IMAGE: Harry Lee
Judi Bottoni  /  AP
Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee speaks at a press conference in January in Gretna, La.
updated 10/1/2007 5:54:12 PM ET 2007-10-01T21:54:12

Harry Lee, the seven-term suburban New Orleans sheriff whose blunt talk sometimes led to sour relations with black leaders, died Monday, several months after announcing he had leukemia, his chief deputy said. He was 75.

Lee said in April he had leukemia. Although he reported in June that it was in remission, it returned in August. Even so, Lee signed up to run for re-election as sheriff of Jefferson Parish in the Oct. 20 election.

Characteristically plainspoken, he told a New Orleans television station that anyone who ran against him would be committing “political suicide.”

Even in a state with a long history of brash and controversial politicians — fiery orators like Huey and Earl Long, country singer Jimmie Davis, the dapper Edwin Edwards — Lee cut an uncommon figure: a rotund, white-haired Chinese-American with a penchant for western wear and a love of country music.

“As a law enforcement professional and as a fixture of Louisiana politics, Harry Lee was one of a kind,” Gov. Kathleen Blanco said. “It is sad that Louisiana has lost such an extraordinary and colorful leader.”

Sheriff tenure marked by clashes
It was his clashes with black leaders as sheriff of the mostly white New Orleans suburb that often made news during his nearly three decades as sheriff.

The most recent such disagreement came after Hurricane Katrina devastated the region on Aug. 29, 2005. Lee’s agency faced an upsurge in crime, blamed largely on the illegal drug business that had been dislodged from neighboring New Orleans.

Lee prompted outrage by suggesting his deputies could randomly question young black men in high-crime areas. Lee later abandoned the plan, but made no apologies for it.

In 1987, he was blamed by many for putting up temporary barricades between mostly black New Orleans and mostly white Jefferson Parish. The barricades were actually ordered up by the Jefferson Parish Council, according to news reports. However, Lee was quoted as saying at the time that the controversy might help his re-election bid that year.

In another incident, following a rash of robberies in white neighborhoods, he ordered his deputies to arbitrarily stop “young blacks in rinky-dink cars” driving in white neighborhoods. He later backed off.

When nutria, large water-loving rodents, started digging holes in the vital levee system, Lee sent armed deputies to hunt them down, leaving more than a few animal rights activists displeased.

True rarity in La. politics
All the brouhahas never seemed to hurt popular support for this true rarity in Louisiana politics. Lee always denied charges of bigotry and said they were hurtful for a man born in the back room of a Chinese laundry in New Orleans at the height of the Great Depression in 1932.

“Even when people disagreed with his techniques, few doubted his dedication,” said New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who is black. “He was an original, and he will be missed.”

Lee, who made a brief, abandoned run for governor in 1995, was immensely popular in Jefferson Parish and politicians running for statewide office often sought his support.

Lee’s death means qualifying for the Oct. 20 sheriff’s race must be reopened, and absentee ballots already sent will not count.

Two challengers had entered the race earlier. If more candidates enter the race this week the primary will be pushed back to Nov. 17; otherwise the Oct. 20 election date will not be changed.

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