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Published:October 1st, 2007 09:10 EST
Longtime Sheriff Harry Lee Dies

Longtime Sheriff Harry Lee Dies

By SOP newswire

Harry Lee, the longtime sheriff of Jefferson Parish and a colorful mainstay of public life in the metro New Orleans area, died Monday morning after a months-long battle with leukemia. He was 75.

Jefferson Parish has "lost a true leader," Acting Sheriff Newell Normand said.

Lee was hospitalized Sunday morning after he had trouble breathing, Normand said. He was taken to Ochsner Hospital and placed on a ventilator and sedatives.

In April, Lee announced that he'd been diagnosed with leukemia and had since undergone several rounds of treatment. In fact, he returned Wednesday from MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas and had been having a normal couple of days until the breathing problems occurred, Normand said.

"He was truly moved by the level of care, love and support he received," Normand said.

Lee had surgery for prostate cancer in January and in recent years has had knee and hip surgery and gastric bypass surgery to deal with obesity.

A rarity in Louisiana politics -- a Chinese-American in elected office -- Lee was first elected as sheriff in 1979 and was re-elected six times.

Despite his illness, Lee had planned on running for re-election again this fall.

"I'm telling you right now, if I qualify to run and I'm on a stretcher, I will win," Lee said.

At times, controversy seemed to surround Lee, but he remained popular with the residents in Jefferson Parish. Several weeks ago, Lee touted his political longevity and popularity as a warning for any potential opponents.

"If anybody ran against me, they would be committing political suicide. He would be so embarrassed he would never run for anything again," Lee said.

The son of immigrant parents, Lee was born in New Orleans in 1932. He graduated from Louisiana State University and Loyola University Law School, and he was a veteran commissioned officer of the U.S. Air Force.

Lee was appointed federal magistrate of the Eastern District of Louisiana in 1971. He resigned four years later and was appointed parish attorney for Jefferson Parish, a job he gave up when he was elected sheriff, beating longtime incumbent Alwynn Cronvich.

The sheriff was often criticized for his stance on how to fight crime by members of the black community. In February, Lee and Dr. Dwight McKenna, of the New Orleans Tribune, went toe-to-toe as they debated race relations and crime fighting.

One of the hot-button issues following Hurricane Katirna was why a majority-black group wasn't allowed into Jefferson Parish from New Orleans as they looked for shelter, food and water.

"The designated pickup center was the Convention Center. The designated place was not the bridge. We had no food or water. We didn't let Jefferson Parish people in. Why would we let New Orleans people in?" Lee said.

The Tribune issue that attacked the sheriff was about the "many hats of Harry Lee" -- one of which was shown as a Ku Klux Klan mask.

"What bothers me -- and what bothers me and my wife and my sister -- is that they say one of the hats I wore is that of a Ku Klux Klan member, and that offends me greatly," Lee said.

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