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Chasing History 

A diagnosis of cancer typically raises concerns about a political incumbent's vulnerability at election time. That has not been the case with Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee as he seeks an eighth consecutive four-year term, even though doctors last week discovered a recurrence of the aggressive leukemia he has. No political opponent has surfaced since Lee first announced his cancer diagnosis on April 17.

The sheriff, 75, vows to beat both acute myeloid leukemia and anyone who dares to run against him in the Oct. 20 primary election. Come spring, that would make Lee the longest-serving sheriff in parish history. As of last week, only the cancer seemed to stand in his way.

"I really don't expect to have a serious challenger," Lee told Gambit Weekly. "There's always some wannabes out there who will put up $450 (for qualifying fees), but I don't expect a serious opponent. That may sound arrogant, but it's a fact."

Qualifying is Sept. 4-6. A runoff election, if needed, is scheduled for Nov. 17.

Lee has not been forced into a runoff in 20 years. He beat Republican Art Lentini in 1987 with roughly 54 percent of the total vote. He was first elected sheriff in 1979. He qualified for the governor's race in 1995 but withdrew.

Today, Lee enjoys popularity beyond Jefferson Parish. In fact, a poll conducted in April by Ed Renwick showed Lee was the most popular public figure among voters in the Orleans, Jefferson and St. Tammany metro area. Among Jefferson Parish voters, he had an 81 percent "positive" rating.

If money is the milk of politics, Lee has a virtual cash cow for the fall elections. A self-described "Lindy Boggs Democrat" in a conservative, suburban parish, the sheriff predicts his campaign war chest could top $500,000 after his anual Fais Do Do fundraiser over the weekend. "I expect to raise $200,000 to $250,000 this time," Lee says. As of July 12, his campaign reported $259,258 in funds "on hand." That's $49,006 more than his 2003 campaign had in the bank during roughly the same time. Under longtime campaign manager Michael O'Brien, Lee's 2007 re-election campaign raised more than $60,000 a month during the three months following Lee's disclosure that he had cancer. His Fais Do Do fundraiser was sold out before he announced his acute myeloid leukemia had returned.

The sheriff, who underwent experimental chemotherapy treatments for his leukemia, has obviously lost hair and some energy, but he says he has retained sufficient "piss and vinegar" to remain in office.

History is replete with examples of presidents and world leaders who have concealed illnesses from their constituents: from John F. Kennedy's steroid abuse to the Shah of Iran, who successfully hid his leukemia but became too ill to stop the Islamic Revolution that deposed him.

In contrast, voters are kept well-informed about Lee's health problems, which include two hip replacements, two knee replacements, diabetes and prostate cancer. He calls press conferences. His office issues news alerts. And more than once, the sheriff has turned an adverse health condition into a fundraiser for charity, usually Children's Hospital. For example, battling obesity during the 1990s, Lee once decided to go on a diet -- and he ordered his top commanders to join him in a pledges-for-pounds benefit. (They lost more weight than he did.)

Lee can make history as the longest-serving sheriff of Jefferson Parish -- even in the unlikely event he opts not to seek re-election, says Frank Borne Jr., president of the Jefferson Historical Society of Louisiana and an aide to the parish Clerk of Court. Lee needs to stay in office only through March 31, 2008, to tie the record of 28 years set by the late Sheriff Frank Clancy (1928-1956). "Every day thereafter is a day exceeding Clancy's tenure," Bourne says. "At this point, Sheriff Lee need not win another term to make the record, he simply has to stay in office until April 1."

Lee first took office on April 1, 1980, after beating incumbent Al Cronvich in a November 1979 runoff election. His current term expires June 30, 2008.

Freelance journalist Allen Johnson Jr. holds a master's degree in political science from Tulane University. He wrote his thesis on the effects of ill health on political leadership, citing Soviet leaders Lenin and Joseph Stalin as case studies. He can be reached at allenmct@gmail.com

click to enlarge CHERYL GERBER
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