If you like Louisiana politics, you gotta love Jefferson Parish these days. When qualifying ended at 4:30 p.m. on Aug. 8, it took only minutes for the gloves to come off in the sheriff’s race — a rematch between incumbent Joe Lopinto and the man he beat by 3,300 votes in a special election 17 months ago, former deputy and Sheriff's Office spokesman John Fortunato.
Unlike their first contest, Lopinto begins this race as a decided favorite. Last time, Fortunato’s decades as the spokesman for beloved late Sheriff Harry Lee made him a household name; Lopinto was barely known outside his former legislative district in Metairie.
In fact, many suspect Lopinto owed his victory to a gaffe by Fortunato in the final stages of their bitter runoff contest, which capped a special election to succeed Newell Normand, who resigned suddenly several months earlier to become a WWL Radio talk show host.
In a televised debate 13 days before their showdown, Fortunato said he supported scandalized Jefferson Parish President Mike Yenni’s decision not to resign after he was exposed for sexting a 17-year-old boy. He then said he would support Yenni for re-election.
You could almost hear the gasps among parish voters. Fortunato’s campaign imploded.
Governor's race and Jefferson Parish matchups could provide fireworks
This go-round, Yenni announced hours before qualifying ended that he would not seek re-election, which surprised no one. Fortunato, meanwhile, had given no public hints of another run for the sheriff’s job. Then, only minutes before qualifying ended, he joined the race. Up to that point, Lopinto appeared poised to coast back into office — his only other opponent being Anthony Bloise, a retired shipbuilder who ran for sheriff twice before.
Then Lopinto dropped a bombshell. He called me 20 minutes after qualifying closed and said he had called the FBI and the state Attorney General’s office several hours before Fortunato qualified to report that “several people” had reached out to him, allegedly on Fortunato’s behalf, to say his former adversary would not run against him if the sheriff would help Fortunato land a job as chief of the Causeway Police, an appointed position which is currently vacant. Lopinto, an attorney, said he was concerned the offers, if coming from Fortunato, violated bribery and other laws.
The easiest thing to do in politics is kill a tax proposition. Even modest opposition typically sows enough doubt to convince voters to say “no.”
Over the past four-plus decades, I’ve heard hundreds of rumors of similar political hijinks, but never had a high-ranking public official gone on the record about it. A spokesman for the AG’s office confirmed that it had received a complaint; the FBI, per Department of Justice policy, had no comment.
Fortunato shot back quickly, saying in a prepared statement, "You know how desperate and scared Joe Lopinto is to come up with a story like that. I don’t know whether to laugh at him or cry for him." He suggested that certain crimes were on the rise in Jefferson, and he referenced recent violence in the parish jail before concluding, “That’s why we need a professional law enforcement officer, not a politician, as our sheriff.”
The two men’s most recent campaign finance reports showed Fortunato with no money left, and Lopinto with $59,000. Both men, however, have an inexhaustible supply of bitterness toward each other. This one will be interesting to watch.