Throughout much of the modern era, politics in Jefferson Parish have been dominated by titans.
There was the late assessor Lawrence Chehardy, the fierce defender of the homestead exemption. There was Joe Yenni, the beloved parish president. There was John Mamoulides, the kingmaking district attorney.
And of course, there were the sheriffs.
Until his death in 2007, nobody loomed larger than Harry Lee, and not just due to the longtime lawman's public battles with his girth. Lee was an epic character who liked to pal around with celebrities, defiantly defended controversial policing tactics and his own friendships with convicted felons, engaged in epic feuds and abandoned a brief run for governor because being sheriff made him the closest thing to a king in America, as he put it.
He also delighted many of his constituents by guaranteeing a quick response time to police calls, and by leaving them laughing. He tossed trinkets with his likeness from his personal Carnival float, and tossed off one-liners with abandon, including this gem when he was engaged in a legal fight with state Rep. and future U.S. Sen. David Vitter: “My job is to catch crooks. My hobby is to expose hypocrites.”
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Lee's hand-picked successor Newell Normand, who resigned last year to become a radio talk show host, was no Lee, but he had his own swagger. Normand honored Lee's legacy while modernizing the department, earning sky-high favorability ratings and extending his tentacles well beyond the sprawling department.
Like Lee, Normand, had some memorable media moments, such as when he used such blunt language on national television after former NFL player Joe McKnight's death in a road rage incident. MSNBC wound up apologizing for giving that language a platform. Like Lee, he also feuded with Vitter, including during the stranger-than-fiction "spygate" episode of the 2015 gubernatorial race.
Parish voters are now two weeks away from choosing the next man to fill those large shoes, in what's been billed as year's marquee local election. Yet so far, what stands out about the contest between interim Sheriff Joe Lopinto and longtime department spokesman John Fortunato is how small it feels compared to what came before.
Neither contestant comes off as a power broker in the making. And the debate has been less about big ideas than about the two candidates' biographies.
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Lopinto started off as a cop, got a law degree and served in the Legislature before rejoining the department as Normand's top aide. He argues that the job requires a professionally minded manager who can oversee a large agency tasked not just with crime fighting but with tax collection.
Fortunato, a familiar figure to generations of television news viewers, is filling the role of the cop's cop, someone more attuned to how the deputies on the street do their jobs and how residents interact with them.
Even the dirt that has inevitably emerged isn't all that dirty.
Lopinto was caught using department resources to seek surveillance footage from a coffee shop where Fortunato and some other retired deputies were meeting, which was bad. But rather than covering it up, his own department produced and released a critical report, which was good.
Fortunato, meanwhile, was accused of improper electioneering, but it was in the context of handing out food to the needy. And this week The Advocate reported that Normand relieved him of his responsibilities overseeing off-duty details for deputies, but also that there don't appear to have been any financial shenanigans.
It's actually fair to interpret the pedestrian nature of the campaign to the fact that the department is functioning pretty well, and there aren't huge problems to solve.
It could also be a sign of the times. Other current parishwide office holders aren't as dominant as their predecessors either. Assessor Tom Capella and District Attorney Paul Connick are relatively low key. Parish President Mike Yenni, Joe Yenni's grandson, remains diminished following his sexting scandal.
It's certainly a sign of the times at the sheriff's office, which is likely to become less personality-driven no matter who wins on March 24. That's not necessarily a bad thing, at all — even if Jefferson Parish voters will have to seek their entertainment elsewhere.