain vastly underrepresented in the wider political life. The state has had only one female governor, and it has not sent a woman to Washington in almost a decade. The Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics lists Louisiana among the bottom 10 states in representation by women in the state legislature.
The center also reports that the bulk of black women’s growth in political representation has occurred in the past two decades.
“The ability of a black woman to be seen as a legitimate force and a serious candidate should no longer be questioned,” Burns said.
Cook, her Tulane colleague, recalled the optimism of 1992’s “Year of the Woman,” when a number of women were elected to office in the aftermath of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings. Those gains have not really stuck, Cook noted.
“I would hope,” she said, “that this would be more of a durable change.”
Ashley Cusick is a freelance writer based in New Orleans and a frequent contributor to The Washington Post.