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Tom Marches On

The end of an era for a local gadfly

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There's nothing more entertaining than a loudmouth populist rabble-rouser, and Tom Flaherty specialized in rousing the rabble. Politicians and pundits regularly derided his bombast: Former County Executive Jim Roddey thought Flaherty was so unpopular he used Flaherty's image in campaign advertisements, even though Roddey's opponent was Dan Onorato.

But you won't have Tom Flaherty -- a former state legislator, former city controller and former chairman of the Allegheny County Democratic Party -- to kick around any more.

Using every ounce of the luck of the Irish he could scrape up, Flaherty came in seventh in the election for Common Pleas judges, thereby capturing the final judicial slot. His courtroom is number 703, and during his swearing-in ceremony he engaged in a bit of numerology. He noted he came in seventh in the general election, third in the primary election -- and later mentioned that many of his opponents thought he was "a big zero."

Flaherty told the crowd of judges, dignitaries, yahoos and yinzers that the president judge assigned him to family court, where family assets are sometimes divided up, because as a former controller, he was good with numbers. Flaherty then allowed as how few people knew "I was an English major" -- and the judge wasn't letting him take any of his accountants with him.

Of course, he wasn't always good with numbers. In 2000, he infamously claimed the Dahntahn Lazarus department store "snookered" Mayor Tom Murphy by not ponying up several million dollars it had agreed to pay the city. A few months later he had to concede his math was off. By about $21 million. Doh!

Other than that, nothing much embarrassing happened during his tenure. Unless you count things like that guy selling cocaine out of the controller's office. But neither mathematical flubs nor drug-dealing employees would stop Mr. Bombast from his appointed pontification.

During the seven years I hosted the NightTalk TV show on PCNC, Tom Flaherty was my most frequent guest. The highest-rated installment of the show was a debate between Tom and Roddey's campaign manager, Kent "The Sharkboy" Gates, on election eve, 2000. Flaherty's over-the-top style would occasionally produce more than a hint of saliva -- hence his official TV-talk-show nickname, "Tommy the Spitman Flaherty."

Today, Gates offers this about his former nemesis: "The political community will find it a lot more boring without the flamboyant Tom Flaherty to provide excitement and misinformation to the political dialogue."

Flaherty took it all with good humor. When he had a little DUI problem and I showed up with a camera to give him grief about it at one of Bob O'Connor's fund-raisers, he did not dodge the interview, as 99 percent of pols would. During the interview, when I called out to the crowd, "Hey everybody, drinks are on Flaherty," he just chuckled his Flaherty chuckle.

Despite what his critics would call clownish behavior, I admire Tom Flaherty. For one thing, he sounded the alarm bells constantly and consistently about what everyone now concedes are the city's immense fiscal woes. And as a longtime skeptic of massive government subsidies to businesses, Flaherty correctly predicted that the Lazarus deal would be a bust for taxpayers in the end.

He was way out front on the assessment mess, pointing out on television that his little sister's modest house was assessed at a higher rate than the grander abodes of Dr. Cyril Wecht and "Diamond Jim" Roddey. He bellowed early and often about the city's nonprofits skating by on taxes.

During a joint NightTalk appearance, Flaherty so annoyed cranky conservative curmudgeon Bill Green with constant interruptions that Green walked off the show, a move later copied by Bob Novak on CNN after being annoyed by James Carville. Unfortunately, Green did it off camera, but Flaherty was still mighty pleased with himself.

Flaherty has a fancy short haircut now, rather than the old giant pompadour he used to sport. He's got cool yuppie glasses that make him look smarter. He doesn't shout as much and seems more reflective, which fits his new role. Still, I'm gonna miss the public Spitman, probably as much as he'll miss going public with any real or perceived misdeeds that struck his fancy.

So long, Spitman. People have been judging you for years. Now it's your turn.

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