Until recently, anyone handicapping the fall elections in Jefferson Parish would have predicted a major challenge to Parish President Aaron Broussard and an easy re-election campaign for Sheriff Harry Lee. Much has changed.
Broussard, who was booed in local restaurants after Hurricane Katrina because of his decision to evacuate pump operators in the face of the storm, has worked tirelessly trying to rehabilitate his image. He still has a long way to go, but clearly he is no longer the pariah he was 18 months ago, when some disgruntled voters tried to start a recall petition against him. Broussard owes part of his improved political fortunes to Jefferson's post-storm recovery, which has turned into an economic boom for both the public and private sectors.
Lee, who has been Jefferson's sheriff since 1980, shocked the political community with his announcement last week that he has some form of leukemia (exactly which type, he would not say). The amiable but often controversial sheriff says he will stay on the job as long as possible -- and that he hopes to qualify for re-election in early September. Just in case, he has already anointed his successor: long-time Chief Deputy Newell Normand, a friend and attorney.
Broussard's announcement for re-election came within a week of Lee's regarding his illness. The former was an example of how political difficulties can be overcome by the right combination of patience, persistence, a little bit of luck and a whole lot of hard work. The latter proved how one's fortunes can turn on a dime, often without warning.
Ever since Broussard found himself in trouble, the talk in Jefferson political circles has been that at-large Councilman John Young might challenge him in the fall. Young is popular, articulate, scandal-free and representative of a new generation of Jefferson leadership. A former prosecutor, he moves easily in business as well as political circles and is seen as the rising star of parish politics -- much like Broussard was 25 years ago.
Both Broussard and Young are tough campaigners. A race between them would likely trigger a political war in Jefferson. Is Young ready for war at this time -- or would he rather wait four years and consider other options? He would almost certainly coast to re-election to the council, and Broussard is limited to one more term.
Even if Young does not run against him, Broussard could face challenges from other well-known politicos. They include state Sen. Ken Hollis, who likewise is term limited, and former Jefferson School Board member Polly Thomas. At his campaign kick-off two weeks ago, Broussard unveiled support from a large cross-section of parish political and business leaders. His strategy is to show strength early and often in the hope of deterring potential challengers.
Lee hasn't had a significant challenge since 1987. In that year, he nearly lost to Art Lentini, who is now a term-limited state senator. It's doubtful that Lee will be challenged, notwithstanding concerns about the sheriff's health. But, if Lee does not run, his blessing of Normand won't scare anybody off.
Potential candidates for sheriff, if Lee does not run, include Lentini, Young, former interim DA Jack Capella, Gretna Police Chief Arthur Lawson, former Kenner Police Chief Nick Congemi, and parish prosecutor Walter Amstutz -- just to name a few. All say they would not oppose Lee, but if the sheriff cannot run, each would consider a race against Normand. Lee maintains that no one is as qualified as Normand, who has been directing the sheriff's office for years.
One of the consistent ironies of Lee's tenure has been his inability to transfer his own enormous popularity to others in the political arena. In light of the strange twists his career has taken of late, it might be fitting if the one candidate he could get elected is the guy he wants to take his job.
Something tells me we're in for more twists and turns between now and Election Day.
- The upcoming election in Jefferson Parish promises to be filled with plot twists, with major challenges expected in the re-election bid of Parish President Aaron Broussard (left), and the uncertain candidacy of longtime favorite, Sheriff Harry Lee.