It's a little hard to fathom in retrospect, but one question that surrounded Newell Normand back when he became Jefferson Parish sheriff a decade ago was the extent to which he'd be his own man.
That has much less to do with Normand, who recently stunned the parish by announcing he'd leave office and become a radio talk show host, than with his predecessor and mentor, and the details of the carefully planned succession.
Imagine if someone had told you last fall, after news broke that Jefferson Parish President …
Normand was the top aide and right-hand man to Harry Lee, a politician who practically defined the term "larger than life," and not because of the weight challenges he readily shared with the public. Everyone knew Normand was Lee's choice to succeed him, and when the sheriff died of cancer before Election Day 2007, Normand was quickly sworn in. He won the subsequent election by a landslide, a feat he would repeat twice more, in 2011 and 2015.
Lee was an old-school Louisiana character in every sense of the word.
He ruled a tough-on-crime law enforcement agency but counted convicted criminals among his friends. He palled around with celebrities. He picked political fights, including an epic feud with a rising star named David Vitter, whom Lee considered holier-than-thou to the extreme. He had bobbleheads, refrigerator magnets (Fat Harry and Skinny Harry versions) and even a Carnival float designed with his likeness.
And he ran his department like the ultimate fiefdom, a practice that included demanding his deputies sell tickets to his annual fais do-do fundraiser. He once considered running for governor but changed his mind, declaring that being sheriff was the closest thing to being king in America.
Normand, it turned out, handled the transition deftly, and balanced honoring Lee's legacy with updating and moderating some of his practices.
He quickly made it clear he wouldn't expect deputies to raise money for him. He invested in modern policing technology. Lee had given a commission to the action star Steven Seagal, who developed a reality show based on his so-called experiences as a so-called deputy. When Seagal got sued by a woman who alleged he'd held her captive, Normand cut him off.
In other ways, Normand seemed to channel the big guy.
He doesn't have his own float, but he's been a dominant presence in parish life nonetheless. Like Lee, he enjoyed a good political fight, and didn't stick to party lines. Lee was a Democrat, yet he endorsed Bobby Jindal for governor over Kathleen Blanco. Eight years later, Normand, a Republican, backed John Bel Edwards and cut a viciously effective ad against his opponent, old Lee adversary Vitter, whose private investigator had been caught recording Normand and others at a Metairie coffee shop.
In 2007, Normand came off as relatively low-key, particularly in comparison to his predecessor. But it turned out that he has a temper too. At a news conference late last year, he got so angry and emotional over criticism of how his department was handling the investigation into the road-rage killing of former NFL star Joe McKnight that he basically stepped on his message, that good police work ultimately led to an arrest. His language was so, um, blunt that MSNBC, which had been covering the event live, apologized.
Now, with Normand heading out the door, it's up to his top deputy Joe Lopinto to find his own balance, to figure out how much to emulate his boss and how much to change gears. Lopinto, a former state representative who resigned last year to join JPSO, will fill the job as an interim and is planning to compete for the rest of Normand's term in a March special election.
He probably won't get the deference that Normand got a decade ago, if only because this election won't have the same sort of win-one-for-the-Gipper dynamic. Already several candidates from different camps are talking about running against him, including Keith Conley, CAO to Parish President Mike Yenni, and former Parish President John Young. Voters may decide this powerful office has been in this particular political family long enough.
On the other hand, Normand clearly got a boost early on from Lee's popularity and crime-fighting successes, and Lopinto may well enjoy the same advantage. There are certainly worse shoulders to stand on.