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Flynn fights ‘perennial candidate’ tag in battle for DA post

For more than a decade, any significant political opening in Erie County seemed to automatically attract the name of John J. Flynn Jr.

The veteran attorney, whom Erie County Democrats endorsed Saturday for district attorney, is listed as “interested in” or seeking 10 different political posts in Buffalo News archives since 2003, ranging from town councilman to Democratic elections commissioner to State Supreme Court justice.

But now Flynn has finally gained the backing of local Democratic leaders as he prepares for a September primary against acting District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty Jr. and former Assistant District Attorney Mark A. Sacha for the top prosecutor’s post.

And that also means he now draws fire from his opponents, both of whom emphasize Flynn’s regularly scheduled ambitions of the past. Following the weekend endorsement, the Flaherty campaign was quick to label Flynn a “perennial” candidate. And Sacha followed on Monday by claiming neither of his opponents is qualified for the post.

“They are career politicians, not career prosecutors,” Sacha said. “One sold his soul to [former District Attorney] Frank Sedita as campaign manager and right-hand man. The other jumps from political job to political job, depending upon what is available. Politics is what ails the District Attorney’s Office. Less politics, not more, is the remedy.”

Flaherty would not directly address Flynn’s many candidacies in the manner of his campaign spokeswoman over the weekend, who said “party bosses would prefer a perennial candidate.” But he made it clear he will not have to face the same claims.

“I am an independent prosecutor whose sole focus is on helping make our community safer,” Flaherty said. “Would I have liked to be given the endorsement? Sure.

“But the public knows that any decision I make, any person I hire, or any case I prosecute is not because I owe anyone, but because it’s the right thing to do,” he added. “Especially in this climate when the public is so suspicious of elected officials.”

The News has reported on several occasions that Flynn was mentioned as interested in or actively seeking: sheriff in 2005, county executive in 2007, state senator in 2008, district attorney in 2008, State Supreme Court justice in 2009, party chairman in 2012, Democratic elections commissioner in 2012, and Court of Claims judge in 2015.

But Flynn labels as “unfair” many of those descriptions, pointing out that he officially ran for only two offices – Tonawanda town justice and Tonawanda councilman – in the last 13 years. He said most of the other instances in which his name was associated with political openings stemmed from the efforts of former Erie County Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan, a close ally.

“So I’m not sure how running twice classifies me as a perennial candidate,” he said. “Every other time it was the party leaders coming to me. I never put my name out there except for DA eight years ago.”

Flynn denies ever expressing interest in the party chairmanship, though insiders still say he did. He said he mulled running for sheriff after Lenihan approached him; ditto for county executive and consideration for a State Supreme Court vacancy. He said Town of Tonawanda Democratic Chairman John J. Crangle asked him to consider the Senate run, adding that he eventually said no.

Flynn acknowledged actively seeking the district attorney’s post in 2008, yielding after Sedita snared the Democratic endorsement. He also acknowledged unsuccessfully seeking the 2015 Court of Claims gubernatorial appointment eventually won by former State Sen. Mark J. Grisanti. He also said he was among those whose names were submitted to a judicial screening panel to fill a Supreme Court vacancy under consideration by then-Gov. David A. Paterson in 2009.

He also acknowledged that the panel did not submit his name to Paterson because at that point he had only been a town justice for two years. He said the panel recommends judicial candidates as either “highly qualified or not,” and that his lack of experience in relation to other candidates removed his name from consideration.

“I understand there is a perception out there, and that in politics, perception is reality,” Flynn said. “But this is unfair because in 75 percent of these I was not the initiator. I definitely think the idea of ‘perennial candidate’ is unfair because I’ve only been a candidate twice in 13 years.”

Some observers have questioned Saturday’s unanimous endorsement for Flynn after he ran against the organization in 2012 as the elections commissioner candidate associated with then-Cheektowaga Democratic Chairman Frank C. Max Jr., who challenged Jeremy J. Zellner for chairman. But party insiders say Flynn’s anti-headquarters candidacy at the time stemmed from pressure exerted on some party leaders by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s political organization, which at the time was aiming to topple the Lenihan-Zellner wing of the party.

“They came to me on that, and I pulled back,” Flynn explained, also labeling as “absolutely untrue” any suggestion that he expressed interest in the party chairmanship.

Zellner praised Flynn following Saturday’s endorsement as symbolizing the party’s effort to distance itself from the controversial Sedita. And on Monday he said Flynn’s selection demonstrates that after Sedita’s seven years in office, party leaders would not settle on a “hand-picked headquarters guy.”

“For us to support him shows how strongly we believe in his qualities, especially given that he has not always been an ally of the Erie County Democratic Committee or myself,” Zellner said. “It doesn’t bother me at all because I know he’s all in for this race.”

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com