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At Long Last, Coattails for Harry Lee? 

One of the great ironies of the late Harry Lee's enormous popularity as sheriff of Jefferson Parish was his notorious lack of coattails at election time. Lee could remain sheriff as long as he wanted, but for some reason, he almost never could get anyone else elected to a major public office in Jefferson. His singular lack of success in that regard led friends and foes alike to tease him about his endorsement being a political kiss of death. Blessed with a sense of humor, Lee took the teasing in stride. He would sometimes ask candidates seeking his support, 'Are you sure you want me to endorse you? It might help you more if I came out for your opponent."

Here's where the irony comes full circle: Lee might just grow the coattails in death that he never had in life.

For more than a decade, Lee made it clear that he wanted his chief deputy, Newell Normand, to succeed him as sheriff. As chief deputy, Normand ran the day-to-day operations of the sheriff's office, leaving Lee to pursue the things he liked most " mingling with other pols and constituents, hunting and fishing, and supporting local charities.

When he announced that he had a fatal strain of leukemia, Lee reminded everyone that he wanted Normand, who is now interim sheriff, to succeed him. Last week, the day after Lee passed away, Normand qualified to run for the job that Lee held for more than 27 years. He faces seven opponents, several of whom are political veterans.

The full slate of candidates for sheriff in the Nov. 17 primary includes:

Melvin 'Teddy" Burns, a Marrero independent and political unknown.

Julio Castillo, a Harvey Republican who had qualified against Lee in September.

Nick Congemi, the former Kenner police chief who lost the Kenner mayor's race last year, also a Republican.

Peter Dale, the police chief of Harahan, who also qualified against Lee and who filed suit to halt the reopening of qualifications after Lee died. Dale is a Republican.

Donald Lane, a Kenner Republican and another political unknown.

Art Lentini, a term-limited state senator from Kenner who ran against Lee in 1987 and almost beat him. Lentini is a Republican.

Normand, a Metairie Republican and now the interim sheriff.

Rodney Pittman, a Metairie independent and political unknown.

Even as an 'interim" incumbent, Normand will have some advantages that go with incumbency. As a candidate, however, he is everything Harry Lee wasn't. Whereas Lee was flamboyant, controversial and at ease in front of crowds, Normand is a nose-to-the-grindstone, understated workaholic. Those who know him also say Normand is supremely competent, courteous and professional " qualities that no doubt endeared him to Lee. But politics is not a gentlemanly sport. It is raucous, hard-hitting and, well, all the things Normand is not.

Lee undoubtedly anticipated that dilemma for his protégé, and so, before he died, the sheriff summoned a number of Jefferson elected officials and influential politicos and asked one final favor: help Normand win the sheriff's job.

In the coming weeks, look for virtually all elected officials in Gretna and Westwego, and possibly elsewhere on the West Bank, to endorse Normand. That includes Gretna Police Chief Arthur Lawson, whose name was mentioned as a possible candidate. Although two of Normand's opponents live on the West Bank, they are both unknowns. Normand's major adversaries " Lentini, Dale and Congemi " all live in Kenner or Harahan. Normand lives in Metairie, which, along with the West Bank, was one of Lee's political strongholds.

In the absence of a well-known favorite son, and with most if not all West Bank politicos endorsing him, Normand should fare well on the West Bank. Moreover, the parishwide outpouring of affection for Lee at his passing will inure to Normand's benefit.

Don't get me wrong: this race is just beginning. Lentini, Dale and Congemi will not be pushovers. Each is a battle-tested political veteran with his own base of support. But, in death, Harry Lee may finally have grown the political coattails that eluded him in life.


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