ONLY A FEW MONTHS IN AS JEFFERSON PARISH’S NEW PRESIDENT, CYNTHIA LEE SHENG IS RELYING ON HER PASSION FOR EFFICIENCY AND PARTNERSHIP TO LEAD THROUGH UNCHARTED WATERS.
When Cynthia Lee Sheng took office on Jan. 8, 2020, as president of Jefferson Parish, she became the first woman to ever hold the job, but not the first member of her family to step into politics. The only child of the late Harry Lee — who served as sheriff of Jefferson Parish from 1979 to 2007 — Sheng started honing her work ethic at age 12, when she began working at her family’s restaurant, House of Lee, in Metairie.
Unlike her father, a spontaneous, jocular and occasionally combative man with a larger-than-life reputation, Lee Sheng presents herself as a cool, numbers-driven leader, more comfortable with metrics and process than with making speeches and politicking. Harry Lee entered politics from a law background, but his daughter traces her interest in public service to a class she took as an undergraduate at Loyola University: Social Issues in Administration 450.
“It was about federal regulation, understanding why we have to regulate society. You’d read about a baby food case that
people got sick on, or you’d read the book about the meat industry [“The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair]. It was all these cases of how and when do you need to regulate the public sector and the private sector and the intersection. What amount of
regulation? It was just fascinating to me.
“Up until then I was going to get a master’s in business administration. I remember leaving a class one day with the thought that I wanted to go into government now. I went to my professors, and said, ‘I love this.’ And one of my professors said, “Yeah, that would be public administration.”
Lee Sheng continued her education with a graduate degree from George Washington University and went to work for Immigration and Naturalization Services, eventually overseeing naturalization duties for a five-state area.
“I became very good at understanding how to make it more efficient, at getting more daily numbers from reorganizing
things,” she said. “That whole kind of logistics side.”
By now married, the mother of a young son and wanting another child, yet traveling a lot for work, Lee Sheng decided to change careers. She took enough classes at the University of New Orleans to sit for the CPA test, passed it and went to work for what is now the LaPorte accounting firm, specializing in litigation services and forensic investigations.
“Sometimes it might be a company that had an employee steal from them, or they would bring us boxes and boxes and say,
‘Something’s not right with our receivables, but we can’t figure it out,’” she said of her early work.
When her father was diagnosed with leukemia in 2007, Lee Sheng began stepping gingerly into the public spotlight,
representing her family before organizations that wanted to honor Harry Lee.
Then one day, while watching a TV news report about a corrupt Louisiana politician, her husband, Stewart Sheng, turned to her and said, “You really need to run for public office. You’d be good at it.” Within a week, three other acquaintances
independently told her the same thing.
“That was the first time that it actually hit in my head, like it’s a possibility,” she said.
Lee Sheng decided to enroll in Loyola’s Institute of Politics, but when Jennifer Sneed abruptly resigned from the Parish
Council in 2008, she quit attending and started campaigning. She won the 5th District seat that year and, in 2015, the
Division B parish-wide seat.
Last year, with Jefferson Parish President Mike Yenni politically damaged and not seeking re-election, she ran to succeed
him. She defeated former Jefferson Parish President John Young and another candidate for the administrative job that she
said she always preferred over legislative duties, even if it carries less authority than that of the mayor of New Orleans.
Among her first actions as president was to throw out the administration’s organization chart and create her own. Her chart features service clusters and less of a hierarchy, a move intended to set the stage for progress.
Then COVID-19 arrived in Louisiana. “It’s like hurricane time, where there’s no other discussions going on,” she said
in an interview with Biz New Orleans in March.
You’re the first female Jefferson Parish president. Is that a big deal?
Well, for me, I always would say, “I’m the same person I always was.” But when I was on the campaign trail, I would see the reaction other people had — even from men. You would think women would say, “Oh, you’re going to be the first female,” but it was equally just as many men. I certainly could see what a milestone it was, to realize the importance of it through other people’s eyes more than my own eyes.
What initiatives have you put in place?
I think every leader has to have an organization that makes sense to them, and the organization chart before never really made sense to me. So, we redid it. We cleared my table, and I had [executive assistant] Michelle [Forsythe] write every department on an index card, and I sat and just looked at each card and said, “You know, does this department serve our constituents, or does this department serve us?”
What does it say about you that your first big initiative was not, “We’re going to spend a half a billion dollars fixing the roads or overhauling drainage or doing some public-facing thing,” but instead is an internal shakeup of job functions and organization?
For us to perform at our best, you have to look at it from the inside first. If we’re going to do anything well, it’s about setting up a team that makes sense. I’m going to meet with every single cluster once a month. My job is to take this to the next level, whatever that looks like. So I check in with every cluster once a month, and I keep them on track for that. That’s how I see my job. They’re going to be held accountable to me.
What are the great strengths of Jefferson Parish, particularly for potential businesses and existing businesses?
You know, we have such an incredible public works department. I think that’s a great strength when it comes to where a business locates.
We have incredible communication among all of us. We have a really strong business community that works very closely with government. And I think what you’ll see with this COVID-19, it’s an even stronger alliance. I am on the phone all the time with our major healthcare providers. I’m on the phone with Cade Brumley [superintendent of Jefferson public
schools] multiple times a day. I’m on the phone with [President] Todd Murphy of the Jefferson Chamber, [Executive Director] Tim Coulon with the Jefferson Business Council, JEDCO, all the time. So, in kind of a strange way, this is solidifying relationships even stronger. And I just feel something better is going to come. What that is, I don’t know yet.
What’s another strength of Jefferson Parish?
We’ve got great rail, and we’ve got a great port that’s all interconnected. It’s got six Class I railroads. The Mississippi River is such an asset for us. So, the interconnectivity with the airport to our port to our railroads, infrastructure-wise, that’s huge. And our water resources are huge for us, the fact that we have access to those things.
What are the parish’s big weaknesses?
The big weakness in our parish is the aging infrastructure for the water and sewer systems. We also have an aging population; that’s a particular concern to me with this virus. We need more industry here to keep our young families here.
One of the issues that’s really big for us is housing. We have an aging infrastructure of housing and that doesn’t easily attract a young family when you have an expensive neighborhood but a 40-yearold house with low ceilings and not open kitchens and open dining rooms. A lot of our housing is like that.
What are you doing about it?
Terrytown is a great pilot project for us. It’s so close to Orleans Parish, so close to Oakwood [Center shopping mall] and there are incredible, incredible housing options there — good bones. We hired Tulane to do an architectural study of what’s there. We want to find a renovation, and we want to have an empty lot and build a new house. We’ve been working with the Home Builders Association, with JEDCO. We did a blue-ribbon committee, and then the Home Builders Association, through its nonprofit, just purchased a property. We want to light the spark to get the private sector interested in flipping houses in that area. We’re going to buy a lot and build a house, and we’ll sell it on the market and then, hopefully, replenish the fund and try to do it again, just to try to show a template of “look what can be done here.”
What are you doing about the other weaknesses?
We’re going to look at our sewerage. We’re trying to [add] backup generators, and we need to upgrade our water
system altogether and get to where we have those meters that are kind of automatic readers.
We also need more industry to attract and keep families who are of working age. We’re always looking at our targeted industries: water transportation, food, health care, IT [and environmental management]. These are all sectors that we think we in Jefferson Parish are positioned to be strategic about and competitive.
If I’m a business person in the community or I’m a business person elsewhere who’s thinking about relocating, what are some things that you, the government, can do to attract me, and make me say, “Wow, that’s the place to go”?
We’re limited by our land capacity, right? You go to Texas, and they can just keep building out. We have land on the West Bank that’s open — the Fairfield area, the whole Churchill area. That is really the only available open land.
I think if we look at the zoning, the game-changer is going to be Elmwood [Center, a shopping area], the live-workplay that they’re looking to do. There are a lot of industrial uses behind Elmwood. If we can expand that live-work-play and it’s really successful, the industrial uses can flip right over to the other side of the river and be strong for us over there. We can make sure the zoning matches.
Testing is such a big focus as we move forward with COVID-19. What has that looked like in Jefferson Parish?
Louisiana was one of four states approved for a federal pilot drive-through testing. New Orleans got two sites, and we got one site [at the John A. Alario Sr. Event Center]. We’re not in the healthcare business, so we’re having to figure out how to stand up a site to do health care.
I wanted full capacity. I’m allowed to do 250 [tests per day]. We could do 1,000 a day if they let us, but the limit on the through-put is the testing facility to be able to test the swabs we give them.
We understand that widespread testing is crucial during this pandemic and key to moving our community forward. We continue to offer free COVID-19 testing every day at the Alario Center. We also stood up some community testing sites around the parish. We were thrilled to partner with LCMC Health, the New Orleans Health Department and the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center to conduct mobile testing for COVID-19 at our Marrero Community Center. The mobile campaign was developed to bring walk-up testing to neighborhoods that have been heavily affected by COVID-19, with the goal of identifying early cases. We tested 1,000 people in just three days at this site. We were also so grateful to partner with Ochsner Health, the City of Gretna and the City of Kenner on standing up more walk-up test sites. We hosted a walk-up site at the Regular Baptist Church in Gretna on May 7 and at the Kenner Library on May 8.
What things have you done to bring business back?
[For restaurants and bars], we lifted all the regulations for signs [announcing businesses were open]. We said, “Get those plastic board signs, put them up all over the neutral ground.” I called in my property maintenance and zoning director and said, “Do not issue any enforcement measure; let a restaurant put up extra signage on their building.”
My administration, along with the Jefferson Parish Council, has also worked closely with the Jefferson Parish Economic Development Commission to release the Jefferson Back to Business Plan. This comprehensive strategy — developed in concert with medical leaders and an industry task force — will enable Jefferson Parish to reopen the economy in a way that is thoughtful, careful and rooted in public health to ensure the safety of residents and employees. We know this has been a difficult time for our business community and for the livelihoods of many of our residents.
My administration and the Jefferson Parish Council continue to work daily to meet the needs of the community. We have hosted dozens of free mask giveaways — thanks in large part to a generous donation of cloth masks from Hanes Co. Our council has also worked closely with Second Harvest and Jefferson Council on Aging to distribute food to those in need throughout Jefferson Parish.
Government has a reputation of being slow. We don’t have a competitor, so it can be slow, right? Nobody’s going to come put us out of business. But that’s no excuse. I want us to be excellent. I want people to be impressed.
I asked our directors, I said, “You might not be able to figure out an answer in 24 hours, but can you get back to someone in 24 hours?” Like in the restaurant industry: It’s a crazy Saturday night. It’s packed. You go in, and you see everybody walking around. But if the hostess comes up to you and acknowledges you and says, “I’ll be with you in a minute,” you feel like you’re taken care of. You understand, and it buys the restaurant some time.
It is hurricane-style with us, in terms of the speed at which we’re having to move. But everybody’s still here in the community, whereas in a hurricane everybody leaves. So who knows what’s next?
WHOM DO YOU LOOK UP TO?
So many people I can’t pick just one, but I really admire people who give in a big way, whether monetarily or through effort, and don’t want to be recognized or known.
BIGGEST LIFE LESSON LEARNED?
I have learned that it is the tough times in life that make you stronger and give you your character. Whenever I am able to speak with young people I always try to reinforce that message.
BEST ADVICE EVER RECEIVED?
When my dad was sick, he was telling me stories about his life. He mentioned that his dad sat him down when he was younger and told him to never miss any opportunities that life provides you. Whenever I have a decision to make, I always think of that conversation.