ELMWOOD -- If there's one thing Joe Lopinto and John Fortunato agree upon, it's that experience matters.
But the kind of experience needed to lead the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office is where their opinions splinter sharply, leading to personal jabs being lobbed minutes after the two men qualified to replace former Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, who abruptly retired during the summer.
Fortunato, who spent nearly 50 years with the JPSO before he retired to run for sheriff, has crafted a campaign built upon the slogan “Experience Matters.”
Lopinto, whom Normand hand picked as his successor at least on an interim basis, recently responded with a similar slogan: “Real Experience Matters.”
Just after he qualified on Wednesday morning, Lopinto cast doubt upon Fortunato's experience, noting that he's better known as the face of the JPSO, having served as its spokesman, than is he a street cop.
“When was the last time he made an arrest? When's the last time he wrote a report? It's the 1970s. You know, 1970s law enforcement has changed tremendously since then,” Lopinto said. “He's been the spokesperson. That's what he's been, and been a good spokesperson. I'm not taking any credit from him, but that's not what the job of the Sheriff's Office is.”
Lopinto rattled off myriad duties the sheriff is responsible for, such as tax collection, reviewing contracts and personnel management.
“That's not been his job duties,” Lopinto said of his lone opponent. “He served under three sheriffs, and none of them recognized him to be the one to lead us into the future.”
“The people of Jefferson are smart enough to educate themselves on the qualifications of the people in front of them, and if they do that, I believe they're gonna recognize what my qualifications are,” said Lopinto, a former JPSO deputy who left to earn a law degree and serve as a state representative. Normand lured him back to the agency to be its in-house attorney and soon after promoted Lopinto to chief deputy.
While former Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee named Normand his successor -- a decision voters almost nearly unanimously agreed with -- Fortunato said his decades working as a right hand man of sorts to Lee and Normand gave him intimate knowledge needed to run all facets of the JPSO.
“Standing shoulder to shoulder with Harry Lee, attending chiefs' meetings, being involved in the day-to-day operations, I was able to learn a lot,” Fortunato said. “The complexity of this job is all about knowing the inner parts of this organization.”
Fortunato said Lopinto “pales in comparison” to his experience with the JPSO. “I started working as a cadet in 1971 and worked my way through the ranks to colonel, entrusted by Sheriff Lee to be his chief spokesperson … to know what was going on in the day-to-day basis of the Sheriff's Office.”
While he declined to say if he felt slighted by Normand's decision to install Lopinto as interim sheriff, Fortunato pushed back against Lopinto's notion that his predecessor's endorsement is what should dictate voters' actions when they head to the polls on March 24.
“This is not a coronation. This is an election,” Fortunato said. “I truly believe the people of Jefferson Parish are not ready to have a politician's handpicked sheriff.”
WWL-TV political analyst and Gambit columnist Clancy DuBos noted that this is the first open election for Jefferson Parish sheriff in decades since there is no incumbent on the ballot.
He said that the perceived shortcomings each candidate noted about his opponent will be key to convincing voters to cast ballots one way or the other.
“Johnny needs to show he's done more than be a spokesman,” DuBos said. “Lopinto needs to get better known and convince people he hasn't been anointed, that he's actually earned it.”
While a recent UNO poll indicated that Fortunato enjoys a favorable lead over Lopinto, DuBos said it won't be until coming weeks, after the campaigns have kicked into high gear, that any results will reflect a more accurate picture of the race.
What is certain, though, is that it will be a heated battle for a powerful position.
“This is what I call a 'kitchen sink race',” DuBos said. “They'll throw everything at each other except the kitchen sink.”