JEFFERSON PARISH, LA (WVUE) - In less than 24 hours, Jefferson Parish voters will begin choosing who they want in the Sheriff's Office.
The candidates are Interim Sheriff Joe Lopinto, who was appointed sheriff last year when Newell Normand retired, and longtime Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Department spokesman retired Col. John Fortunato.
Both maintain they are well-suited to keep the community safe and enhance the department.
"It's real simple," Lopinto said. "When you look at the resumes of two candidates, when we look at the resumes of two candidates, we look at one that has education in law enforcement with degrees in criminal justice. Understand that we're the largest sheriff's office in the state of Louisiana."
"I want the people of Jefferson Parish to know - and I speak from my heart - that I truly believe that I have the best qualifications and the most experience to keep Jefferson Parish safe. The men and women of this organization need a leader who cares about them, and deeply cares about this community," Fortunato said.
Lopinto worked as a JPSO deputy, earned a law degree and served in the state Legislature.
"I've represented law enforcement in all three branches of government, and I've represented them in different ways - as the policeman on the streets, just 13 years ago writing up reports, handling the calls for service and being what an actual policeman does on the street, not just an employee of the Sheriff's Office, but as a person who has gone out there and done the work. I'm been the chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee," said Lopinto.
Fortunato spent more than four decades in the department, where he worked as a detective and was seen on television regularly as JPSO's spokesman under sheriffs Harry Lee and Newell Normand. He retired to challenge Lopinto in the sheriff's race.
"I envision an organization where we have quicker response times and a zero tolerance for crime, working with people in our communities, working with our business leaders, working with our school leaders," Fortunato said.
Both are spending money for televised campaign ads. FOX 8 asked Fortunato what message he hoped to send to voters through the ad showing photos of him with the late Harry Lee.
"Make no mistake: When I use Harry Lee as being my mentor, it's strictly because I want people to understand that crime will be my number one priority," Fortunato said.
Lopinto was asked if his campaign would suffer because of Fortunato's ads showing him pictured with the venerable Lee.
"I've stood next to Harry Lee. You know, there's a difference of standing next to Harry Lee or working for Harry Lee," Lopinto said. "I'm proud to [have] worked for Harry Lee, I'm proud to have the support of his wife and his daughter. But at the end of the day, this isn't about endorsements. When Harry Lee passed away 10 years ago, no one knew who Newell Normand was, and when Newell Normand retired six months ago, no one knew who Joe Lopinto was. They put people in place because they cared about this organization."
And crime fighting aside, both Lopinto and Fortunato maintain they are well-prepared to run the business of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office.
"The job of the Sheriff's Office is a lot different than it was back in the 1970s - the contracts, the memorandums, the things that come across my desk are something that you have to know what you're talking about," Lopinto said.
"I've worked throughout my entire career, 40-plus years, the institutional knowledge, when I captured the phrase of what I wanted to say, where 'experience matters' means a lot. Those years of experience can't be taught in a classroom," Fortunato said.
Both expect to mobilize their supporters for early voting, which runs through March 17. Election Day is March 24.