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From beating Lee to becoming Sheriff, Newell Normand retires

31st July 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

The Sheriff of Jefferson Parish is the closest thing to an elected medieval king that exists in the United States. He not only is the tax collector for all other parochial offices, but he has exclusive control of his own budget, as well as the hiring and firing of his own officers.

Between patronage and the power of his “knights,” the Jeff Sheriff dominates parish politics, and effectively serves for life—if he so chooses. Newell Normand did not, unlike his mentor Harry Lee.

Serving for decades as Lee’s Chief Deputy, Normand only opted for the top job upon the death of the famed ‘Cajun Chinese Cowboy’ in 2007 — ever the loyal lieutenant and friend. Yet, a decade later, Normand chose for his successor the man who defeated Lee’s nephew for the legislature in that same election year.

It is a testament to the confidence that former State Representative Joe Lopinto had built with incumbent Sheriff Normand that the candidate who risked Harry Lee’s displeasure—in the most inauspicious of years, just months before Lee’s sudden death and Normand’s subsequent election with 91 percent of the vote—would just a few years later leave the legislature to become the JPSO’s Chief in-house Attorney, and now its leader.

Per the office’s succession plan, Lopinto, the Sheriff’s Office’s current Chief of Operations and Chief Criminal Deputy, will be sworn in to replace Normand upon his retirement on August 31, and the 59-year-old departing incumbent will replace Garland Robinette as a talk show host on WWL Radio.

“I have the full faith and confidence in Joe Lopinto,” Normand declared at his press conference last Tuesday. Lopinto added, after confirming he will run for sheriff in a special election likely to be held in the spring, that he “been thrown into the deep end, but I believe I can swim.”

It wouldn’t be the first time. In 2007, the political stars had aligned for Glenn Lee’s election to the legislature. The powerful Louisiana Association of Business & Industry’s SouthPAC, prominent Jefferson Republicans, and most of the parish’s political establishment had united behind the candidacy of the Sheriff’s nephew. Glenn Lee had spent months building up support to make his candidacy a proverbial “fait accompli.” Few gave Joe Lopinto a chance.

Moreover, Harry Lee was outspoken in his support of his nephew, urging several potential candidates not to challenge him for the open seat. (One such exchange, the author personally witnessed.).

Yet, the Sheriff could not dismiss Joe Lopinto so easily. Anyone else would have drawn the ire of the powerful “Lee Machine.” But, Joe, the son of the legendary police officer, and himself and noted cop before going to law school, carried credibility within the JPSO.

Moreover, it was hard not to like Lopinto. Beside his very genial nature, Lopinto, like his father before him, had dedicated himself to civic activities so constantly, one wondered when he had any free time.

Coaching playground sports, running small fundraisers, and generally helping out wherever he was needed, Lopinto had developed a following unique amongst young politicians. He might not of been a player in the rarefied worlds of the GOP establishment, but everyone knew Joe and his Dad, and these grateful citizens came out to help.

Running from a district in central Metairie, people emerged from the woodwork to put up signs and organize for Lopinto. The happy onslaught astonished supporters of Glenn Lee. The first clue of a Lopinto wave came when police union officials encouraged the local AFL-CIO to back Lopinto over Lee.

The real shocker emerged when despite the backing of the party Brahmins, Glenn Lee lost the vote for the official Jefferson GOP endorsement to Joe Lopinto—when rank and file executive committee members opted to defy their leadership.

Then, Harry Lee died. The emotional outcry of grief and familial loyalty should’ve been enough to elect Glenn Lee, but Joe Lopinto handled the situation tactfully. He had never uttered anything less than a compliment about the sheriff, so Lopinto’s legitimate grief at Harry Lee’s funeral was genuinely accepted.

On election night, it wasn’t even close. Lopinto defeated Lee in the all-Republican contest 58.6 percent with the vote. In the legislature, he served as the resident expert on criminal justice matters, developing into a close ally of the new Sheriff Newell Normand. So, when the JPSO needed a new in-house attorney, he called Joe. Such an effective Deputy Lopinto proved to be, that the one-time adversary of the “Lee Machine” is now its equal inheritor at the young age of 41 — along with Harry’s daughter Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng.

Lopinto said early Wednesday morning, “I want to thank all of you for the unbelievable support that you have offered me today through the calls, texts, Facebook messages, etc. I am trying to respond to each of them individually, but now I am waking people up because I’m not sleeping. Obviously my world has flipped upside down this week, but I am extremely proud to be working back for the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff Newell Normand and Sheriff Harry Lee were great role models to me over my career, but my biggest success is the respect that I have earned from the men and women of the JPSO. I never imagined when I graduated the Police academy in 1997 that I would ever be in a position to lead this organization. Thank you again for being there for Lauren Vuljoin Lopinto and I, we are overwhelmed and blessed.”

This article originally published in the July 31, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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