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Mt. Lebanon attorney wins Democratic nod for county controller

Another Flaherty's a winner

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

By Jeffrey Cohan, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Mark Patrick Flaherty stands poised to follow his father and uncle into political office after defeating two prominent competitors last night for the Democratic nomination for Allegheny County controller.

Democratic nominee for Allegheny County Controller Mark Patrick Flaherty glances at a television screen for the latest poll results while getting a congratulatory hug from his mother Katy Flaherty last night at an election night party at Heinz Field. With 100 percent of the vote in, Flaherty defeated challengers James Simms and Larry Dunn. He will face off against Republican Joe Scioscia in the general election. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

More Primary 2003 Coverage
• Visit Allegheny County's election page for more details on county races.

• Download a detailed .pdf file of unofficial primary voting results for Allegheny and Westmoreland counties published in the late edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
You must have Adobe Acrobat Reader to view this file.

Tables with primary results for Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Greene and Washington counties will be published in Thursday print editions of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

• For more reports from around the region on yesterday's primary visit our Elections page

Flaherty, a Mt. Lebanon attorney, beat former board of county commissioners Chairman Larry Dunn and former County Council President James Simms in the marquee matchup of yesterday's primary.

The son of Jim Flaherty, a former county commissioner, and nephew of Pete Flaherty, a former county commissioner and Pittsburgh mayor, lived up to family standards in an unusually competitive row-office race.

"This brings back memories," said his aunt, Helen Flaherty Smith. "It's a great feeling to see another Flaherty coming in who has the talent."

In other row-office primaries yesterday, incumbent Valerie McDonald Roberts secured the Democratic nomination for recorder of deeds, defeating Ron Panza; and former county Councilwoman Eileen Wagner beat fellow Democrat Jeff Woodard for the register of wills nomination.

None of the other row office candidates faced opposition yesterday.

Flaherty, in a race against two seasoned politicians, achieved victory in his first run for public office.

On the campaign trail, the 41-year-old handed out little sponges, pledging to clean up the county's property assessment system.

"I think a lot of taxpayers and voters identified with that issue," Flaherty said last night during a victory party at Heinz Field Stadium Club East.

The race livened up the election season with several plot lines.

First, in February, Dunn shocked the political establishment with the announcement that he was leaving the Republican Party, registering as a Democrat, and running for controller.

Then, in March, Simms resigned as president of County Council to enter the race -- but not before Flaherty snared the county Democratic Party endorsement, which set the tone for the primary.

"We decided to go hard after the endorsement," Flaherty said. "We made a lot of inquiries to see if [local party leaders] had any commitments. It took three, four, five phone calls for some of these people to [give their support]."

The party endorsement gave Flaherty instant credibility as a candidate and conferred other advantages as well, such as a campaign mailer paid for by the Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee.

"The combination of the [Flaherty] name and the endorsement is what did it," said Dunn, who finished a distant second.

Flaherty also had the endorsement of the Allegheny Council Labor Council, a powerful force within Democratic politics.

Simms looked like a strong contender in the early weeks of the campaign. But he acknowledged that his prospects faded after Flaherty landed the endorsements.

"The ability of the Democratic committees to rally their troops and get out the vote in a low-turnout year was very difficult to offset," Simms said last night.

After the March 2 party endorsement vote, Simms complained that Democrats were failing to create a racially diverse slate.

Several Democratic leaders, including Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy and Pittsburgh City Council President Gene Ricciardi, broke party ranks and endorsed him.

But it is Flaherty who now heads to the Nov. 4 general election as the prohibitive favorite in a matchup against Republican nominee Joe Scioscia, a Bellevue councilman who ran unopposed for controller on the GOP side yesterday.

The controller's job is something of a plum for upwardly mobile politicians.

Of the 10 row offices, controller and district attorney are the only two that will definitely survive any upcoming consolidation. The controller, as the fiscal watchdog in county government, is considered indispensable.

Moreover, with an army of auditors, the controller receives copious amounts of positive publicity for uncovering waste and fraud. The current ccontroller, Dan Onorato, has demonstrated the office's value as a political springboard, emerging as the Democratic nominee for county chief executive in this year's election.

Small wonder, then, that the Democratic primary attracted three strong candidates.

On the campaign trail this spring, Simms and Dunn touted their experience in county government.

Simms not only led the County Council but chaired its budget committee, helping to preserve the county's fiscal health in a sour economy.

James E. Simms, Democratic candidate for county controller, leaves the voting booth with his 6-year-old grandson, Austin Simms, at the William S. Moorehead highrise in Oakland yesterday. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

Dunn, before the switch in 2000 to home-rule government, served as a county commissioner for 11 years, joining with his colleagues in 1996 to approve a 20 percent tax cut.

Flaherty, in contrast, has worked exclusively in the private sector, as an investment consultant, then as an attorney.

But Flaherty told voters that his experience in finance and law has made him well-qualified for the controller's job, even if he has never held a political office before.

"I face challenges head on with hard work and proper homework," Flaherty said last night.

Flaherty, nearly 20 years younger than both Simms and Dunn, also told voters that his generation needs to be given responsibility for the county's future.

Roberts and Wagner, meanwhile, can now join Flaherty in preparing for battle in the November election.

In the recorder of deeds race, Roberts will try to again defeat Becky Barrett-Toomey, who also ran for the seat in 2001. Wagner will face certified public accountant Tom Stepnick in the register of wills contest.

No Republican has defeated a Democrat in an Allegheny County row office race since 1971.

Jeffrey Cohan can be reached at jcohan@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3573.

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