Maverick Mayor Peter F. Flaherty of Pittsburgh narrowly squeaked by Herbert S. Denenberg to win the Democratic nomination for the right to face popular Republican Sen. Richard Schweiker in the general election on this day in 1974.
Campaigning as “Nobody’s Boy,” the 49-year-old Flaherty defeated Denenberg, a popular former state insurance commissioner, by 38,277 votes in a four-way Democratic primary that included former U.S. Rep. James M. Quigley and the Rev. Frank Mesaros of Harrisburg, an Eastern Orthodox priest.
Flaherty and Denenberg both waged extremely frugal campaigns. Incredibly, neither candidate spent more than $50,000 in the hotly-contested primary.
Denenberg, a nationally-recognized consumer advocate who claimed Ralph Nader as his biggest fan, led the race until the early morning hours — at one point amassing a 30,000-vote lead over the reform-minded Pittsburgh mayor — before several late-reporting western Pennsylvania counties put Flaherty over the top.
The official results, which were mildly disputed by Denenberg, gave the immensely popular Pittsburgh mayor 485,358 votes to Denenberg’s 447,081. The little-known Mesaros finished a distant third with 64,870 votes while the largely inactive Quigley, who refused to accept any campaign contributions, brought up the rear with 34,489 votes. Flaherty enjoyed a 68,000-vote margin in his native Allegheny County.
“This further confirms my views on the whole election process,” grumbled a disappointed Denenberg on learning of the certified primary results nearly six weeks later. Denenberg believed Flaherty’s statewide margin of victory should have been 18,600 votes or less. “I don’t think the safeguards are there to protect the vote count,” complained Denenberg. “They only give you 20 days after the election [to contest a nomination] and then they don’t even tell you the vote.”
Pennsylvania’s 1974 U.S. Senate race was the first of three statewide campaigns in which the fiercely independent Flaherty captured the Democratic nomination in highly contested primaries only to fall short in the general election. In addition to losing to the liberal Schweiker — one of the few Republicans to make Nixon’s infamous “Enemies List” — the two-term mayor also lost a bid for governor in 1978 and fell to Republican Arlen Specter in the state’s 1980 U.S. Senate race.
Mentioned as a possible Democratic candidate for President in 1972 by a major news magazine, Flaherty, the son of Irish immigrants, first burst on the scene with a spectacular victory in Pittsburgh’s 1969 mayoralty contest against the remnants of former Gov. David Lawrence’s political machine — a once-powerful organization that had produced every mayor of Pittsburgh since the Great Depression.
Stitching together an unlikely coalition that included supporters of 1968 presidential contenders Eugene McCarthy and George C. Wallace, Flaherty polled 62 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary against the organization-backed candidate and coasted to an easy victory over Republican John Tabor in November. He was re-elected four years later, winning the Democratic, Republican and ballot-qualified Constitutional Party nominations — the latter two by write-in votes.
As mayor, Flaherty earned a reputation as a fiscal conservative, slashing the city’s budget by twenty percent while eliminating the wage tax and reducing property taxes. He also trimmed the city payroll by 1,400, including 153 firemen and 82 police officers. Determined to streamline city government while leading by example, Flaherty also drove his own vehicle on city business to save taxpayers’ money.
“He was a brilliant pioneer in the new fiscal populist mayoral style,” remarked Terry Nichols Clark, a sociology professor at the University of Chicago who studied Flaherty’s administration. “He invented a whole style of politics … he came from a left Democratic Party background and he combined it with fiscal conservatism, fighting business, fighting labor unions, fighting interests groups of all sorts.”
Flaherty, who served briefly as a deputy attorney general in the Carter Administration and was later elected to three relatively uneventful terms as an Allegheny County commissioner, died in 2005 at the age of eighty.