GRETNA, La. -- The email from the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office that hit inboxes in newsrooms across the city early Tuesday was about as nondescript as one could be: “Sheriff Normand will be hosting a press conference at 11:00am today in our Media Center on the 5th floor at 1233 Westbank Expressway.”
The news Sheriff Newell Normand would deliver, though, would dominate the day’s news cycle and shock the parish and undoubtedly begin major political jockeying.
The veteran lawman who sailed to reelection each time he ran would retire Aug. 31 from his powerful position for one he said he believes is just as powerful, if not more so: talk show host on WWL Radio.
Normand said the decision to turn in his badge after nearly 40 years with the JPSO and 10 at the helm was bittersweet but easy.
“I’d be less than honest if I didn’t tell you I’m a little tired, thinking about 1,500 men and women going home every night,” he told a room of reporters, fellow politicians, his family and his interim replacement, former state Rep. Joe Lopinto, a onetime JPSO deputy. “It wears on you.”
Lopinto is chief deputy, a role to which he was recently named and which set him up to succeed Normand because of state statute.
SHERIFF SEES TALK SHOW AS A WAY TO LEAD
Normand, who is two years into his third term, said any good leader knows the right time to step away.
“What I’m most intrigued about is I’ll be able to lead in a different way,” he said of his new role on WWL Radio, filling the 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. time slot left open when longtime host Garland Robinette announced his retirement earlier this month.
At-Large Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng’s late father was longtime Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee and a mentor to Normand. She said she is certain Normand’s move was a good one.
“He’s a very, very intelligent man,” Lee-Sheng said. “He will still give back to community but in a different way.”
Though Normand had been with the Sheriff’s Office for decades before he became sheriff, he often toiled quietly in the shadow of Lee, his mentor, overseeing many technical operations of the Sheriff's Office. It wasn’t until Lee died in October 2007 after a five-month battle with leukemia and Normand became interim sheriff that his profile saw a meteoric rise.
He first won election in November 2007 with a near clean sweep: 91 percent of the vote. His popularity never waned. He won reelection in 2011 with 92 percent of the vote and 88 percent of the vote in 2015.
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He has a law degree and an MBA and for years has served on the board of directors for East Jefferson General Hospital. He was a key negotiator in attempts to find a private company to lease the hospital in recent years.
NORMAND's PRESS CONFERENCES WERE 'MUST SEE'
During his tenure as sheriff, Normand has become known for a no-nonsense attitude and often fiery press conferences in which he pointedly and unapologetically criticized people or policies with whom he disagreed.
A fuming Norman excoriated people to "wake up" when some complained about Interstate 10 being closed to rush a deputy to the hospital after he was shot in 2016.
A year earlier, he blasted proponents of legalizing marijuana after his deputies had a shootout with a drug dealer on the West Bank. "We're thinking about decriminalizing marijuana. We think all this s*** is gonna go away when we do so? Hello!" he shouted during a press conference. "The havoc that it'll wreak on our streets will be insurmountable!"
He had no regard for criminals and never minced words when talking about them. During a 2009 press conference, he said, “These are serious, knuckle-head, idiot criminals that are out on the streets of our parish, just shooting guns like the wild, wild west, thinking that they're going to take care of business and thinking that they're bad."
Unlike many of his prior addresses to the media, Normand was jovial in announcing his retirement and became emotional at times. He said he would miss the Sheriff's Office employees and letters from the public thanking his deputies for their service.
SHERIFF CHOKES UP OVER LEAVING COLLEAGUES
“I think I will miss -- I will miss the people here,” he said choking back tears. “I’ve been here my entire adult life.”
He added that his only regrets have to do with not being able to ensure that three deputies wounded in the line of duty -- one fatally -- during his tenure were able to return home safely after their shifts.
But he said he wouldn’t dwell on the past or even entirely miss the job of sheriff, despite how misty talking about it made him “I was never caught in the trappings of this office. It’s not one that stimulated me in any way, shape or form. So it made my decision, actually, a lot easier.”
He said the hosting job, which WWL Radio offered to him “out of the blue,” is a natural fit for someone like him who enjoys debates.
That was among the reasons the station offered him the job, said Chris Claus, vice president and general manager of Entercom Communications New Orleans, which owns WWL Radio.
“He's an extraordinary leader and a good man. Newell Normand's opinion matters. When he talks everybody listens,” Claus said in a prepared statement. “We knew Garland's replacement had to be someone special, someone with strong opinions, great intellect -- someone who earned the respect, not just of the citizens in our community, but leaders too.”
Normand’s first broadcast will air Sept. 11.
He said the radio station told him he will have to undergo some FCC training, drawing a laugh from the room since he’s been responsible for some curse words and racial terms being broadcast during live and testy press conferences carried on local TV.
Lopinto will serve as sheriff at least until an election is held to find a permanent replacement. Qualifying for that race is expected to happen in January, with a primary in March, Normand said.
Lopinto raised eyebrows when he resigned his house seat mid-term to take a job as Normand's legal counsel. He was named chief criminal deputy in recent weeks, replacing former Chief Deputy Craig Taffaro, who resigned amid a federal investigation into his tax returns.
Speculation in political circles at the time of Lopinto's departure from the Legislature was that Normand was grooming him has his hand-picked successor.
“It was easy for me to come back home,” Lopinto told reporters after Normand made his announcement. “Was it for this purpose? No. It just happened.”