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Colorful, Long-Serving La. Sheriff Lee Dies at 75


The sheriff of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana died yesterday after a battle with leukemia during his 27th year in office. Harry Lee was 75 years old. Now, the passing of a southern sheriff would not normally be national news, but there was no one quite like Harry Lee.

Here's NPR's John Burnett.

JOHN BURNETT: Harry Lee defied categories, and Jefferson Parish loved him for it, electing him to seven terms by huge margins that other politicians can only dream of. He claimed to be the only Chinese-American sheriff in America and often bragged about his roots, born to Chinese immigrants in the back of a laundry on Carondelet Street in New Orleans.

In his long career in law enforcement, Lee counted felons and mobsters as friends, and when challenged, he retorted...

Sheriff HARRY LEE (Jefferson Parish, Louisiana): My friends are my friends and the hell with everybody else.

BURNETT: Harry Lee famously loved to eat. At 300 pounds, he cut an unforgettable Falstaffian figure, riding in Mardi Gras parades and cowboy regalia, throwing trinkets to the crowd. He turned his battle with obesity into a running joke, such as this TV's spot from his brief campaign for governor in 1995.

(Soundbite of ad)

Sheriff LEE: I've lost 70 pounds and now I'm running for governor. I'm going to fight crime and make Louisiana safe, just like I have at Jefferson Parish.

Unidentified Woman: Harry, dinner.

Sheriff LEE: I'll be right back.

BURNETT: Lee lost interest in being governor because nothing to his thinking could compare with being the sheriff of Jefferson Parish, which he likened to being king. The flamboyant white-haired sheriff was interviewed last October inside his fortress-like headquarters in a large office filled with antique guns and carved duck decoys.

Sheriff LEE: I have no unions. I don't have civil service. I hire and fire at will, and I set (unintelligible) salary at will. I'm a one man vote. I'm the head of the law enforcement district and the law enforcement district only has one vote, which is me.

BURNETT: Lee began his political career as driver and aide to his mentor, the late Congressman Hale Boggs. For decades, Lee ran one of the last great political machines in South Louisiana. Some citizens were afraid to cross him. If his deputies wanted to advance, they were required to sell tickets to his annual hundred-dollar-a-seat birthday bash, the money going into a political and charitable slush fund.

But parish residents generally praised Lee's operation, which boasted quick response times, a low crime rate, and a high felony arrest rate. Outside of his parish, however, Harry Lee was largely known for racial controversies. He repeatedly made national news when he ordered his deputies to round up and question suspicious-looking black men because they might be criminals.

On these occasions, Lee would cringe at the harsh publicity, but his popularity among his largely white constituency would invariably spike, said his longtime friend, state appeals court Judge Marion Edwards.

Judge MARION EDWARDS (Fifth Circuit, Court of Appeals, Louisiana): Things that would be devastating to some elected officials, people say, oh, that's just Harry.

BURNETT: Several black leaders in Jefferson Parish interviewed for an NPR profile last year said they didn't truly think Lee was racist, but he tended to shoot off his mouth and think about it later. The sheriff agreed.

Sheriff LEE: I just say whatever I feel and sometimes some of the things I say have been misinterpreted, and I've earned a reputation of being a racist because I say things that other people won't say.

BURNETT: Harry Lee kept his pledge to die in office. Recently, he filed to run for his eighth term as sheriff from the hospital where he was undergoing chemotherapy in Houston. In May, as his health failed, a group of black ministers, who'd been longtime critics of the sheriff, gathered at his office to pray for his healing.

When we were done, one told the Times-Picayune, there were tears in his eyes.

John Burnett, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Burnett
John Burnett is a national correspondent based in Austin, Texas, who has been assigned a new beat for 2022—Polarized America—to explore all facets of our politically and culturally divided nation. Prior to this assignment, Burnett covered immigration, Southwest border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.