Winston Ho 何嶸.
Rutgers University, New Brunswick,
Departments of History and Asian Languages and Cultures
2015 Apr. 9 (revised 2020 Sep. 15, Tuesday).
[Harry Lee with wife Lai and daughter Cynthia Lee-Sheng, 1979. Note the House of Lee Restaurant in the background.]
Harry Lee 朱家祥 (1932 → 2007) was a native of New Orleans, a former Air Force and Louisiana Air National Guard officer, former president of the New Orleans chapter of the Louisiana Restaurant Association, former Federal Magistrate Court Judge, former Parish Attorney in Jefferson Parish, seven-term sheriff of Jefferson Parish, one-time candidate for governor of Louisiana, first Asian American to be elected to office in Louisiana, and first Chinese American to lead a law enforcement agency in the United States.
Ambitious, single-minded, altruistic, generous, flamboyant, outspoken, wildly popular, and controversial, Harry Lee was middle-aged and a largely unknown political outsider when he won his first election in 1979. Before that, Lee was best known as the son of the pioneering restaurateur Lee Bing 朱炳韶 (1903 → 1973), whose House of Lee 李家園 Chinese restaurant was one of the first in Jefferson Parish and one of the earliest major businesses in north Metairie.
In his first term, Sheriff Harry Lee transformed the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office (JPSO) from a semi-rural constabulary force, ill-equipped to cope with the big-city problems flooding into the growing parish from neighboring Orleans Parish, into the modern suburban law enforcement agency it is today. He increased spending on training and equipment, and he increased the diversity of JPSO by hiring more women and African Americans. Lee eventually reversed the rapid growth of violent crime in Jefferson Parish, while cultivating a celebrity status as the “Chinese Cowboy” and savior of the Parish. He counted celebrities among his friends, such as Steven Segal, Willie Nelson, and Aaron Neville. A lifelong Democrat, Lee formed friendships with other elected officials, such as governor Edwin Edwards, former presidents Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton, and Dutch Morial, the first African American mayor of the New Orleans. However, Harry Lee also gained a reputation for ignoring civil rights and inflaming racial tensions, while fighting multiple allegations of conflict of interest and ethical violations, often related to personal business ventures that took place during his tenure as sheriff. Over twenty-seven years, his deputies were accused of several high-profile incidents of discrimination and police brutality, culminating with the shooting incident involving evacuees from Orleans Parish on the Crescent City Connection bridge during Hurricane Katrina. In all incidents, Lee was a zealous and outspoken defender of the deputies under his command.
In private, Harry Lee was known for his compassion and generosity. There are countless stories of his personal acts of kindness — of Lee joining his deputies on a late night patrol unannounced, stopping to assist stranded motorists on his way home from work, or giving money from his own pocket to aid the victims of an apartment fire. He used his office and fame to raise money for philanthropic causes, including Children’s Hospital and the National WWII Museum. He remains beloved by most residents of Jefferson Parish today, especially his deputies, to whom he was devoted. Yet in public and on camera, a more contradictory Harry Lee appears, a Harry Lee that could be vindictive and unforgiving towards his critics, as former state representative Karen Carter Peterson discovered when she publicly criticized the sheriff over the shooting at the Crescent City Connection. Based on his record as a law enforcement officer, Lee was perhaps one of the most effective elected officials in Louisiana history, yet his achievements have been overshadowed by myth and controversy. The official 2001 biography of Harry Lee and the 2007 documentary were written by his campaign manger, Deno Seder. Thus, both the book and the DVD greatly oversimplifies the life of this fascinating but complex historical figure.
NolaChinese: Harry Lee 朱家祥 (https://nolachinese.wordpress.com/2016/03/09/harry-lee/).
Borne, Frank. “Jefferson Parish Sheriffs.” Jefferson History Notebook (vol. 8, no. 1, 2004 Feb.): p. 2-7. [There’s a copy of this journal in the Eastbank Regional Public Library in Metairie.]
Broach, Drew. “Lots of folks were wild about Harry Lee.” Times-Picayune (2009 Nov. 1). Accessed from the Times-Picayune (https://www.nola.com/opinions/article_1b7f2cb7-f0d6-5e11-b8ea-47a1b69612da.html).
Johnson, Allen Jr. “The Last Emperor: The Life and Times of Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee.” Gambit (1999 Feb. 23): p. 22-27, 29.
Judge Tom. Justice or Mercy Page. 2015. Accessed from Justice of Mercy (http://justiceormercy.com/2015/11/harry-lee/).
Lee-Sheng, Cynthia. “Councilmember Sheng Remembers Harry Lee.” WWL-TV. 2017 Jun. 12. Accessed from WWL-TV (http://www.wwltv.com/entertainment/television/programming/morning-show/happy-father-s-day-councilmember-sheng-remembers-harry-lee/447965055).
McCunn, Ruthanne Lum. “Harry Lee: Chinese Cowboy.” Chinese American Portraits, p. 127-131. Seattle, Washington: University of Washington Press, 1988.
Seder, Deno. Wild About Harry (1-hour DVD). 2007. Accessed from Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B4YBPPUPIH).
Seder, Deno. Wild About Harry: A Biography of Harry Lee. New Orleans, Louisiana: Edition Dedeaux, 2001.
Deno Seder Official Website (http://www.denosederproductions.com/) [Search for Harry Lee’s campaign advertisements on this website under “portfolio,” “political,” and 11 and 13.]
Horne, Jed. “Help Us, Please.” Times-Picayune (2005 Sep. 2). Accessed from the Pulitzer Prize official website (https://www.pulitzer.org/winners/times-picayune). [The Crescent City Connection is a twin bridge connecting the Eastbank of Orleans Parish to the Westbank of Orleans and Jefferson Parishes. The shooting incident at the Crescent City Connection was first reported in a single paragraph in the Times-Picayune, though its full scope was not known until the following week.]
Harris, Gardiner. “Police in Suburbs Blocked Evacuees, Witnesses Report.” New York Times (2005 Sep. 10). Accessed from the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/10/us/nationalspecial/police-in-suburbs-blocked-evacuees-witnesses-report.html). [A few days after the incident, a paramedic from San Francisco named Larry Bradshaw, who was among the evacuees at the Crescent City Connection, published an eyewitness account on the Internet. Several national newspapers began an investigation, discovering corroborating testimonies from other evacuees.]
Ballet et al. v. City of Gretna et al. 2009. Accessed from the U.S. Government Publishing Office (https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/USCOURTS-laed-2_06-cv-10859/pdf/USCOURTS-laed-2_06-cv-10859-0.pdf). [In the months following Katrina, evacuees involved the Crescent City Connection incident filed multiple civil suits against the City of Gretna and JPSO, all claiming a violation of their basic civil rights under the Fourteenth Amendment and other federal laws. Additional details were revealed, but all cases were later dismissed. While the plaintiffs argued that U.S. citizens had a basic right to flee from one place to another in an emergency, they encountered the legal quandary of access to public highways and bridges. Essentially, there is no constitutional right to access highways and bridges, and law enforcement have the legal right to restrict access for any public safety reason, in this case, pedestrian access on a bridge reserved for cars. Evidently, evacuees in cars were allowed to escape over the bridge, but not pedestrians. Moreover, other routes were available, such as walking on the Mississippi River Levee to the Eastbank of Jefferson Parish, where buses commandeered by the Louisiana State Patrol were indeed waiting on Airline and I-10 near Causeway Blvd.]
“Louisiana district re-elects Jefferson.” Washington Times (2006 Dec. 9) Accessed from the Washington Times (https://m.washingtontimes.com/news/2006/dec/9/20061209-115457-8612r/). [After the incident, former state representative Karen Carter Peterson from Orleans Parish personally attacked Harry Lee for his treatment of evacuees from the flooded city. Sheriff Lee retaliated by campaigning against her run for Congress in 2006, resulting in her defeat. As of 2020, Karen Peterson is a Louisiana state senator.]
[Commentary: I often talk about Harry Lee and his father, Lee Bing, in my research as a specialist in Chinese American history in New Orleans. As I am not a political historian nor a legal expert, I generally avoid discussing the politics of Lee’s tenure as sheriff, and I focus instead on how Lee ascended from poverty and total obscurity to become one of the most popular elected officials in the history of the Greater New Orleans area. However, there have been several incidents where I was told I was not allowed to talk about Harry Lee because he was “too controversial.” In most circumstances, I find myself defending the sheriff, or debunking myths from people who did not live in the Parish when he was in office. But of the many controversies surrounding his life, the Crescent City Connection incident has emerged as the most discussed and polarizing since his passing, with both passionate supporters and opponents of the sheriff Lee and JPSO. Although the incident was well known following Hurricane Katrina, to date, it has received only a passing interest from historians. There is a much larger question about the media coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the racialized perception of evacuees as looters and criminals. Indeed, there were looters and criminals among the evacuees, and Algiers and Terrytown, immediately under the bridge, suffered from several apparent acts of arson and burglary. There were also reports of starving and dehydrated evacuees breaking into stores and restaurants in search of food, as days had passed since the storm ended, and no instruction, no aid, and no evidence of rescue from city government or any other government official. Some evacuees used torches for lights in a city without electricity, starting fires by accident. While Gretna PD and JPSO may have been within their legal rights to close the bridge in a crisis, the question remains whether it was the best decision to prioritize the safety of one community over the safety of another, or whether some other solution could have been found –– a question that was raised in the weeks after the incident, and continues to be raised today.]