boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe

Harry Lee, 75; sheriff often at odds with black leaders

Harry Lee was sheriff of Jefferson Parish in Louisiana for seven terms. Harry Lee was sheriff of Jefferson Parish in Louisiana for seven terms. (ap/file 2007)

METAIRIE, La. - 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 revealing he had leukemia, his chief deputy said. He was 75.

Despite his disease, Mr. Lee signed up to run for reelection as sheriff of Jefferson Parish in the Oct. 20 election. Characteristically plainspoken, Mr. Lee 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 colorful politicians - fiery orators such as Huey and Earl Long, country singer Jimmie Davis, the dapper Edwin Edwards - Mr. 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," Governor Kathleen Blanco said. "It is sad that Louisiana has lost such an extraordinary and colorful leader."

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. Mr. Lee's agency faced an upsurge in crime, blamed largely on the illegal drug business that had been dislodged from neighboring New Orleans.

Mr. Lee prompted outrage by suggesting his deputies could randomly question young black men in high-crime areas. Mr. 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, Mr. Lee was quoted as saying at the time that the controversy might help his reelection bid that year.

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

All the brouhaha never seemed to hurt popular support for this true rarity in Louisiana politics. Mr. 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 Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans, who is black. "He was an original."

More from Boston.com

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES