Filed Under:  Local, Politics

The Black vote and citizens of Harahan will decide Jeff Sheriff’s Race

5th March 2018   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

It’s neck and neck between Joe Lopinto and John Fortunato for Jefferson Parish Sheriff—at least that was the conclusion of many of the veteran former cops assembled at the Crimefighters meeting at Augie’s Restaurant in Harahan on Saturday, February 24.

Not surprising for a “Victim’s Rights Organization,” the Crimefighters’ Executive Board is mainly comprised of mostly retired NOPD and JPSO senior commanders as well as regional Police Chiefs and four past Presidents of PANO. To say that the Crimefighters leadership watches the pulse of the Jeff Sheriff’s electorate constitutes an understatement, and the assembled generally concluded that Sheriff Joseph Lopinto’s massive ad campaign and outreach efforts had tightened up the race between him and the former Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Col. John Fortunato.

“Both have support within the JPSO,” explained former NOPD and Harahan Chief Peter Dale, a member for the Crimefighters Board and himself a past JP Sheriff contender. The 1500-member Sheriff’s Department is as divided as the public, according to Dale’s fellow insiders on the board, reflecting the factional battle that the race has become between supporters of Newell Normand and Harry Lee on Lopinto’s side and those backers of Jeff President Mike Yenni in Fortunato’s corner.

In part, the race may have tightened since late last year, when a UNO poll showed a massive advantage for Fortunato. Lopinto has countered the 67-year-old’s former PIO’s better name recognition and campaign on the theme of “experience” with a Public Relations outreach demonstrating the Sheriff’s biography—a former JPSO Deputy-turned-Narcotics Detective who attended Loyola Law School at night. Upon winning election to the State House of Representatives from Metairie in 2007, Lopinto went on to chair the Criminal Justice Committee, developing a reputation nationally as one of the leading experts in criminal legal procedure. So much so that his private legal practice he became a must “go to” lawyer for police departments around the nation.

His seasoning in the aspects of “police law” led Newell Normand to call Lopinto back to the JPSO to become its in-house counsel, and to step in as Chief Deputy when Craig Taffaro’s off-duty gambling addiction ran afoul of the IRS—and led to a jail sentence for Normand’s longtime #2—as Lopinto’s legal expertise seemed to be the curative in the subsequent and unexpected resulting administrative crisis. Normand needed a respected legal expert in the job to remove any questions of impropriety. Lopinto was available.

As a result, Lopinto explained to The Louisiana Weekly, that his subsequent ascension to Sheriff was unplanned, refuting the rumors of a long-held succession plan. He just happened to be in the right job at the time. Noting that Normand had only a few days to accept the talk-show hosting job at WWL radio, he left earlier than anyone—including his replacement—ever expected.

Ultimately, Lopinto had less than 48 hours warning that the Sheriff planed to resign. As state law mandates that a chief deputy becomes the sheriff upon resignation or death of his boss, he was thrust into the leadership of the JPSO. Nevertheless, the former legislator—who won election to the State House by beating Harry Lee’s nephew—gladly became the legendary sheriff’s chosen successor’s successor.

Still, the physical difference between the 41-year-old interim sheriff and his 67-year-old challenger tends to bolster Fortunato’s case of experience. The white-haired silver mane of the former PIO as well as his years before the TV cameras (and the passenger seat next to Steven Seagal in the reality show) made Fortunato a familiar presence to most of the Jefferson Parish electorate in a way that Lopinto had trouble matching.

At the commencement of the contest, a “robo-call” survey conducted by the University of New Orleans of 426 respondents revealed that 44 percent of those surveyed said they would vote for Fortunato to just under 19 percent firmly committed for Lopinto. Still, not only did a massive 37 percent say they “were not yet sure,” but the poll only made calls to people with landlines, likely under surveying Lopinto’s support with younger voters.

The poll’s author, Tony Licciardi, a research assistant at UNO’s Survey Research Center, summed up the findings by noting that Fortunato enjoys a lot of familiarity as the longtime face and voice of the department. Most critically, though, the survey showed Fortunato’s support to be stronger on the West Bank. The blue-collar, older electorate on that side of the river forms his base, yet also presents Fortunato with a problem.

Excepting sheriff, all of the competitive elections on March 24, 2018 occur on the East Bank of Jefferson Parish. Primarily, the special election to fill the Constable position for 5th Justice Court between Allen Leone Jr. and Jack Rizzuto constitutes the entirety of Lopinto’s Central Metairie former legislative district, where the interim Sheriff is understandably most popular.

Moreover, while both Lopinto and Fortunato can expect support from Kenner voters turning-out for the Mayoral and Councilmanic elections, Harry Lee’s legacy remains particularly popular in Louisiana’s sixth-largest city, as is the support of Lopinto by his daughter, Parish Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng. In an added benefit, new Parish Councilman Dominick Impastato—who recently defeated Normand ally-Sen. Danny Martiny in a mostly Kenner district—has decided to stay out of the sheriff’s race. Impastato is an old friend of Lopinto’s, despite his affiliation on the other side of Jeff politics.

Nevertheless, Fortunato does have the support of Kenner Mayor Ben Zahn who is expected to coast to victory, so any margin for the interim Sheriff in Kenner should be narrow, if it occurs at all. Many in Kenner point to a tie, unless the Black vote coming out in the majority-minority Democratic District 1 Council race overtly opts for one Republican of the candidates over the other.

Even parishwide, this is true. Both candidates for Sheriff are registered Republicans, so it also remains unclear if Jefferson’s African-American vote, 26 percent of the parish, will opt for a particular contender. The interim Jefferson Parish Sheriff and former Sheriff’s Office Commander and PIO have made inclusive appeals towards the Black electorate. In recent history, more than a few voters in this very Democratic constituency do have a tendency to skip all-GOP races on the local ballot. Still, with no Democrat in the contest, even a small turnout majority of African-American voters anywhere in Jefferson for one of the two leading Republicans could decide the Jefferson Sheriff’s election.

Therefore, with low turnout on the West Bank generally favoring Fortunato, with Metairie opting for Lopinto in slightly higher numbers, and a tightening race in the Kenner, high voter enthusiasm in tiny City of Harahan could make all the difference. And, former Mayor Vinny Mosca estimates a milliage on the ballot could bring out 40 percent of the town’s electorate, giving them a disproportionate impact on the otherwise moderate parish turnout.

On March 24 , the Harahan electorate will be asked next month to approve a controversial new 3-mill property tax to fund maintenance and repairs of the city’s aging sewerage system. The problem is that the new 3 mills would not only come with a corresponding rate increase, but would also cost a property owner $30 a year for each $100,000 of the value of a home or business—outside of the homestead exemption.

As a local tax, the homestead exemption does not apply to the calculation, which—along with anxiety about flooding from Harahan’s aging piping system—should drive turnout of both those ideologically opposed to a new tax in the historically taxophobic town as well as those worried about flooding and in support.

This is where it gets complicated. The political establishment in Harahan has evenly divided between the two candidates, and signs for both men dominate Jefferson Highway. Mayor Tina Miceli supports Fortunato, but Mosca pointed to a private poll commissioned by five local businessmen that shows the incumbent Mayor’s approval rating at 30 percent, leading Mosca to wonder to The Louisiana Weekly if Miceli’s support is a drag on Fortunato as much as a help.

As for Crimefighters, most of the Executive Board opted to endorse Fortunato—in part due Lopinto’s absence from their endorsement forum thanks to an officer-involved shooting forcing the Sheriff to drive to a crime-scene at the last minute on that Saturday night. However, Lopinto has won the lionshare of the other endorsements, including the Alliance for Good Government and the Political Action Committee for the Jefferson Chamber of Commerce.

This article originally published in the March 5, 2018 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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