Like any seasoned politician, Vinny Mosca relishes the homestretch of a hard-fought election. And if for no other reason, the former Harahan mayor has followed the current Jefferson Parish sheriff's race for its sheer entertainment factor.
Such a high-stakes contest is not unlike the Super Bowl, Mosca said, in that the advertisements get "better and better" as election day draws closer.
"I'll be undecided until all of the commercials have been shown on television," said Mosca, who has made modest contributions to both Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joe Lopinto and his challenger, John Fortunato. "For me, it's just still too early."
On-the-fence voters like Mosca will be the focus of both candidates as the race enters its final three weeks. The airwaves will be inundated — and the yard-signs war escalated — as the two campaigns empty their coffers ahead of the March 24 face-off.
Each candidate considers himself the front-runner, but polling on both sides suggests the race remains closer than either candidate expected, making this end sprint all the more critical.
To the extent that financial contributions are a barometer of support, Lopinto holds a significant advantage over Fortunato — an edge that could boost his name recognition in a likely low-turnout election.
"It's going to be all about who can get their people to the polls, and having that money available is going to make that easier to accomplish," said Ed Chervenak, director of the University of New Orleans Survey Research Center. "Television ads will continue to have the most influence because they have the broadest reach."
Lopinto's campaign contributions have dwarfed Fortunato's throughout the race. As of mid-February, campaign finance reports show, the sheriff had raked in nearly $1.1 million, compared with about $400,000 for Fortunato.
Lopinto also has outspent his opponent, shelling out more than $722,000 for television spots, direct mail, special events and campaign materials. Fortunato had spent just $163,000 through mid-February, saving some firepower for a post-Carnival offensive. His TV ads have run frequently in recent days.
About a month before the primary, the reports show Lopinto had about $406,000 on hand compared to Fortunato's $238,000.
"I'm going to continue to do everything I can to get my résumé out to the voters," Lopinto said, describing a strategy that includes a heavy emphasis on social media. "My opponent wants to portray me as the politician in the race, but I'm not relying on endorsements. I'm running on my qualifications."
Fortunato said he is undaunted by Lopinto's enviable war chest. He said he received $10,000 in a single day last week — a sum not included in the most recent campaign finance reports — and he received a phone call in the middle of an interview with The New Orleans Advocate informing him of more contributions coming in.
Six weeks before Jefferson Parish voters choose their sheriff, Joe Lopinto and John Fortunato each can chart a path to victory in the March 24…
"I'm extremely pleased at the outpouring of support I've received, from Kenner to Grand Isle," Fortunato said. "I'd say $400,000 is not bad for a guy who's never run for public office before."
Fortunato's media consultant, Greg Buisson, said he believes the fundraising gap is "far closer than the reports show" based on the past week or so of activity. "I think we have enough to do what we need to do," Buisson said. "I feel good about this race."
Although Lopinto has held office since last summer — assuming the role upon the unexpected retirement of Newell Normand — he began the campaign as an unknown to many Jefferson Parish voters.
Early polls suggested Fortunato, having spent three decades as the Sheriff's Office's chief spokesman, was a far more familiar face, even though Lopinto served two terms as a state lawmaker before stepping down to become Normand's in-house attorney and, later, his chief deputy.
Fortunato and Lopinto have made such disparate pitches to voters that it sometimes seems like they are running for different offices.
Fortunato has portrayed himself as a no-nonsense, old-fashioned lawman who will put public safety above everything.
Lopinto likens the job to being chief executive officer of a major company, pointing to the agency's $125 million budget and 1,500 employees. He cites historic lows in crime in the parish and says there's only so much a sheriff can do to prevent certain crimes.
Campaign finance reports suggest that Lopinto has emerged as the establishment favorite, receiving contributions from several local officeholders, law firms and contractors that do business with the largest law enforcement organization in the state. He also is supported by a number of political action committees as well as businessman Shane Guidry, the biggest Republican contributor in Louisiana politics, who has given Lopinto $75,000 through his various companies and raised another $50,000 for him.
Political donors may give only $5,000 to a candidate in each election cycle in their own name, but they may also legally give the same amount through each company they control.
Guidry, a Jefferson Parish resident and a longtime former reserve deputy in the Sheriff's Office, described the difference between the candidates as "night and day." Fortunato, he said, "is just a jokester," adding that everything he does "is just a joke and a prank."
"Joe brings a level of professionalism and experience that Newell brought and that Harry Lee brought," said Guidry. "It's important to have the right sheriff. You're going to be dealing with him for four years."
Fortunato has described his support as more grass-roots than his opponent's.
One of his supporters, Juliette O'Connor, 71, of Metairie, said Lopinto left a "bad taste" in her mouth when he "threw his deputies under the bus" by publicly chastising them for their retrieval of a coffeehouse surveillance video that showed Fortunato meeting with two of his former colleagues last fall.
An internal affairs investigation later found that Lopinto, in fact, had asked for a copy of the footage, even though he initially told The New Orleans Advocate that his deputies retrieved it on their own initiative.
A newly released internal probe says Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joe Lopinto asked one of his deputies to obtain surveillance footage of a coffee…
O'Connor rarely contributes to political campaigns but gave $50 to Fortunato after she became disillusioned with Lopinto and his "squirrelly demeanor."
"It made me upset that he just stood in front of the cameras and lied about it," O'Connor said. "I saw recently that my neighbor had a Lopinto sign up, and I thought, 'Well, I'd better get me one for Fortunato.' "
Staff writer Faimon A. Roberts III contributed to this report.