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Larger-Than-Life Sheriff Rules Louisiana Parish

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Larger-Than-Life Sheriff Rules Louisiana Parish


Larger-Than-Life Sheriff Rules Louisiana Parish

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Down in Louisiana, there is nobody quite like Harry Lee. He is the outspoken sheriff of Jefferson Parish, a sprawling suburb that borders New Orleans. The Chinese-American lawman, now in his seventh term in office, has a penchant for putting his foot in his mouth, but that just seems to increase his popularity.

NPR's John Burnett has this profile.

JOHN BURNETT: On Thursday nights, muscular men who wear camo uniforms and spit tobacco ride around Jefferson Parish in the back of a pickup truck blowing away troublesome swamp rodents called nutria. The swat team is commanded by Major Cary Nijola.

Major CARY NIJOLA (SWAT team commander): And there are certain rules of engagement. Basically, nutria that are halfway up the bank would be acceptable to shoot.

BURNETT: Because of the nutrias' tendency to burrow into and weaken the banks of drainage canals, Sheriff Harry Lee has declared war on them. In the middle of a teeming American suburb flanked by Catholic churches and nail salons, the riflemen spotlight the startled, brown furry enemy, take aim and -

Unidentified Man: Is that him right there?

(Soundbite of gun shot)

Unidentified Man: You got him.

BURNETT: The nutria commandos are somehow a good introduction to the kingdom of Harry Lee. The tradition, like the sheriff, is an odd example of Southern exotica. It's mildly menacing, politically incorrect and wildly popular.

Unidentified Man: Right there, right there. The other one. Going in the hole.

(Soundbite of gunshot)

BURNETT: For as long as most people can remember, in Jefferson Parish there has always been Sheriff Harry Lee. Now in his 26th year in office, the 74-year-old, 300-pound sheriff - down from 400 pounds, he proudly points out - sits at his desk surrounded by his large gun collection.

Sheriff HARRY LEE (Jefferson Parish, Louisiana): I'm still as full of piss and vinegar now as I was 20 years ago.

BURNETT: He's the top cop and chief taxing authority of a booming jurisdiction of nearly half a million people, and because of peculiar state law, there's little oversight.

Sheriff LEE: The sheriff of Jefferson Parish is the closest thing there is to being a king in the United States. I have no unions. I don't have civil service. I hire and fire at will. I don't have to go to the council and propose a budget. I approve the budget. I'm the head of the law-enforcement district, and the law enforcement district only has one vote, which is me.

BURNETT: New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist James Gill has written often over the years about the sheriff.

Mr. JAMES GILL (Columnist, New Orleans Times-Picayune): He's a great character. Everyone likes him. Some people fear him. He can be sheriff of Jefferson Parish as long as he wants. Harry Lee has always been a law unto himself.

BURNETT: Harry Lee, a Democrat, is a former restaurant and tavern owner, federal magistrate, and protégé of the late U.S. House Majority Leader Hale Boggs. In Jefferson Parish, Lee is well-known for his personal Mardi Gras float. Outside the parish, he's famous for his mouth.

Twenty years ago, after a rash of robberies by black men of white residents in their driveways, Lee vowed to stop and question blacks driving, quote, "rinky-dink cars" in white neighborhoods. The NAACP called on him to resign. Lee called a press conference the next day and said his plan was a mistake.

Late last month, it happened again.

(Soundbite of news program)

Unidentified Announcer: Channel 4 Eye Witness News Night Watch.

BURNETT: An offhanded comment to a TV reporter blew up in his face.

Sheriff LEE: We know the crime is in the black community. Why should I waste any time in the white community?

Unidentified Woman: Sheriff Harry Lee says he plans to shake down black people in high-crime areas who may not have even committed a crime.

BURNETT: Since Katrina, murders in Jefferson Parish have doubled, the majority of them black-on-black killings. The sheriff tried in vain to explain his intended get-tough tactics the next day at a press conference inside his gray, fortress-like headquarters.

Sheriff LEE: We know where the problem areas are. If we see some black guys on the corner milling around, just doing something, we would confront them.

BURNETT: The scowling president of the regional NAACP, Donatus King, wasn't buying it.

Mr. DONATUS KING (NAACP): Confronting a group of black people on a street corner merely because they are black and milling around is a form of racial profiling. The NAACP opposes that tactic.

BURNETT: Under pressure, the sheriff said his deputies would not be indiscriminately frisking African-American males.

Sheriff LEE: I agree with him totally. I went too far.

BURNETT: On his way out of the conference room, Lee leaned over and winked.

Sheriff LEE: Shooting nutria is more fun.

BURNETT: A few days later, the Times-Picayune ran an unscientific poll. The phone calls ran 22 for the NAACP, 789 for Harry Lee. More recently, Lee said now he wants to patrol dangerous neighborhoods in armored vehicles.

A bit of demographic background - Jefferson Parish is overwhelmingly white. David Duke, the former Klan leader, was elected state rep here in 1989. Lee is lauded for keeping crime low, which means to most people keeping black criminals under control, says columnist James Gill, who lives in the parish.

Mr. GILL: This parish grew largely as a result of white flight, and it retains some of that feel of the 1950s today in its attitudes. And Harry's popularity depends, to some extent, I think, on the perception that he is a white man's champion, he is holding back the black hordes who might otherwise threaten suburban bliss.

BURNETT: From a distance, it's tempting to pigeonhole Harry Lee as a racist Southern sheriff. But up close, he's more complex.

Angela St. Hill is an African-American resident of Jefferson Parish. As a lay worker on social justice issues with her Catholic church, she's worked with Harry Lee. And she says though he may sound racist at times, he has a good reputation of trying to solve problems in the black community.

Ms. ANGELA ST. HILL: The African-American community knows that most of the time, he's doing the right thing for the right reasons, even though his words may not show that. Unfortunately, I think he talks a lot before he thinks about what he's saying.

BURNETT: Harry Lee, the son of Lee and Yip Shee Bing, owners of a New Orleans laundry, shrugs off the criticism.

Sheriff LEE: It's more difficult for somebody to accuse me of being a racist when you figure I was born in the back room of a Chinese laundry. When I was a kid, I was called a chink.

BURNETT: Today Harry Lee has perhaps the highest approval rating of any politician in Louisiana.

(Soundbite of music)

BURNETT: Every year he throws a birthday party for himself here at the Hilton Riverside Hotel in downtown New Orleans. Now that former Governor Edwin Edwards is in the slammer, Harry Lee's Chinese Cajun Cowboy Fais Do Do is the last great political shindig in the state.

Mary Anne Farrington, drinking Crown Royal and water, says she's known the sheriff for 40 years.

Ms. MARY ANNE FARRINGTON: Harry Lee loves to party and everybody loves to party with him.

BURNETT: Five thousand people pay $100 each to listen to two bands, drink prodigiously, and gorge on gumbo and egg rolls. Lee raises several hundred thousand dollars, with which he funds his re-election campaigns and gives the rest to charity.

Guy Likist(ph) owns a car wash and a shooting range in the parish.

Mr. GUY LIKIST: Everybody comes here obviously to pay homage to the sheriff, you know, for the great job he's done. You know, they come to kiss the ring.

BURNETT: The sheriff, a Falstaffian character with white hair and great girth , moves through the crowd. Men pump his hand, women in slinky dresses seek a hug. The sheriff revels in it.

Sheriff LEE: I've got 30 women sitting at my feet at 11:00. Somebody's got to do it.

BURNETT: And in the ballroom entrance, a huge papier-mâché head in the likeness of the sheriff surrounded by piles of fortune cookies. There's no one quite like Harry Lee.

John Burnett, NPR News.

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