Mar 5, 201810:23 AM
The Editor's Room
Weekly Commentary with New Orleans Magazine’s Errol Laborde
Harry Lee's Reign
He's Still A Factor
Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office via npr.org
They never thought the sheriff would say “yes,” but he did.
There was once a Carnival organization called the Krewe of Clones that was organized by the Contemporary Arts Center. The emphasis was on being hip, cutting edge and avant-garde. Clones, which first paraded in 1978, was a forerunner to today’s Krewe du Vieux. It consisted of a confederation of independent walking groups each with their own theme and name. One year one of the inner krewes decided to spoof Jefferson Parish. The group, made up of committed urban dweller types to whom Clearview Boulevard was at the end of civilization, loathed suburbanization, which Jefferson epitomized. Nevertheless someone in the organization had the gumption to call Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee and invited him to participate with them in the parade. (If a sheriff can be a marshall than I guess he was a Grand Marshall.) That night Lee showed up with a driver and a sheriff’s department jeep. For the parade, which ran roughly from Julia Street to Royal Street, Lee sat above the back seat. The stout sheriff was quite a sight wearing his trademark cowboy hat. The rest of the group walked around the Jeep.
As the parade progressed Lee was a star. The group may have been trying to spoof Jefferson Parish but they loved its sheriff, so did the crowd. Suburbanization be damned, Lee was totally hip.
Harry Lee, who was born in New Orleans to a family that operated a Chinese laundry, was the most unusual of politicians, a Chinese-American Democrat elected from a suburban parish. He was no fluke either. He served 28 years having been elected seven times. His opening into politics came from having been a confidant of Congressman Hale Boggs and later, with Boggs’ help, First Magistrate for the local federal court and then Jefferson Parish’s chief attorney. His name recognition came from a once famous family restaurant, The House of Lee, which stood on Veterans Blvd. near Causeway, where it stood out back in the days when the parish still had wide open spaces. The House of Lee was the most popular restaurant in the parish. Political connections and food are not a bad combination for forging an electoral career.
In 1979 Lee ousted incumbent Alwynn Cronvich, who had once been a powerhouse but who had lost his hold on a shifting electorate and whose reputation had been stained by a wire-tapping scandal.
As sheriff, Lee was an aggressive crime fighter. His public comments were not always politically correct, but if they offended some, his voters understood what he was saying. He maintained biracial support.
Contested sheriff’s races were a scarcity during the Lee years as they were during the time that the sheriff’s handpicked successor, Newell Norman, ran the office. That’s why the current two-man battle to replace Norman is like one of of those celestial events that you might not see again for a few decades. Although there are two candidates there is one legacy, Harry Lee. John Fortunato served for many years as Lee’s public information officer. Joe Lopinto is the pick of Norman, who had been the pick of Lee.
Harry Lee embraced life and made the best of it. He could be a gritty politician, hard-nosed lawman or, like his ride in the Clones parade, a playful celebrity. No one could misunderstand his message when on the morning before Hurricane Katrina arrived Lee proclaimed to the populous via radio, "You better haul ass! Y'all should have left yesterday.”
Though born from a different culture he was successful because he could speak the people’s language. He was one of them.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
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