The torch of Jefferson Parish law enforcement officially passed Thursday, going in a few brief moments from Sheriff Newell Normand, who has loomed over the parish's political life for a decade, to Joe Lopinto, a lesser-known but nevertheless experienced former patrolman, detective and legislator.
The half-hour ceremony was made necessary last month when Normand, in a move that shocked many, announced he would step down from leading the parish's largest law enforcement agency in favor of a spot behind a radio microphone, taking over the daily talk show spot on WWL-AM long occupied by Garland Robinette.
Normand's first day on the air will be Sept. 11.
Lopinto will serve as interim sheriff until a March special election in which he will be a candidate.
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Fittingly, it was the outgoing sheriff who opened Thursday's ceremony, quieting the crowd by counting to three and then saying "Sh-sh-sh" loudly into the microphone.
Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand — the most powerful elected official in Louisiana's …
"I think I am going to miss doing that," Normand said, to laughs. "Or maybe not."
After urging those who packed the Jefferson Parish Council chambers to show Lopinto the same support they have shown him, he thanked the crowd and received a standing ovation.
He then introduced Judge Stephen Windhorst, who administered the oath of office to a smiling Lopinto, who was joined by his wife, Lauren, and 6-year-old twins, Lily and Joey.
Oath taken and applause finished, the 41-year old Lopinto thanked family members and supporters, getting emotional when he mentioned Normand and delivering bouquets to his wife, Normand's wife Shawn, and his mother, mother-in-law and stepmother-in-law.
Lopinto promised that the Sheriff's Office would evolve under his leadership.
"We don't ever stay stagnant," he said. "We have to match the perpetrators, the challenges of the current budget" among other things, he said.
He also vowed to put a good team around him, saying he will not face those challenges alone.
"It's not one person that does that," he said, adding that he was not nervous but excited to take up the post.
Afterward, Lopinto said most observers won't see much change in the Sheriff's Office in the near term.
After Newell Normand announced his retirement Tuesday, the Jefferson Parish sheriff's chief …
"911's going to get answered. Our guys are still going to go out," he said. The only visible change would be "the name at the bottom of the paycheck," he added.
Behind the scenes, however, Lopinto has to make some moves. He has to fill the position he held as chief of operations and he has to appoint a chief deputy, he noted.
He has ideas on changes, but those likely won't come into play until later, he said. "You don't flip a switch and have change," he said.
He also vowed that his campaign would not interfere with his duties as sheriff.
"If I run the office right, the campaign will take care of itself," he said.
There is little doubt that Lopinto goes into the March election with the wind at his back: He will have more than six months at the helm of the office and, perhaps even more important, Normand's blessing.
"It's all better when you know you are leaving the office in the hands of somebody very qualified," Normand said.
Nevertheless, several other experienced politicos have said they are considering a run for the job, including former Parish President John Young and Keith Conley, the top aide to current President Mike Yenni.
Two current or former high-ranking deputies also reportedly are considering runs: Col. John Fortunato, the department's longtime chief spokesman, and former Chief Deputy Craig Taffaro, who is facing a possible indictment on tax evasion charges.
Whoever decides to get into the race, the campaign is likely to be spirited. Sheriffs in Jefferson Parish have typically wielded significant political power beyond their department. Normand was no exception to that maxim, and the lure of that clout will likely be strong.
For Lopinto, the opportunity to lead an agency where he got his start is a "humbling" experience, he said.
He started with the Sheriff's Office as a patrol deputy and narcotics detective before getting his law degree at Loyola University and entering private practice.
Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand stunned his constituents — and the New Orleans polit…
A Republican, he was elected to the District 80 seat in the House of Representatives in 2008 and served until stepping down in 2016 to become the in-house legal counsel for the Sheriff's Office. In June, Normand tapped him to replace Taffaro as chief of operations and chief criminal deputy.
The primary is March 24. A runoff, if necessary, will be April 28.