Newell: The calm before the storm is over - gloves come off in November elections

Fireworks in Jefferson Sheriff race, unusual terrain in Governor's race make for unique season

Newell Normand
August 09, 2019 - 5:29 pm

At long last, the qualifying period for Louisiana's 2019 elections is over, the ballots are set and the temperature is rising. To get all the details on races major and minor, Newell invited Clancy Dubos, Political Editor and Columnist of Gambit Weekly and WWL-TV Political Analyst to join the program this morning.

The conversation naturally began with a race close to Newell's own heart - the showdown for Sheriff of Jefferson Parish, the most populous in the state, and one that has some real fireworks.

"It seemed like this had to wait until the bitter end!" Newell began, to which Dubos replied, "Bitter being the operative word... when John Fortunato, the man that Sheriff Joe Lopinto beat in a special election 17 months ago (to succeed Newell), without any warning to the public, jumped into the race with just minutes to go before qualifying ended. And then Joe Lopinto called me and 'Hey, some of Fortunato's people called me and said he wouldn't run if I would back him to get the job to be Police Chief of the Causeway.' And that was a bombshell! We hear about deals like being made, threats and offers, all the time, but it is extremely rare - I cannot remember an instance where a high-ranking official in a major parish like Jefferson comes out and says 'here's what happened.' Lopinto said he called the FBI, called the Attorney General and I've confirmed both of those. That doesn't mean they're investigating or that a crime was committed, but if they determine one was, that's a big deal... even the charge itself is a big deal. Of course Fortunato denies it, but obviously the gloves are off very early in the race for Sheriff of Jefferson Parish!"

Fortunato's alleged offer to drop out of the race in order to secure and endorsement for a different office may appear unsavory, but is it in fact a violation?

"I always like to go to the law," Newell said, "And the state election code, Title 18, §1461.5 specifically outlaws this behavior. They go painfully through 3 sub-paragraphs in that statute to make sure it's bilateral, either way in negotiating these types of deals... the penalty for this is a felony. 'Shall be fined more than $2,000 or be imprisoned for not more than two years or both for the first offense' and the second offense is up to five years in jail. Pretty stiff penalties for these types of behavior which is why, like you said, you don't usually hear about this." 

Time will reveal more about that issue but in the meanwhile, of course, there is the race itself. How is that shaping up from a money perspective?

"I checked both men's campaign accounts," Dubos said. "Fortunato's latest campaign finance report filed in March showed that he had literally spent the last few dollars he had, and had a balance of zero. Lopinto, as the incumbent Sheriff probably could have had six figures by now but he didn't choose to raise a lot of money because nobody was making noise about running against him. But he still had a little less than $60,000... I guess Lopinto will start raising money and Fortunato will too. We'll see how this race progresses after next week, if both men are able to raise the money you'd expect for a race like that."

Every race is important, but none are going to draw the attention that Governor Edwards' re-election battle against Eddie Rispone and Ralph Abraham will. TV ads are starting to come out - what's the outlook at the top of the ballot?

"What we're seeing more and more lately, especially in statewide races, is the impact of PACs and Super PACs... we're getting to a point where they're spending more than the parties and candidates, and PACs typically represent special interests, and we're going to see that in the Governor's race on both sides. You'll see Democratic-leaning PACs supporting Edwards, and conservative-leaning PACs supporting either Rispone or Abraham, or just attacking John Bel Edwards."

The Republican candidates face somewhat of an uphill battle against the Governor since many of their preferred lines of attack will be easily deflected by the centrist Democrat, who leans conservative on many important issues.

"It's going to be interesting to me," Newell said, "You'd traditionally attack the sitting Democrat governor on their position on the 2nd Amendment, but Edwards is pro-2nd Amendment. The other would be abortion, and he's pro-life. And on the Medicaid Expansion... you have 7 GOP governors that have expanded Medicaid, and the states that haven't have had a lot of rural hospitals go under."

"Louisiana has had zero rural hospitals go under," Dubos said. "And on top of that, you have half a million people now getting access to health care who never had it before. Talk about a voter base!"

"The traditional lines of distinction between Democrats and Republicans are very blurred in this race," Newell agreed. "It's kind of curious to see where this will go."

To hear the full interview with Dubos, click the play button below.

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