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For more than a generation, the office of sheriff has been out of reach for ordinary Jefferson Parish politicians. 

Harry Lee, the larger-than-life lawman who served seven terms, faced his last serious opponent in 1987, dispatching former state Sen. Art Lentini in a bare-knuckles runoff.

Lee, who died in 2007, passed the torch to his protégé, Newell Normand, who assumed a similar stranglehold on the office before stepping down unexpectedly last year. 

Lee and Normand were virtually immune to challenge in most election cycles, routinely winning by margins often associated with authoritarian regimes.

So when Jefferson Parish voters go to the polls March 24, many will be confronted with something they've never seen before: a competitive match-up for sheriff.

It's a race that has captivated the electorate and divided the men and women who work at the Sheriff's Office. It also reflects the inevitable splintering of Lee's political family tree, as Normand's hand-picked successor, Joe Lopinto, squares off against John Fortunato, who for years served as Lee's spokesman.

The race will also feature a third candidate, Anthony Bloise, a septuagenarian former submarine builder with no law enforcement experience who took on Normand in 2015 and won 12 percent of the vote.

Except that both are white, male Republicans, their competing claims to Lee's legacy are about all the two major candidates share in common. They present a stark contrast: the brash lifelong lawman Fortunato versus the professorial lawyer and former legislator Lopinto.

The prize is control of one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the state — a position Normand surrendered last summer when he traded in his badge for the bully pulpit of a WWL radio talk show. 

The candidates, who both qualified to run Wednesday, have taken sharply divergent career paths to arrive at this point.

Lopinto joined the Sheriff's Office in 1997, moving up from patrol to narcotics detective before returning to patrol so that he could attend law school at night. He left the agency in 2004 and was in private practice until returning to serve as Normand's executive counsel in 2016. He also mounted successful runs for the Legislature, serving in the House from 2008 until 2016, when he stepped down to rejoin the Sheriff's Office.

Fortunato touts his 46 years with the agency, a tenure that included stints as a detective and commander of the Community Relations Division. He was shot and wounded in the line of duty in 1977 during a gun battle that erupted as he and other deputies approached a man living in a tent in a wooded area of Metairie.

On the campaign trail, they've largely emphasized their respective credentials while seeking to discount the other man's life experience. The one-upmanship is perhaps best illustrated by the candidates' competing campaign slogans. Lopinto has responded to Fortunato's "Experience Matters" signs by posting placards of his own that say "Real Experience Matters." 

Lopinto has made derisive comments about Fortunato's experience, telling WWL-TV recently that "law enforcement has changed tremendously" since Fortunato served in an active policing role. "When was the last time he made an arrest?" he asked. "When's the last time he wrote a report? He's been the spokesperson, that's what he's been." 

Fortunato, in an interview with The Advocate, said that being sheriff is "not about putting people in jail and writing police reports." He said he's better equipped to handle the job because of his years of exposure to the inner workings of the agency, not to mention the countless crime scenes he's seen. 

In interviews, both men expressed an almost haughty confidence that they will come out on top.

"I'm playing the nice guy," Fortunato said last week. "I've taken the high road at every turn." 

Fortunato said he considers himself the front-runner, citing feedback he's received from the community and a favorable — albeit very early — UNO poll that put his support at 44 percent, more than double the 19 percent Lopinto garnered in the survey.

The poll, released last fall shortly before Fortunato announced his candidacy, had a margin of error of about 5 percent. Not surprisingly, it showed Fortunato's support to be stronger on the West Bank, a largely blue-collar electorate that forms his base. 

Fortunato, 66, has reached out to minority voters. "I think it's paramount that law enforcement rebuilds relationships with the people of the parish, and that's folks of all ethnicities," he said. 

He has sought to reassure the office's current rank-and-file, insisting that he doesn't intend to "clean house" if elected. 

Lopinto, 41, enjoys a number of advantages as the incumbent, having taken over in late summer upon Normand's retirement. The ensuing months have been a baptism by fire, as he's learned the ins and outs of heading a sprawling agency that he likens to a corporation with a $125 million budget. 

"The public has to make a decision on who's qualified for this job," Lopinto said. "I go to work everyday and try to make Jefferson Parish a little bit better place. And that's what I'm going to do." 

Lopinto said he doesn't have the ability to make "sweeping changes" in the Sheriff's Office, given financial constraints. But during his brief time at the helm, he said, he's made personnel changes intended to stem turnover at the jail and has sought to improve response times in places like Waggaman by increasing patrols. 

The sheriff said he was undaunted by the early polling that showed his opponent so far ahead, acknowledging Fortunato has greater name recognition. "He's been on television for the last 30 years," Lopinto said. "But no one knew the name Joe Lopinto 10 years ago. And no one knew the name Newell Normand when he first ran."

As he left the office, Normand offered a full-throated endorsement of Lopinto, whom he had installed as chief deputy, saying that no one else in the Sheriff's Office had the skill set needed to take the reins. And he worked in a dig at Fortunato at the same time. "The last three sheriffs (of Jefferson Parish) have been lawyers. I don't know that Johnny has a college degree," Normand told The Advocate last year. 

It's unclear how much weight Normand's voice carries, however. Last fall, he threw his unqualified support behind Danny Martiny for the vacant Parish Council District 4 seat, but Martiny was soundly defeated by Dominick Impastato.

"People are not as impressed by endorsements as they may have been in years past," said Impastato. "It's going to take more than endorsements to win an election."

Perhaps heeding that same maxim, Lopinto has relied little upon Normand in the campaign, seeking to assure voters that he is his "own man." And while Lopinto insists he has not distanced himself from his predecessor, he has emphasized in recent weeks that he became the sheriff "by law," telling supporters at one recent event that "nobody has given me anything." 

Such statements may also be aimed at blunting the impact of one of Fortunato's favorite lines — that "this is not a coronation; it's an election."

Lopinto says he's never seen it any other way. "I proved myself to one man, and there's a reason he named me chief deputy," he said. "But that doesn't convince 439,000 residents." 

Lopinto said it's too early for his campaign to conduct any polling. But as a barometer of his support, he points to his substantial edge over Fortunato in fundraising. He took in about $448,000 over the past four months, campaign finance reports show, compared to about $255,000 for Fortunato over the same time period.

Fortunato dismisses the disparity. 

"Money alone will not buy any election," he said. "My opponent can't outspend the public trust I’ve earned from our community as someone who spent decades fighting crime." 

Qualifying may have marked the official kickoff of the contest, but the two candidates have already been hard at work in what many expect to be a bruising campaign that will have to compete to be heard over the din of Carnival and a Saints playoff run.

"I think it's going to be very heated," said Cynthia Lee-Sheng, an at-large Parish Council member and the daughter of former Sheriff Lee, who describes herself as a fan of Fortunato but is backing Lopinto. "It's a big election."


Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.