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Erie County Democratic leaders back John Flynn for DA, reject Michael Flaherty

In a clear and emphatic break from the legacy of former District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III, Erie County Democrats on Saturday rejected his former top assistant and unanimously endorsed John J. Flynn Jr. of the Town of Tonawanda for the post.

Michael J. Flaherty Jr., the acting district attorney, was nominated but received no second. Now Flynn and Flaherty will wage a primary contest, with an expected third candidate – former Assistant District Attorney Mark A. Sacha – also expected in the battle.

Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner made it clear that despite the party’s support for Sedita for district attorney and Supreme Court justice in past years, the party now seeks a “new direction.”

“The legacy that Mike Flaherty will continue in that office is a legacy of not prosecuting tough crimes and a legacy of doing things politically,” Zellner said. “It’s hard for me to believe things are going to change when you’re first deputy and been there for 7 ø years and telling the community all kinds of things they want to hear.

“Today shows an overwhelming amount of support from throughout this community that wants to see that office changed,” he added.

And though Flaherty sought the endorsement, his campaign was quick to chart a course independent of the party.

“Michael Flaherty is a career prosecutor who always puts the people’s interests first – which is why he is pushing for a bold set of ethics reforms to crack down on corruption and take government back for the people it serves,” spokeswoman Maggie McKeon said. “It’s not surprising that party bosses would prefer a perennial candidate to try to preserve their hold on power.”

Flynn, 49, has been a formal or informal candidate for a number of Democratic offices over the years. But the strong backing he gained from party leaders Saturday indicates he will enjoy the organization’s support in the expected three-way race.

“The first thing that I will try to do is instill confidence back in that office,” Flynn said, questioning some of Flaherty’s efforts to separate himself from Sedita, such as establishing a new unit to prosecute public corruption.

“It’s easy to establish a public corruption unit after you’ve been deputy for eight years and done nothing,” he said. “That was a politically expedient move on his part.”

Flynn also said he believes the current relationship between the District Attorney’s Office and the area law enforcement community is at its lowest point in years, and that it is “begging for change.”

In addition, he promised to banish politics from the office and to hire more minorities.

A former assistant district attorney, Tonawanda councilman and town justice, Flynn now serves as town attorney and is in practice with Steve Boyd Attorneys. He is a commander in the United States Naval Reserve, and while on active duty was attached to the Judge Advocate General’s Corps as officer-in-charge of legal counsel at the United States Naval Academy, where he also taught ethics and military law.

Flynn earned his law degree from University at Buffalo Law School and teaches courses on legal issues in the political science department of SUNY Buffalo State. He also is the nephew of former District Attorney Edward C. Cosgrove.

“Is there anything I haven’t done?” he jokingly asked his party supporters Saturday.

A vigorous campaign is now expected in the September Democratic primary and November general election.

Republicans have established a search committee headed by former State Attorney General Dennis C. Vacco that hopes to lure one of their own into the race, though any member of the GOP will be handed a tough assignment when turnout in overwhelmingly Democratic Erie County is expected to be strong this presidential election year.

Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy has indicated “everything is on the table” regarding the possibility of GOP support for a Democrat. Republicans supported Democrat Sedita in 2012.

Zellner said that while Flynn will seek backing from the Conservatives and other minor parties, he will not ask for Republican support.

Flaherty, meanwhile, has also distanced himself from his predecessor by establishing a Public Integrity Unit to probe corruption after Sedita was accused of ignoring election law violations and similar crimes.

The Buffalo News has also reported that Flaherty will reopen the 2013 hit-and-run death of Evans handyman Barry T. Moss after Sedita declined to prosecute a suspect identified by police.

Still, Flaherty enters the race with an “incumbency” advantage after essentially running the District Attorney’s Office since Sedita was elected to the bench in November. He has almost $300,000 on hand and will rely on a seasoned group of political strategists in Buffalo and New York City with close ties to the State Democratic Committee.