None of the four candidates vying to fill the District B New Orleans City Council seat left vacant by Stacy Head’s at-large victory has ever held an elected position; in fact, only one has ever run for office before.
But the lack of political retreads is only one reason this race commands interest. The youthful field -- three in their early 30s and one 40-year-old -- offers diverse backgrounds in community activism, entrepreneurship, city government and the nonprofit sector. Two are native New Orleanians; two moved here as adults -- one after Hurricane Katrina.
All four speak energetically and passionately about the issues facing the demographically diverse District B, but they are just as apt to talk about the city as a whole. They reflect an emerging new guard of young, accomplished, civically engaged New Orleanians, eager to take on the mantle of leadership in the city’s renaissance.
LaToya Cantrell, a Los Angeles native, had made a name for herself as a civic activist and organizer before Katrina, serving as president of the Broadmoor Improvement Association. But that role became all-consuming after Katrina, when the neighborhood appeared as one of the infamous green dots on the city’s redevelopment map. She led efforts to revive Broadmoor, including key projects such as the restoration and expansion of the Rosa F. Keller library into a community center, an effort made possible by raising $2.3 million in private support. She also serves on the board of Andrew H. Wilson Charter School.
Now, Cantrell is making her second bid for elected office — she lost a school board race to incumbent Una Anderson in 2004 and recently paid a $5,600 fine for failing to file campaign finance reports from that race.
District B’s issues are the same as the city’s, she said — among them blight and crime. Cantrell is stressing the need to alleviate poverty through education, job creation and access to health care. She also wants a more unified city council.
“It’s respect, and it’s … been missing for a while,’’ she said.
She points to her depth of experience in dealing with all departments of city government as a community organizer and likens her handling of people’s concerns to the kind of constituent services that they want from a council representative.
“I’ve been in the trenches, and I’ve delivered,’’ she said.
Marlon Horton, 31, grew up in the St. Thomas public housing development, and his personal narrative, which includes playing a role in “Dead Men Walking’’ at age 15, could lend itself to cinematic treatment. He’s a well-known disc jockey and bounce artist who performs under the name 10th Ward Buck and also is an entrepreneur who owns Finger Lick’n Wings, a restaurant in the council district. He’s been a victim of violent crime, surviving a shooting at a party where he was working as a DJ.
Horton cites his lengthy and unsuccessful efforts to secure an alcohol permit for his restaurant as the reason he decided to run. He said he understands the needs of business owners and views economic development as the key to quelling the city’s crime problem.
He wants to see more activities for youth from 17 to 25, noting that sometimes high school graduates see dropouts making more money because they’ve turned to crime. He sees his role as providing an example of someone who beat the odds.
“I’m 31 -- they didn’t give me 21 coming up in the St. Thomas,’’ he said.
Dana Kaplan, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, came to New Orleans in 2006 for what was supposed to be a three-month stay, working on criminal justice reforms. She ended up moving here, making her part of the post-storm influx of young professionals.
She previously worked for the Center for Constitutional Rights and assisted in forming Safe Streets/Strong Communities. She also worked to help develop the Office of the Independent Police Monitor, a key part of New Orleans’ efforts to reform its police department.
“I became very convinced what a difference it makes to have people in office who are smart, hard-working and really dedicated to the community, to making strides to increase opportunities, reduce crime and foster economic development,’’ she said.
Kaplan is focusing on crime, education and children, jobs, reducing blight and improving infrastructure. She said she wants to ensure the New Orleans Police Department is accountable but also that it has the resources it needs to be effective. She cites the need for improved re-entry programs for offenders and victims services and said she’ll support community-based violence reduction programs.
She wants more programs to reduce crime, especially those that provide vocational opportunities for youth.
As a private citizen, Kaplan said, she worked closely with the city council and mayor to ensure that the Youth Study Center will be designed to be a model facility. As a council member, she said, she will push for the juvenile justice system in New Orleans to be the best system for young people and the city.
Eric Strachan, 31, has lived his entire life in District B, and he’s spent his professional life working as a staff member for city council members — first for Jackie Clarkson and more recently as chief of staff for Head, a job he left to run for office.
He calls the city council job a tough one, from the constant calls from people with problems to the city’s tough financial position, that demands difficult choices. The reward comes “when you can find a unique solution that would not have happened without government,’’ he said.
Strachan called crime the city’s No. 1 problem. He wants to ensure that there are enough new officers to replace those leaving and emphasizes community policing and programs like Neighborhood Watch. The city also needs to do a better job protecting people who testify from retribution, he said.
He points to the city’s 42,000 blighted properties, saying that sheriff’s sales are proving to be an effective tool, one that could be further improved.
“It’s a win-win; it restores properties to the tax roles, increases economic opportunities and jobs,’’ he said.
He wants to focus on economic development through programs such as Idea Village and business incubators.
He also promises to do everything in his power to change the tone on the council, which he said has seen “strife and acrimony.’’
“I cut my teeth with Jackie Clarkson,’’ he said. “She was always about building bridges rather than burning bridges.’’