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In district attorney race, it's a question of experience

Republicans hope that Joseph V. Treanor III becomes that rare political candidate, a non-Democrat who can win a race for Erie County district attorney.

The Democrat whom Treanor must beat, John J. Flynn Jr., has years of experience with New York’s criminal courts after working as an assistant district attorney and defense lawyer and after presiding as a judge in the Town of Tonawanda and City of Buffalo.

Their race has not drawn the same level of fascination as the presidential contest, which every four years brings out the county’s huge surplus of Democrats and gives the Democratic DA candidate an edge. But as elected jobs in Erie County go, district attorney is among the most important.

In upstate New York’s most populous county, the Erie County DA’s Office employs some 90 prosecutors and opens around 30,000 cases a year. The salary, which parallels the salary given State Supreme Court judges, will top $190,000 in 2017, far more than paid to any other elected department head in county government.

Each candidate believes he has the right mix of experience, temperament, integrity and judgment.

Each candidate argues the other does not.

Joseph V. Treanor III

Early in the race, Treanor, 57, said he didn’t want to speak ill of opposing candidates. That has changed. He has been on the attack in his debates with Flynn, labeling him a politician because Flynn has considered, or was rumored to be considering, several offices over the years before launching into the DA’s race this year.

Treanor, a retired Air Force colonel, earned his law degree at the University of Notre Dame and does pro bono legal work for military veterans. He lives off his military pension. He retired from the Air Force in 2012 after serving 28 years as a military lawyer, handling a range of legal concerns, including criminal prosecutions under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. It’s not the same as New York’s Criminal Procedure Law, but Treanor says the military system robustly protects defendants, and its similarities with New York procedures mean he would be up to speed as DA in no time.

He says those years prepared him well to run the Erie County DA’s Office, and that he has essentially done the job. But in an interview with The Buffalo News editorial board, he agreed he has never supervised as many as 90 people at any one time.

Treanor grew up in North Buffalo, on Wallace Avenue off of Hertel Avenue. His father fought in World War II, and his grandfather in World War I, but neither made a career of the military. His mother was a Buffalo schoolteacher.

[RELATED: After 28 years as JAG officer, Treanor takes on Flynn for Conservative line in DA race]

Throughout his Air Force years, he refused to join a political party, and that was his preference in civilian life. Running for countywide office changed that because he needed a party label to run with. Treanor, who lives in Cheektowaga, enrolled as a Conservative in October 2015. The Republican Party, after considering others, endorsed him as its candidate and arranged the Independence line for him, too. He grabbed the Conservative line by winning a party primary against Flynn, whom Conservative leaders had endorsed. He also has the Reform Party line.

On some issues, there’s a clear ideological gulf between Treanor and Flynn, and none is wider than with the SAFE Act. Treanor says he would use prosecutorial discretion in handling violations of the state regulations on military-style rifles. He considers the SAFE Act unconstitutional and he says he doesn’t want to make criminals of otherwise law-abiding citizens. Flynn refuses to make his own value judgments about the laws DAs enforce.

On whether to open a criminal investigation into the 2012 death of Holding Center inmate Richard Metcalf, as the state Commission of Correction urges, Treanor refuses to answer the question because he considers it improper to comment on what could become a pending matter. But he adds an extra opinion about such cases:

“Law enforcement personnel often encounter extreme challenges not typically discussed or fully known to most in the general public.”

Flynn says that based on the commission’s report, the matter deserves investigation by the District Attorney’s Office.

John J. Flynn Jr.

Flynn’s answer about the Metcalf case is firm.

“What it shows is that I have the leadership abilities to do this job,” he said when Treanor pestered him about his stance during a debate at WNED-TV. “I am willing to take a stand, make a decision, not be wishy-washy and answer a question directly.”

Flynn, 50, grew up in East Aurora and received his law degree at the University at Buffalo. He has served as a Tonawanda councilman and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Buffalo State. He will also appear on the Working Families and Women’s Equality ballot lines

Reacting to the great numbers of minority defendants and widespread perceptions that the system treats them differently, Flynn said that, if elected, he will push to make the racial balance on his staff reflect the community at large. While right now, the prosecutors’ line-up is almost all white, Flynn said he would like to find job candidates of color who were raised in and around Buffalo. To accomplish this, he says he’ll tap into a mentoring program run by his current law partner, John V. Elmore, to find minority candidates.

Like Treanor, he supports the establishment of a public integrity unit within the office, a step undertaken by acting District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty Jr. this year, creating a contrast between him and the district attorney who handed him the keys when he became a State Supreme Court justice, Frank A. Sedita III.

[RELATED: One DA candidate would investigate inmate's death, other won't say]

In response to the opioid epidemic, Flynn told The News editorial board that he recognizes the difference between addicts and those who push illegal drugs. He promised aggressive treatment of the latter and promised to re-establish a stand-alone narcotics bureau.

It’s common for district attorneys to become judges, but Flynn says he’s not running for DA so he can someday go that route. He’s been a judge in the Town of Tonawanda, and in Buffalo, where he was an acting City Court judge. With those entries on the Flynn résumé, he talks up his experience and how it’s more significant than Treanor’s. Flynn has served as a military lawyer, too, with the Judge Advocate General Corps in the Naval Reserves. And he’s been an assistant district attorney and defense lawyer. Treanor, Flynn says, “has never handled a case in a New York courtroom.”

Unlike Treanor, who self-funds his campaign because he says district attorneys cannot even appear to be beholden, Flynn has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign money, much of it from local lawyers and law firms. He spent most of it, more than $300,000, to gather votes for the contentious Democratic Party primary, in which he beat Flaherty and Mark Sacha, a former prosecutor in the office. As for Treanor self-funding his campaign, Flynn counters that Treanor nonetheless lets the Republican Party spend the donations it receives to campaign on his behalf. Flynn refuses to take money from the DA’s staff, a traditional source of financing for incumbents.

Atop the ticket

Democrats have won every district attorney’s race since Erie County began electing its top prosecutors in presidential election years. This year, county Republican leaders expect the candidate atop their ticket, Donald J. Trump, will run strong in Erie County and draw votes for down-ballot candidates, including Treanor. Trump could give the GOP their best chance in years.

When asked recently, Treanor wouldn’t say whether he, too, will vote for Trump. He shouldn’t have to reveal his choice, he said. But he made it clear he will not vote for Hillary Clinton.
Because the prosecution team can be hired and fired at any time, the District Attorney’s Office provides unusual patronage opportunities for the party that wins the seat. This election brings other implications for the staff. In the recent succession of district attorneys to hold the office, each sprung from the top ranks of the office hierarchy, and each had an interest in protecting much of the status quo.

email: mspina@buffnews.com

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