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Contest for Erie County DA takes a sudden turn: no Franczyk

The “plan” for the 2016 Erie County district attorney contest seemed to be all but finalized.

Thomas P. Franczyk would leave the County Court bench to challenge interim District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty Jr. this September in a titanic Democratic primary.

But Democrats are straying mightily from the script this week after Franczyk said he would forgo the race and remain a county judge, stunning the local Democratic hierarchy who had been poised to support him.

Now, Flaherty dominates the fray with a host of advantages after only a week of “incumbency” following the November election of his predecessor – Frank A. Sedita III – to State Supreme Court.

And as other Democrats such as former Tonawanda Town Justice John J. Flynn Jr. are suddenly exploring the race, Flaherty continues to capitalize on his new post’s bully pulpit.

“He’s certainly made the right political moves,” County Conservative Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo observed Wednesday. “He has made some strong and affirmative steps, and they all send a good signal for him.”

Even before his potential main rival stepped aside late Tuesday, Sedita’s longtime top assistant was racking up political points, including:

• The Buffalo News’ Tuesday night revelation that Flaherty unexpectedly decided to reinvestigate the 2013 hit-and-run death of Evans resident Barry T. Moss – which Sedita had refused to prosecute despite significant pressure from police.

• Flaherty’s promise soon after Sedita’s election to establish a Public Integrity Unit to investigate political and government corruption, following several years in which Sedita was criticized for failing to prosecute offenses such as election law violations.

• A bulging campaign treasury that finance chairman James J. Eagan said will top $275,000 following another Flaherty fundraiser set for Monday at Statler City in downtown Buffalo.

• An experienced campaign team that includes several operatives with strong ties to the state Democratic Committee.

• The possibility (though nothing is guaranteed) of a cross-endorsement from county Republicans, who backed Democrat Sedita in the last district attorney race, in 2012.

• A local Democratic organization left reeling by the Franczyk decision after investing significant political capital in his candidacy.

One source familiar with the situation said that as late as Sunday, Franczyk was committed to running. The source pointed out that Franczyk already enjoyed significant backing in the legal community, boasted a stellar résumé and could count on strong Polish-American support.

“He was in; he wanted to do this,” the source said. “All of a sudden, he’s out. (On Tuesday) it all came tumbling down.”

Franczyk told The News late Tuesday that he had reconsidered running “after much reflection and discussion with my family and friends.”

“I have never been a declared candidate for district attorney, but after giving it a lot of thought, I decided I am happy with my life the way it is,” Franczyk said. “I have a life that is really good; one I really appreciate.”

Now others such as Flynn, who has explored numerous elective posts over the last several years, are looking at filling the void left by Franczyk. He did not return a phone call Wednesday, but Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner said Flynn has expressed interest.

Zellner, meanwhile, downplayed the widespread assumption that Franczyk would be the party’s candidate.

“Tim was never a candidate,” Zellner said Wednesday, referring to the judge by his nickname. “Where we are today is the same as yesterday – we’re in a process to find the strongest candidate for the community.”

Most sources say it remains too early to determine whether Flaherty will now seek the Democratic organization backing that Franczyk seemed to have wrapped up months ago. But a unified Democratic Party would almost certainly bolster any candidate’s chances in a presidential election year expected to turn out lots of Democratic voters.

“Of course, he would want it,” the source close to the situation said of Flaherty. “The only thing standing between Flaherty and becoming DA is Democratic headquarters.”

Lorigo, meanwhile, also said he spoke with Flynn several times Wednesday about possible support from the Conservative Party. But he said he also will consider Flaherty and others who might be interested.

“He has a year to show what his way of running that office will be like,” Lorigo said of Flaherty. “He’s taken a number of steps to show how he will run it and not necessarily as his predecessor did.”

County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy said he will soon announce a “process” by which his party will select a candidate, adding he hopes to find a GOP contender despite the daunting odds presented by a presidential year in a Democratic county.

“I still think there’s a great opportunity here,” he said. “We hope to find an aggressive Republican candidate to hopefully be the next DA.”

When asked about the possibility of the GOP backing for a Democrat, however, Langworthy said that “everything is on the table.”

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com and dherbeck@buffnews.com