John J. Flynn Jr., a former town judge who has long hoped to become Erie County’s top prosecutor, moved one giant step closer Tuesday as he captured a tight Democratic Party primary and ensured that acting District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty Jr., one of Flynn’s two opponents, will leave the office come January.
Flynn’s lead held steady through the evening with 45 percent of the vote, compared to Flaherty’s 41 percent. The third candidate in the race, Mark A. Sacha, polled at 14 percent. The turnout was light. About half as many people voted in this Democratic primary for DA as they did in the three-way primary for district attorney in 2008.
Flynn’s big night did not carry over to the Conservative primary. He had wanted to also place his name on the potent Conservative line as well as the Democratic, just as the Conservative Party leaders who endorsed him had hoped.
But Conservative Party member Joseph V. Treanor III, a retired Air Force colonel who served 28 years as a military lawyer, took around 60 percent of the Conservative vote late Tuesday to emerge as that party’s nominee.
Both men now head into November.
Treanor, 57, will appear on the Conservative, Republican and Independence Party lines as well as the Reform Party line.
Flynn, 50, will run on the Working Families Party line and the Women’s Equality line. But the label of Erie County’s largest political organization, the Democratic Party, should help him the most, just as it has helped the succession of Democrats who have won the office in presidential election years.
Flaherty, 51, and Sacha have no other ballot toehold and leave the race.
Flaherty raised more campaign money and spent more than Flynn in the runup to the primary, according to reports from their campaigns. And he capitalized on the name recognition he created as “acting” district attorney, the title that then-DA Frank A. Sedita III bestowed on his second-in-command when he left office to become a state judge at the end of 2015.
Flaherty’s office issued more than 200 press releases since January. He appeared at myriad photo opportunities with other law enforcement executives and he announced breakthroughs in high-profile cases. He announced charges in the months-old slaying at the world famous Anchor Bar on the eve of Primary Day. Shortly before that, he announced an arrest in a cold-case murder as he made his name recognizable from Boston to Buffalo.
But Flaherty’s connection to Sedita had its liabilities as well. Both Flynn and Sacha, who worked as prosecutors in the DA’s Office at different stages of their careers, questioned whether Flaherty, like his predecessor, would shy away from the tough cases. And they raised the name of G. Steven Pigeon, Buffalo’s best-known political operative, whenever the opportunity arose.
Pigeon is now under indictment, accused of bribing a judge. Sacha and others had believed there was an Election Law case to be made against him over the years, but Sedita never took one on. Instead, State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman began an investigation and secured the indictment.
When he claimed victory Tuesday night, Flynn said he wanted to “thank the citizens who knew and understood that there is a crisis of confidence in the DA’s Office.”
For his part, Sacha ran an underfinanced campaign that never gave him the traction to compete with Flynn or Flaherty. But he still gathered about 4,000 votes Tuesday as the candidate who publicly criticized his boss – Sedita – for giving Pigeon a pass. Sedita fired him.
Flynn is a former town judge in the Town of Tonawanda who now serves as town attorney. He served as a JAG lawyer in the Naval Reserves and has had his eye on several public offices over the years. This year, he was the Democratic Party leaderhip’s favored candidate, and the primary election was as much a test of his vote-gathering ability as it was a test for Party Chairman Jeremy Zellner and his ability to win a big race against the persistent party faction that gravitated around Pigeon. The Zellner-Flynn team was facing a crew of unapologetic operatives working on Flaherty’s behalf.
In one of the Flaherty team’s gambits, they grabbed a website domain name that Flynn surely would have found useful, flynnforda.com. Visitors there would have then found information about Flaherty. “We’re playing to win,” businessman James J. Eagan, a force inside the Flaherty team, said when the tactic was discovered. “It’s not dirty politics, it’s smart politics.” Still, the site was taken down.
The next Erie County district attorney will earn more than $190,000 in 2017 running an office with dozens of prosecutors who take on around 30,000 cases a year. It’s a busy, high-pressure job, and the salary – which parallels those given to State Supreme Court justices – dwarfs the salaries given to other countywide office-holders. That’s one reason why the office draws so much interest. But it’s also a stepping stone to a judgeship. And the job offers political figures close to the DA a chance to fill some jobs. All prosecutors serve at the will of the district attorney and can be hired and fired as the incumbents sees fit. DAs also have raked their employees for campaign contributions.
The election of the next district attorney will bring an unusual regime change. The recent succession of district attorneys to hold the office sprung from the top ranks of the office hierarchy. In 1996, Kevin M. Dillon chose not to run again, and top deputy Frank J. Clark won that year’s election and went on to serve three terms.
When Clark left office, the baton was handed to his top homicide prosecutor, Sedita, the son of a judge and grandson of a Buffalo mayor. Sedita ran the office for seven years and handed off to Flaherty. Flynn or Treanor will be the first DA to break that trend.