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Paladino condemnation of voting fraud charge may alter DA’s race

Months before campaigning gets anywhere near serious, this fall’s effort to elect the district attorney of Erie County is spawning fast and furious action behind the scenes.

It involves party leaders, Albany types, intraparty feuds, minor parties and lots of money. And while most observers expected the September Democratic primary to settle the issue, it now appears the voting habits of a minor political figure may have transformed the race.

Rus Thompson burst into local politics clad in revolutionary garb and a tricorner hat back around 2009 at the height of the tea party craze. The Grand Island construction executive attracted legions of fans with an anti-big government mantra that he proclaimed at tea party gatherings and in frequent calls to talk radio.

One of Thompson’s fans has always been Carl Paladino, another tea party hero. Indeed, Thompson and others visited Paladino’s Ellicott Square lair early in 2010 to propose a gubernatorial campaign. It didn’t take long to convince him, and Thompson found himself at Paladino’s side throughout 2010.

But when acting District Attorney Michael Flaherty recently slapped Thompson with a felony voting fraud charge, the race may have changed. Flaherty, challenging two others for the Democratic nomination, had seemed poised to claim the GOP nod, too. Democratic predecessor Frank Sedita III, after all, garnered bipartisan backing back in 2012.

But Flaherty riled up one of New York’s most influential Republicans in his efforts against Thompson. Paladino emerged as no fan of the acting DA and so informed GOP Chairman Nick Langworthy and Conservative Chairman Ralph Lorigo.

“Of course I expressed my feelings to him and Ralph,” Paladino said a few days ago. “A D felony and the possibility of four years in jail? I was livid.”

We’ll reserve the particulars of Thompson’s case for other spaces in The Buffalo News. But the politics remains relevant. Flaherty no longer figures in the local GOP’s plans. Republican Mark Arcara and Conservative Joe Treanor do. And a potentially fascinating general election looms for November.

Langworthy denies Paladino called any shots. He points out Lorigo’s Conservatives had already backed Democrat John Flynn for the post. He believed voters deserved a choice in November, and insists Paladino’s ire over Flaherty’s handling of the Thompson case never entered his political calculus.

“The two issues are not related in any way, shape or form,” the chairman said. “We decided to go forward with our own identity, and Rus Thompson’s legal problems are not the problems of the Erie County Republican Committee.”

Still, the contest for district attorney takes on new and unexpected hues. Flaherty, Flynn and Mark Sacha must now slug it out in the Democratic primary to face a Republican in November. Flaherty must win the primary to survive, with no minor party line. And even if he prevails in September, he could enter the general election with only one line.

Flaherty promised to pay attention to the election law violations some say Sedita pooh-poohed. Indeed, he is probing local connections involving New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s efforts in the 2014 State Senate campaigns. Big-time stuff.

But he has now discovered that even where the minor figure in the tricorner hat casts his vote may very well carry major political implications.

Still on Paladino, his close association with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign means he will continue basking in the statewide spotlight leading to another possible run for governor in 2018.

But Paladino limped out of his latest Buffalo Board of Education race with a narrow victory, and now officially sets his sights only on closer targets.

“Right now, I’m focused on Donald Trump,” he said a few days ago.

Still, Paladino may claim the inside lane in the 2018 race, especially after a potentially powerful Republican opponent – Rep. Chris Gibson of the Hudson Valley – recently announced he will leave politics at the end of this term to teach at Williams College.

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com