Bold but devoid of flair, the billboards declare a widely embraced fact of life in Jefferson Parish: Newell Normand is sheriff.
The black-and-white advertisements, posted recently along busy roadways on both sides of the river, remind motorists of this in two words — “NORMAND SHERIFF” — omitting any mention of voting or the approaching election. And given Normand’s enormous popularity, a stature he inherited from Harry Lee, his larger-than-life predecessor, his prospects for winning a third term fall somewhere between highly likely and foregone conclusion.
His re-election bid has been so low-key, in fact, that voters could be forgiven for failing to notice the sheriff even drew a challenger. For his part, Normand has been so unperturbed by his opponent — Anthony Bloise, a political neophyte and Bridge City resident — that he doesn’t know how to pronounce the man’s name. (It rhymes with “noise.”)
In a David-versus-Goliath contest, the most powerful man in Jefferson Parish politics faces a septuagenarian former submarine builder with no law enforcement experience.
The Republican incumbent boasts a seven-figure campaign war chest and a laundry list of endorsements; the independent challenger has raised no funds and made only a handful of public appearances.
“Anybody who wants to run obviously has the right to run,” Normand said. “I don’t own this office. The public has entrusted it to me.”
Still, the only question come Oct. 24 may be whether the sheriff can eclipse the outlandish margin of victory he registered four years ago, when he garnered 91 percent of the vote.
Normand succeeded Lee in 2007 in almost identical fashion, crushing three contenders in the kind of landslide more often associated with authoritarian regimes.
“He is the most popular elected official in the New Orleans metropolitan region,” said Ed Chervenak, a political scientist at the University of New Orleans who tracks local elections. “He’s got an 80 percent job approval rating and all kinds of political capital.”
Normand, 57, flirted with a gubernatorial bid but decided he had more to accomplish at the helm of a well-funded Sheriff’s Office that prides itself on cutting-edge technology and intelligence-led policing.
“A good leader knows when it’s time to leave,” Normand said, “and when I get to that point, and I know that my effectiveness around here and the zest and the yearn that I have to improve this organization wanes, I’m confident in my ability to look at myself critically in the mirror and call it a day.”
After eight years in office, Normand still stands in the shadow of Lee, a celebrated lawman who held the office for seven terms. He senses it in exchanges with constituents, who complain of having a surfeit of Harry Lee magnets but not a single one of Normand. “I’m not a magnet kind of guy,” he said.
Normand credits a good measure of his popularity to Lee’s legacy — “I’ve been the beneficiary of all of Harry’s positives and none of his negatives” — but is quick to note differences in his own administration and leadership style. Normand said he has taken a far more analytical, if not academic, approach to law enforcement, investing Sheriff’s Office resources in technology that promises to reduce crime.
“I like turning the wrenches, tweaking the operations,” he said. “I want this organization to be the most intellectual organization not only in the state but in the country.”
Though it can be difficult to discern from election returns, the sheriff does have his critics, including the one quietly gunning for his job.
Bloise, who believes his greatest liability to be his Brooklyn accent, attacked Normand’s credibility in a recent interview, saying the Sheriff’s Office appears to be in disarray, especially when it comes to tax sales.
He has likened Normand to President Vladimir Putin of Russia and said that narcotics are being smuggled into the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center at an unprecedented clip.
“I don’t believe a lot of his story,” Bloise said of Normand, vowing to expose exaggerations in the sheriff’s résumé. “His delivery is just so polished and he’s dressed to a T. It comes off as a fraud. He’s the exact type of person I look and say, ‘He’s going to pick my pocket.’ ”
Interviews with former high-ranking deputies painted a conflicting portrait of Normand.
Frank Graff, a former deputy chief, described the sheriff as quick-thinking and someone who commands the respect of subordinates. “You can’t (BS) him,” Graff said. “Newell is a very intelligent man.”
On the other hand, one former district commander, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about his former boss, described Normand as overly bookish and aloof.
While Bloise’s background is in math and physics, Normand entered law enforcement nearly four decades ago, working for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office under longtime Sheriff Charles Foti.
In 1978, Normand and other members of the Alliance for Good Government created a Jefferson Parish chapter of the organization, which endorsed Lee the following year in his bid to unseat embattled Sheriff Al Cronvich.
Normand met Lee at a candidate forum for the first time. “We shook hands, and that was about it,” Normand recalled. “We developed a very close bond almost immediately. I think he saw a lot of him in me.”
Normand soon began working for the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, where he became Lee’s driver and confidant and ascended the ranks of the department. In 1995, after serving as the agency’s comptroller, Normand was appointed chief criminal deputy.
“Harry had great confidence in Newell and relied heavily on his advice and judgment,” said Deno Seder, author of “Wild About Harry: A Biography of Harry Lee.” “I think Harry felt that Newell — his background and impeccable qualifications — represented what was needed for the future leadership of the JPSO. And history has proven Harry right.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.