Johnny Doc: Behind the scenes

John Dougherty shows off his set-shot form at the Famous 4th Street Deli in 2006: His union will have a voice.
John Dougherty shows off his set-shot form at the Famous 4th Street Deli in 2006: His union will have a voice.
Posted: February 09, 2011

ONE POLITICAL FORCE in this year's City Council elections won't be on the ballot or have his photo on campaign signs.

But John Dougherty - the outspoken, ambitious business manager of the electricians union - will make his presence known.

With four open seats on City Council, this year's elections will determine some of the city's key power brokers and policymakers for years to come.

Electricians' Local 98 is backing one of Dougherty's top aides - union political director Bobby Henon - in a Council run, and is poised to pump money into several other campaigns.

It's a move that could pay off in the union's influence over city decision-making. And it could also further raise Dougherty's profile as a political power, as other major local players fade from view, including former state Sen. Vince Fumo - his longtime rival - who is in prison.

"I think [Dougherty] has decided that he doesn't want a political position for himself, but he wants to have plenty of influence in the legislative branch and the executive branch moving forward," said Zack Stalberg, president of the watchdog group Committee of Seventy. "The first big opportunity to do that is the 2011 election."

Dougherty, who has spent the past 15 years growing his 4,000-member union into a major political power, dropped from public view several years ago after losing a Democratic bid for Fumo's old state Senate seat. But he resurfaced last summer, getting into policy battles at the Delaware River Port Authority and the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

Of the Council elections, the man known as Johnny Doc says he's just thinking about the future of his hometown.

"I believe this is a unique opportunity in Philadelphia politics," said Dougherty, who says he does not seek elected office. "One family, one set of neighbors could influence the way Philadelphia runs for the rest of their lives. There are some districts that haven't had conversation [about their Council members] in generations."

An open seat

Yesterday, Henon announced his Democratic primary run in the 6th Councilmanic District, which includes parts of Tacony, Bridesburg, Mayfair and Holmesburg. The seat is open because Councilwoman Joan Krajewski is retiring.

If elected, Henon would have the closest political ties to the union since former Councilman Rick Mariano, an electrician elected in 1994 with the union's help. A federal investigation that sent Mariano to prison in 2006 on corruption charges showed the union's deep involvement in the office.

For example, Mariano's former chief of staff, Walt DeTreux, told the FBI that he was interviewed and hired for the job by a business agent for Local 98. John Lisko, Mariano's former legislative aide, told the FBI that Dougherty was "instrumental" in getting his job, which included regularly briefing the union leader on all legislative, political and administrative actions by the councilman's office.

No member of Local 98 beyond Mariano was implicated in any wrongdoing.

Henon, via e-mail, last week said that his office would be independently run.

"When I'm elected, I will make all decisions related to the staffing of my Council office," Henon wrote.

Dougherty - who stressed that the staffers the union placed in Mariano's office were highly qualified - said Henon would run his own operation.

Stalberg said Dougherty seems to have matured since Mariano's time, seeking out smart candidates with whom he'd like influence, but less direct involvement.

"I think if he's building a Dougherty apparatus here, he's going to build it with smarter pieces," Stalberg said. "I think he's going to be an influence on City Council by the time the smoke clears, but they're not necessarily going to be in his pocket"

Meanwhile, the 6th District race has already seen some controversy. The other candidate in that race, Marty Bednarek, received a menacing phone call last month urging him to get out of the race.

Dougherty says the union had nothing to do with it.

And Henon echoed those remarks saying he would "condemn the action in the harshest of terms and would never condone such a thing. Whoever did it should be held accountable."

Money and foot soldiers

Local 98's efforts won't stop with Henon. The union, which takes sizable payroll deductions from its members to support its political work, has one of the richest political committees in the state. It also uses its manpower to mount a formidable get-out-the-vote effort on Election Day.

At the beginning of the year, Local 98 had $2.1 million in its main political action committee, according to 2010 campaign finance reports. There's also campaign spending through series of committees that are partially funded by the union and run by union members.

The current Council member with the strongest Local 98 support is Councilman Bill Green, who last year received $5,000 from the union, $10,000 from its national organization and $10,000 each from the political committees Building a Better Future and Concerned Irish Americans of Philadelphia, both run by union members.

"We've had a very good relationship and built a personal relationship over the years," Green said. "John's never really asked me for anything. What the building trades see in me is someone who wants to create the kind of business environment that's going to lead to creating jobs in Philadelphia."

Other Council members who've gotten money from one of those committees include Frank Rizzo, Maria Quinones-Sanchez, Brian O'Neill, Curtis Jones Jr., Bill Greenlee and W. Wilson Goode Jr.

Of those who may be seeking Council seats in the May primary, ward leader Dan Savage - who is expected to oppose Sanchez - received $10,000 from Philadelphia Phuture last year. Consultant Donna Gentile O'Donnell, who is considering running in Northwest Philly's 8th District, received $10,000 from Local 98's main political action committee.

Dougherty is considering backing former Green staffer Marita Crawford, should she run in the open race for the seat being vacated by Council President Anna Verna. Dan Stevenson, the brother of a Local 98 agent, said that he is going to run against Councilman Frank DiCicco with the union's support.

Dougherty last year unsuccessfully lobbied the Delaware River Port Authority to hire Stevenson for a high-ranking public safety job.

Dougherty said he was interested in a number of candidates, but that it was too early to commit to anyone except Henon. He also stressed that he wanted to back candidates who shared his views on three key issues.

"There are three issues with me: tax reform; I need somebody to tackle this crazy pension issue head on; and infrastructure," Dougherty said.

Dougherty's moves could have an impact on who will become the next Council president. If Dougherty has influence with - or at the very least speed-dial access to - a number of Council members, he could lobby for a preferred candidate.

Councilwoman Marian Tasco and Councilman Darrell Clarke are said to be campaigning for the job, though neither has spoken publicly about it. Dougherty said he didn't have a pick at this point, although his comments suggested that Clarke would more easily win his support.

"I think we need somebody who's young and aggressive and willing to tackle our problems," Dougherty said. "It's difficult for me to support someone who hasn't had input on any of these issues for years."

Doc: It's not personal

Dougherty burst back on the scene last summer, after lying low for several years in the wake of his state Senate loss in 2008. He emerged Dougherty-style, battling with influential agencies as he lobbied for reform at the Delaware River Port Authority and accusing Convention Center leaders of trying to mess with organized labor.

But he also sought to mend relationships with Democratic heavyweights like U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, the head of the city's Democratic Party, and he won a ward leader election in South Philadelphia.

Brady said Dougherty was now making the moves of any smart labor official.

"He's like any other labor organization," Brady said. "Electricians, carpenters, sheet metal, the building trades, they're all going to be supporting candidates. He certainly has a right to support candidates that are favorable to his union."

Having close relationships with several Council members could only increase Dougherty's clout in the coming years. And with Fumo gone and Gov. Ed Rendell out of office, many think there's a power vacuum just waiting to be filled by Dougherty.

"Vince and Doc ended up as enemies, of course, but started out as pals," Stalberg said. "In a lot of ways this is a Fumo [political] model, try to put friends in office, in order to get things done and increase the perception that I'm the go-to guy."

Still, Dougherty said that at the end of the day he was simply working on behalf of his members.

"I don't do politics for John Dougherty, I do politics for the members of Local 98," Dougherty said. "There is nothing personal for me."

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