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The Loss of Lee 

In an age when schools, buildings and sculptures are dedicated to the memories of deceased leaders, the only monuments to the late Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee last week were thousands of toy bobble-head dolls and refrigerator magnets the sheriff had made (in his own likeness) and distributed at Carnival parades. 'In a way that's a guy after my own heart," local U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, a New Orleans native, chuckles. 'We have enough narcissistic politicians out there who try to build monuments to themselves. Harry Lee's monuments to himself are a citizenry who relied on him to keep them safe and a great sheriff's office."

Lee, a self-described Chinese Cajun cowboy, died last Monday, Oct. 1, of a fatal form of leukemia at the age of 75. He had served as Jefferson's sheriff for more than 27 years. Along the way, he changed the political landscape not only of Jefferson Parish but also of Louisiana.

The refrigerator magnets he tossed at carnival parades " from a float titled 'Lee-siana" " were a fitting metaphor; Lee was a magnet for controversy throughout his tenure as sheriff. More often than not, the controversies that followed him were the results of things he said, not things he did.

And yet, he was politically unassailable, even among the African-American citizens who sometimes bristled at his comments. Lee's larger-than-life persona combined an external toughness with a heart as big as his nearly 400-pound frame " along with a rare (at least, in politics) ability to laugh at himself.

'There will never be another Harry Lee," mused pollster Ed Renwick, a veteran political analyst in New Orleans.

What does the loss of Lee mean to local law enforcement?

'We don't know yet," U.S. Attorney Letten says. 'His loss to this community is huge. Harry Lee was someone who put his entire heart and soul into doing what he believed was right and aggressively protecting the citizens he served. Under his leadership, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office has become one of the finest and most efficient local law enforcement agencies in the United States."

The popular sheriff leaves an experienced chain of command and an efficient organization that will 'survive his passing," Letten adds. 'I believe that the real legacy of Harry Lee is going to be the continued efficiency of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office."

On a personal level, Lee was also the proverbial 'friend indeed to a friend in need." Former Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick Sr. recalls the time the popular sheriff testified on Connick's behalf at the DA's federal racketeering trial in 1990. The two men met years earlier, when Lee was a federal magistrate (1971-75) and Connick was an assistant U.S. Attorney. They both left the federal courthouse to pursue their respective political careers.

In 1989, Connick was indicted on charges he tried to return gambling records to convicted bookmaker Walton Aucoin. 'Harry said, "I did the same thing Harry Connick did and nothing happened to me," Connick recalled last week. 'The fact that Harry came forward and testified assisted me in my endeavors."

Outside of court, gambler Aucoin told WWL-TV cameraman Willie Wilson that the 'odds" favored Connick's acquittal. The bookie was right. Connick was acquitted of all charges, thanks in great measure to Lee's testimony. (Aucoin and other bookies in the case were convicted.)

Locally renowned for his charitable bent, Lee's campaign finance reports are filled with donations to schools, civic groups and churches.

On July 22, Lee paid $700 for a 'charity fishing trip" with local fishing guide Myron Gaudet, who took the sheriff fishing at least once a week for more than a decade. 'He gave away many fishing trips to charities," Gaudet recalls. 'He was also a helluva fisherman himself. He could catch fish in the worst weather, when nobody else would even dare to go out." Gaudet also recalls Lee promising him that if he could put the sheriff onto a 7-pound speckled trout, Lee would treat Gaudet, a fan of thoroughbred racing, to a trip to the Kentucky Derby. Sure enough, several years ago Lee landed a 7-and-a-half pound speck. 'The first thing he said when we weighed that fish was, "We're going to the Derby,'" Gaudet says. 'And we did."

On July 13, Lee donated $100 to the Chinese Presbyterian Church in Kenner, where the Lee family worshipped. After his death, it was revealed that Lee wanted to leave his entire campaign war chest " last reported at more than $300,000 " to the church. State law allows giving campaign money to IRS-recognized charities.

On June 18, he donated $1,085 to the New Orleans office of the American Cancer Society.

The last campaign finance report Lee filed also underscores his unique blend of political power and a sense of humor.

A Sept. 18 report, bearing the sheriff's signature, notes cash on hand of $306,810.55. The report lists a donation by Lee of $1,300 to the Hillary Clinton for President campaign on July 13, in addition to a $2,300 donation to the Democratic party front-runner earlier this year. Lee also endorsed Republican Bobby Jindal for Governor.

On July 20, Lee spent $1,074 of his campaign cash at China Bead Man, 1009 McDermott Road in Metairie " for 'bobble head dolls."

Lee's annual Fais Do-Do fundraisers typically raised at least $250,000 a year " even after Hurricane Katrina. He once estimated that during a 10-year period ending in 2000, his longtime campaign manager Michael O'Brien raised $5 million for the sheriff's campaigns at the annual extravaganza.

'A core group of 10 to 12 people organized the Fais Do-Do, from April to July " Michael O'Brien, his wife and two daughters," Lee once said. After each event, Lee rewarded his campaign nucleus with a campaign-funded trip to Las Vegas. 'Mike never goes; he never likes to go," Lee said. So, one year, the sheriff took O'Brien and his wife to Rome.

Whereas most political fundraisers attract wealthy contributors, Lee's Fais Do-Do was a blue-collar affair. 'The mayors and the people that give out the big contracts can have 1,000 people at $500 a ticket," Lee once said. 'I have 5,000 people at $100 (a ticket). I have a lot of deputies that buy $100 tickets."

Harry Lee was a political enigma, even to himself. On some issues, he said, he was a 'flaming liberal." On other issues, 'I'm to the right of Attila the Hun."

He was pro-choice on abortion. 'I can't think of a worse thing to do than to bring a child into a world without love," he once said. He declared himself 'ambivalent" about the death penalty, except in the case of child murders " anyone who killed a child deserved to die.

He favored 'good time" laws for the early release of convicted felons, citing the expense of medical care for elderly inmates. As the parish jailer, he said it was important to give 'hope" to the incarcerated. 'You take away hope and you'll have nothing but suicides and riots," he once told the Boston Globe.

He also supported gay rights " 'I think in employment and housing they should be treated like everybody else." Any gay deputies on the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office could expect job protection and promotions, if qualified, he said. At the same time, Lee blanched at the thought of gays 'parading down the street kissing and hugging" " a sight he was spared in conservative Jefferson Parish.

On matters of race, he was much more complicated than the race-baiting caricature his critics claimed him to be. For example, he urged fellow Asian Americans to avoid affirmative action programs. An Asian magazine once called him a cross between John Wayne and Chairman Mao " tough and smart.

He fought allegations that he was racist after his notorious 1986 'stop blacks" order to deputies patrolling white neighborhoods and similar, subsequent directives. The racism charges dogged Lee the rest of his life. His supporters, black and white alike, say the sheriff was candid to his own detriment " but not racist. 'Harry Lee has never impressed me as having a racist bone in his body," Edwin Lombard, a longtime friend of the sheriff and an African-American appellate court judge, once said.

But, last week, civil rights lawyer Ron Wilson mourned the passing of an opportunity lost.

'With his power base, he could have done a lot of things to bring people together, but instead he used it as a divisive force," Wilson said. 'That's unfortunately part of Harry's legacy. What could have been " never was."

Or was it?

Lee attempted racial reconciliation at times " usually after one of his notorious stray comments, after which he would meet with black ministers and other leaders. Critics surmised that Lee alienated blacks to boost his standing among conservative white constituents.

But the politically enigmatic Lee is not so easily explained.

In 1996, a crime wave threatened to overwhelm black New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial and one of Lee's fishing buddies, NOPD Chief Richard Pennington. Lee volunteered 40 deputies to the city to shore up the undermanned NOPD. In an emotional address, the sheriff told the New Orleans City Council that good neighbors help each other when one has a 'barn burning down."

Lee's generous gesture infuriated crime-weary whites in Jefferson Parish. 'I got more crap from my people here than you can imagine," he said later. 'I knew I was going to get that problem, but I thought it was the right thing to do."

Lee often began news media interviews the same way he announced anti-crime initiatives " bluntly. 'If my choice is lying to you or offending you, I'm going to offend you," he once told us. 'Because you can forgive me for offending you, but you cannot forgive me for lying to you."

He did not forsake friends, even convicted felons. After the federal corruption conviction in 2000 of longtime friend and political ally Edwin Edwards, Lee announced he would be the first to visit the former governor in prison.

Lee also wanted to throw a post-impeachment fais do-do on the White House lawn for President Bill Clinton.

Not many know that Harry Lee's last name was really 'Gee." The name 'Lee" was a forgery on family immigration papers.

He was born Aug. 27, 1932, in the back of the family's Chinese laundry on Carondelet Street. Lee's father, Lee Bing and his mother, Yip Shee, were immigrants from Taishan, in the province of Canton in southwest China. Lee had seven brothers and sisters. They were all required to work as children.

Harry attended John A. Shaw Elementary School, where he was elected student body president. After school and on weekends he worked at the family-owned Hoy Sun restaurant and bar, 610 S. Rampart St., in a black section of segregated New Orleans. Fights were frequent. If a fight broke out, Harry was instructed to find the cop walking the beat. Bing would fire three shots from a pistol into a railroad tie he kept behind the bar. 'The place would empty out immediately because nobody knew where the shots were coming from," Lee later recalled. No one was ever killed, but 'we had some serious cuttings." Hoy closed in 1946.

Lee attended Francis T. Nicholls High School, where he graduated as both senior class president and student body president.

Lee's father wanted him to become a miner, go to China, and mine a fortune. In college, Lee almost became a geologist, but a college professor dissuaded him. He graduated from LSU in 1956 with a bachelor of science degree in geology. He played on LSU's tennis team. His fellow seniors voted him most likely to succeed, even though he finished in the bottom half of his class. 'I never was a good student," he recalled.

In 1964, at the age of 32, Lee served as president of the Louisiana Restaurant Association. Though some civil rights activists disagree, restaurateurs credited Lee's leadership with the relatively peaceful integration of local eating establishments after enactment of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. He met his political mentor, Hale Boggs, a liberal Democrat, while lobbying for restaurants in Washington. Boggs took Lee under his wing and made him his driver and protégé.

In 1967, Lee earned a law degree from Loyola University, where he served as president of the student bar association. But law bored him. With Boggs' backing, Lee became the first federal magistrate for the 13-parish Eastern District of Louisiana.

Lee said he released so many federal prisoners on writs of habeas corpus that another federal judge referred to him as a 'slant-eyed Abraham Lincoln." Lee said he recommended clemency for half the prisoners who appeared before him.

In 1972, he accompanied Boggs and then-Congressman and future President Gerald Ford to China. Lee was the first Chinese-American to visit China since the communist takeover in 1949. Boggs took Lee because he thought the sheriff could speak Chinese and serve as his interpreter, former U.S. Rep. Lindy Boggs later recalled. Lee said he only spoke a little 'Cajun Cantonese" but did not tell the congressman until they were already behind the Great Wall.

In 1979, Lee ran for sheriff, passing out fortune cookies. He upset incumbent Al Cronvich, a fellow Democrat, and took office on April 1, 1980.

By all accounts, Lee enjoyed his next 27 years as a powerful, colorful and controversial sheriff. 'Power is where the action is," he once said. At the time of his death, Lee was the second-longest-serving sheriff in Jefferson Parish history.

He used his power to establish Jefferson Parish as a safe, family destination, particularly at Carnival time. Astride his hallmark 'Lee-siana" float, the charismatic Lee and scores of deputies would toss thousands of Harry Lee dolls, magnets and 'bobble heads" " each one a tiny monument to an enigmatic icon, the likes of which Jefferson Parish will never see again.

click to enlarge Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee sits in his office with a collection of duck decoys and holding a Harry Lee doll. - TRACIE MORRIS SCHAEFER
  • Tracie Morris Schaefer
  • Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee sits in his office with a collection of duck decoys and holding a Harry Lee doll.
click to enlarge After 27 years as sheriff of Jefferson Parish, a beloved Harry Lee lost his battle with leukemia. The Loss of Lee Controversy, safe streets and bobble-head dolls are among Harry Lee's legacies. There will never be another like him. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • After 27 years as sheriff of Jefferson Parish, a beloved Harry Lee lost his battle with leukemia. The Loss of Lee Controversy, safe streets and bobble-head dolls are among Harry Lee's legacies. There will never be another like him.
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