JEFFERSON PARISH, LA (WVUE) - The race for Jefferson Parish sheriff officially began Wednesday, when qualifying for the contest kicked off and the two men considered major candidates signed up right away.
Joe Lopinto recently became Jefferson Parish sheriff after longtime Sheriff Newell Normand retired and named Lopinto his successor.
The other was recently retired JPSO spokesman Col. John Fortunato.
"I've represented law enforcement in all three branches of government. This is civics, and I've represented them from the deputy on the street, from the black shirt and silver badge, answering alarms to the murders. I've represented them as the attorney for the department," said Lopinto.
"I want the people of Jefferson Parish to have the utmost confidence in the men and women of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office to do what's best to keep their community safe," said Fortunato.
Lopinto joined the department in 1997 and stayed for seven years, then earned a law degree and was elected to the Louisiana Legislature. He later returned to the sheriff's department. He believes he is ready for a four-year term. The department has 1,500 departments and various responsibilities.
"We have a tax division. We collect $800 million in taxes. This is a big business, you know? That's why Harry Lee understood that Newell Normand was probably that person, he was the person behind the scenes doing the work over those years. That's why Newell Normand asked me to be chief deputy. He asked me to be chief deputy because he's worked with me over the years," Lopinto stated.
Fortunato's emphasized his experience when talking about why he should be elected.
"Once again my opponent was anointed chief deputy, deputy chief of operations and sheriff in two short months. No…it's time for all the people of Jefferson Parish to decide who they want to be their chief law enforcement officer," Fortunato said.
Before his death, the colorful and longtime Sheriff Harry Lee made it clear his then-Chief Dep. Newell Normand would be his successor.
"When there is a vacancy, whether it's by retirement or whether it's by a death, the chief criminal deputy becomes the sheriff. I wasn't anointed. By law I became the sheriff. Now does it help me? Don't know. We'll find that out on March 24th," Lopinto said.
Fortunato answered this way when asked if Normand's appointment of Lopinto will hurt his odds of winning: "Well, first of all, I'm glad you asked the question, and I do not believe the people of Jefferson Parish are ready to accept a politician's hand-picked sheriff."
Fortunato also boasts of years of street police work. And though he joined the department of then-Sheriff Al Cronvich he referred to the late Sheriff Harry Lee as a mentor.
"I believe that my 46 years of experience with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office speaks volumes for what I've done as an officer serving the people of Jefferson Parish, and also believe that working shoulder-to-shoulder with Harry Lee," said Fortunato.
Fortunato did not like it when Normand was quoted in the New Orleans Advocate newspaper as saying, " I don't know that Johnny has a college degree."
"I think it was a cheap shot on his part, actually as a parting shot as he walked away from this organization for whatever reason," said Fortunato.
"I don't think it's a cheap shot…I have people on this department that work on our motor pool that I'm not qualified to do their job," Lopinto stated.
Fortunato likes community policing and said if elected he would create an Elder Abuse Unit and make sure the department has the best training and equipment for officers.
Lopinto said as sheriff he is making needed changes every day, and that while he has Normand's backing, he is his own man. He said he has made some changes at the parish jail, among other small steps.
Physicist Anthony Bloise of Westwego also qualified for the race. He said he has run for office before.