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Flaherty starts early in race to be new Erie County DA

First Assistant District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty Jr. declared his candidacy Wednesday, promising to replicate and even improve on the record of Frank A. Sedita III.

Flaherty appears to have traveled down the campaign trail past a mere announcement, assembling a top-notch political team to guide his efforts and scheduling his first fundraiser for Oct. 14.

But many Democrats also are predicting that Erie County Judge Thomas P. Franczyk eventually will enter a Democratic primary, and most observers believe more candidates will jump in.

While Flaherty gets an early start, Franczyk’s name is entering the discussions. He noted Wednesday he is prohibited by judicial rules from talking about any future political moves.

But myriad Democratic sources say he is weighing stepping off the bench to resume the prosecutorial role he once played in the District Attorney’s Office, and that he has already engaged in the “testing the waters” discussions allowed under judicial rules.

Flaherty, though, appears ready to embrace the Sedita record as district attorney. A behind-the-scenes administrator for most of his 18 years in the District Attorney’s Office, Flaherty says he will build on what Sedita has already accomplished. Sedita is guaranteed election to State Supreme Court in November with a cross endorsement by both major parties this week.

“I’m really proud of the work he has done as DA. I think he’s been outstanding,” Flaherty said of Sedita in an interview Wednesday. “I’m not going to let his legacy be tarnished.”

The candidate promises to eschew politics even as he criticizes elections controlled by party bosses. He says that he will create a Public Integrity Unit to root out corruption and probe election law violations that Sedita was criticized for avoiding.

Flaherty said he will not sit by while such cases flow to the state attorney general or U.S. attorney.

“The decisions to prosecute will not be based on political allegations, but where the facts lead,” he said. “Some people will be upset about that.”

But Flaherty, the son of the late Erie County Bar Association President Michael J. Flaherty Sr. and nephew of the late State Supreme Court Justice Thomas P. Flaherty, must eventually deal with a political process yet to unfold. Some of those developments to occur include:

• Flaherty will become acting district attorney on Jan. 1 following Sedita’s election on Nov. 3.

• His status may change in 2016 if Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo appoints him or someone else as interim district attorney, which would provide a significant advantage in the upcoming campaign.

• Cuomo, however, has made only what his aides call a “handful” of such interim appointments, preferring to let the voters fill vacancies.

• More Democrats are expected to enter the contest, while Republicans are also seeking a candidate.

Because the race looms off in the future, party officials say they must slog through the 2015 contests before turning attention to next year. Still, Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner may have provided a hint at the enthusiasm the party organization holds for Franczyk.

“Tim Franczyk is a dynamite judge and a great guy who would make a great DA,” he said, “but we’re nowhere near that yet.”

Other sources familiar with the organization also say it supports a Franczyk candidacy, even though any official announcement would be months in the future.

Republicans are looking to play a role next year, though they also are opting to let the process play out.

“We are obviously pursuing a Republican candidate,” said Erie County GOP Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy, “but everything is on the table. I have no chosen horse.”

Republicans face a major disadvantage in heavily Democratic Buffalo, ever since the district attorney election was moved to a presidential year in 1992. Since then, major Democratic turnout in presidential elections has ensured the office for the party, with the same dynamic expected to rule in 2016.

Flaherty, meanwhile, has assembled veteran political operatives Peter Kauffmann of New York City and Rich Horner of Buffalo to help guide his campaign. State Democratic Committee Treasurer James J. Eagan of Erie County will serve as finance chairman.

One political observer said Flaherty’s Oct. 14 fundraiser will prove an early test of his strength and set the stage for further developments.

“If Flaherty raises a lot, it might give Franczyk pause,” he said. “But if he raises only $40,000? Tim Franczyk then might just come off the bench.”