It didn’t take long for the gloves to come off in the Jefferson Parish sheriff’s race. Interim Sheriff Joe Lopinto and former sheriff’s spokesman Johnny Fortunato came out swinging right after qualifying Jan. 3. The attacks are likely to continue — and intensify — right up to Election Day, March 24.
Lopinto became interim sheriff after then-Sheriff Newell Normand abruptly announced in July that he was resigning to become a radio talk show host. Fortunato soon thereafter retired as department spokesman after serving 46 years as a deputy.
Both men logged time on the streets, and both later worked in administrative capacities.
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Lopinto served as a narcotics detective, then left the department to attend law school. He represented the sheriff’s office in civil cases and served in the state Legislature for more than eight years before resigning in 2016 to become Normand’s chief legal adviser. Normand later promoted him to chief deputy, paving the way for Lopinto to become interim sheriff when Normand resigned.
For decades Fortunato was the face of the department, which gives him a political edge in terms of name recognition among voters. He joined the department in the 1970s and was injured in the line of duty as a detective. He later became the spokesman for Sheriff Harry Lee, who promoted him to the rank of colonel and placed him over all department communications.
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Both Fortunato and Lopinto are campaigning on the theme of “experience.” Fortunato launched his campaign first with the tagline, “Experience matters.” Lopinto followed with a slogan that was also a jab: “Real experience matters.”
Right after qualifying, Lopinto said Fortunato hadn’t arrested anyone in decades.
“When was the last time he made an arrest?” Lopinto said on WWL-TV. “When’s the last time he wrote a report? It was the 1970s. … Law enforcement has changed tremendously since then.” Lopinto added that his opponent has been “a good spokesperson,” but that the sheriff’s job requires much more.
Outside New Orleans, sheriffs are tax collectors, jailers and process servers — in addition to being the chief law enforcement officer in each parish. The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office has nearly 1,500 employees, so personnel management also plays a big role.
Fortunato shot back that the sheriff’s election “is not a coronation,” adding, “I truly believe the people of Jefferson Parish are not ready to have a politician’s handpicked sheriff.”
The fact that Lopinto became interim sheriff at the hand of Normand could cut both ways. Normand remains popular, but voters in recent elections have been less inclined to follow the lead of establishment politicians.
Fortunato added that he “stood shoulder to shoulder with Harry Lee” after starting as a cadet in 1971. “I worked my way through the ranks to colonel, entrusted by Sheriff Lee to be his chief spokesperson … to know what was going on” in the day-to-day affairs of the department, Fortunato told WWL-TV.
It’s been decades since Jefferson had a wide-open race for sheriff. This one will be a war, and its outcome will change the course of parish politics for years to come.