Dougherty takes no chances in derailing opponent's bid for ward leader

John Dougherty and Karen Brown, in a photo from a Brown campaign web site in 2011. Brown was knocked off the ballot Tuesday for Democratic committeewoman in South Philadelphia's First Ward.

PHILADELPHIA John Dougherty had predicted former Republican mayoral candidate Karen Brown would be booted off the ballot for Democratic committee person in his South Philadelphia ward. The party bars candidates who recently helped a non-Democrat's campaign.

But Dougherty, the First Ward Democratic leader and electricians' union chief, didn't take any chances. On Tuesday he sent to court one of the region's top election lawyers, plus a handwriting expert, a political consultant, even a private eye.

The party's prohibition on giving committee posts to anyone who backed a non-Democrat within the last two years would also derail Brown's bid to unseat Dougherty as ward leader.

Brown's GOP campaign for mayor was in 2011. The race that undid her run for committee person, though, was of a smaller magnitude: a virtually unnoticed campaign last year for judge of elections in her voting division - as a Republican.

Brown said Tuesday she was undecided about what to do next. She said she still had supporters among those running for committee person, but lawyers representing Dougherty succeeded in dismissing the candidacies of five apparent Brown allies, as well as Brown herself.

Common Pleas Judge Charles J. Cunningham presided over the petition challenges.

Democratic committee persons are the party's foot soldiers. Elected in the primary, they typically meet three weeks later to select ward leaders in each of the city's 69 wards. A week later, the ward leaders gather to choose a city Democratic chairman and other officers.

Dougherty, who is business manager of Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, was first elected ward leader in 2010. After Brown filed to run for committee person in his ward, he pointed to the party's rules.

Those rules made the former Republican's candidacy a nonstarter from the get-go, Dougherty said.

"No person shall be qualified for membership in any organization or committee," the rules state, ". . . who has within a two-year period actively or inactively supported the candidacy at any general election of any person or persons not on the Democratic ticket."

Outside of court, Brown and her lawyer, Linda A. Kerns, argued that Dougherty, too, had broken the rule, via campaign donations to a number of state and local GOP candidates.

But those contributions came from Local 98's political action committee, not from Dougherty himself.

Many if not most of the union's members live in the suburbs, and its PAC has given tens of thousands of dollars to campaign funds of suburban Republican legislators, as well as to Gov. Corbett's.

Stephen Lauer, the First Ward chairman, said the ward organization had backed the Democratic ticket in every election since Dougherty took over.

Despite public statements minimizing Brown's challenge, Dougherty left little to chance contesting her candidacy and those of her apparent allies. The two lawyers he sent to court Tuesday were led by election-law expert Samuel C. Stretton Jr., who estimated his bills over three days at more than $4,500.

There was testimony from a private detective who had conducted surveillance of two committee person candidates, including Brown's daughter, checking on their addresses, and handwriting expert William J. Ries who bills at $800 a day.

They were joined in the courtroom by Marita Crawford, the union's politically active business agent, and Michael "Ozzie" Myers, the former South Philadelphia congressman who is a consultant for the union's PAC.

"Clearly," said Brown's lawyer, Kerns, "they're incredibly well-funded."