Johnny Doc's sway with council: overstated or overwhelming?

John Dougherty (left) with Mayor Kenney in 2015 after Kenney stepped down from his Council post.

Dan McElhatton could be called the first casualty of labor leader John Dougherty's rise to power.

As the City Councilman faced reelection in 1995, Dougherty and his electricians union backed a challenger, Rick Mariano, who at the end of a ruthless and bitter fight came out on top.

Fast-forward two decades and Dougherty has repeated the playbook again and again.

That has resulted, over the years, in there being Council members viewed as beholden to the union that Dougherty has led since 1993, Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Others are seen as owing at least some allegiance for having received the union's financial support. A majority of Council's 17 current members have received union funds.

All of that has led some to see Dougherty as a puppet master with numerous politicians under his control.

But interviews with a swath of political insiders and past and present Council members suggest that Dougherty's influence, while real, is more subtle than widely perceived.

Dougherty doesn't micro-manage and meddle, according to interviews with Council members and observers. Instead, they say, his influence is felt as a looming threat and used in strategic ways where a move on Council serves several purposes, namely making him an even bigger power broker.

Dougherty doesn't get people elected to City Council, they say, to control City Council.

"It's not to drive an agenda. It's to drive his power," said Ken Smukler, a political strategist who worked on Mariano's campaign. "I think Johnny sees Council as just playing one more move in the chess game that aggregates more power under him."

Dougherty's relationship with Council is worth scrutiny. The FBI, for one, has taken an interest and in August raided the offices of Dougherty's closest Council ally, Bobby Henon, a former union political director who remains on the union's payroll. It was part of a larger investigation targeting Local 98.

The union, which is one of the most skilled in the state at using money and manpower to support candidates, has helped get people elected in races from ward leader to Congress, and everything in between.

Mariano was among the first.

In an interview earlier this month, the former councilman, who was a member of the union when he won office, said that if Dougherty doesn't meddle with his Council allies now, he did then.

"He tried to pull strings every day," said Mariano, who was convicted of corruption, served four years, and was released in 2010. "And that was one of my mistakes. I let him pull too many strings."

How Dougherty uses his influence today is harder to pinpoint. Some describe him as virtually nonexistent when it comes to Council matters and others as omnipresent. Though contrary, both views seem to hold true.

On one end, Dougherty shows no interest in most of what Council does, except in the rare case in which legislation affects his union or the other building trades.

"I can't recall a time, and this is the truth, that I heard from John about legislative matters," said former Councilman Bill Green, who was elected with help from the union.

On the other hand, the union has given financial backing to a whole cast of Council members, some of whom have risen to places of power, including Council President Darrell L. Clarke and Henon, who is majority leader. That makes Dougherty one of a very limited group of political elites whom Council members are likely to think twice about before crossing. Members know Dougherty could fund their competitor the next time they face reelection.

In that way, Dougherty doesn't have to actively pull strings; Council members are naturally attuned to be attentive.

"The perception of power is power," said one City Hall insider, who asked to remain anonymous.

That request for anonymity was common among the nearly two dozen people interviewed for this article. A few people stressed that they feared retaliation against either themselves or those close to them, one indication of the perception of Dougherty's power.

Dougherty declined to be interviewed for this article, but his union's spokesman, Frank Keel, called the notion that Dougherty is involved in politics for selfish reasons "nonsense." And as for Mariano's memory of being micro-managed, Keel said "that's simply not true."

He said Dougherty's only motive is to benefit his union's members, pointing to such issues as wages and job-site safety.

"It's important that Local 98 help elect candidates for political office - including Philadelphia City Council - who have demonstrated a commitment to defending labor's rights," Keel said in a statement.

Others see self-centered motives.

"The end game is to amass as much power as you can on as many fronts as you can," said former State Sen. Vince Fumo, an enemy who was once a mentor of Dougherty's and a formidable power broker himself before he was convicted of corruption. "The game is power itself."

No matter the motives, it is hard to measure the impact of any one person on a 17-member Council, where competing interests are always at play.

Former Mayor John Street said it would be foolish to think Dougherty has outsized sway.

"What's he making Council do they don't like?" asked Street, who was elected mayor with Local 98's backing. "And what is he keeping Council from doing that they want? . . . The Dougherty they think they see doesn't exist. It is a figment of their imagination."

Others point as an example to the rise of Henon to majority leader. Henon earned the position through his own skill, they say, while adding that it did not hurt that his colleagues knew they were also giving Dougherty what he wanted.

Another example came when Mayor Kenney proposed his tax on sweetened beverages.

Dougherty was for it from the start. And when opposition mounted, he delivered the message personally, pressuring members in Council chambers after the group's weekly meeting to fall in line, according to people in the room.

With Dougherty's backing, Kenney was able to get Council to pass the tax, making Philadelphia the only big city in the nation with a levy of that kind. It was a rare example of Dougherty openly meddling in Council business. Observers have noted he got a lot out of the win.

He got jobs for his workers, through the repairs to city facilities the tax revenue will fund.

He got to show dominance over another union, the delivery drivers, who fiercely opposed the tax.

And he got to mark a major success for two of his City Hall allies, Henon and Kenney, and claim a part of it as his own.

Asked about Dougherty's motivations on the soda tax fight, Keel said many unions supported the measure "because it was the right thing to do for the city's children," while potential work for his members also played a part.

In the months since, some have gone so far as to say the tax wouldn't have passed without Dougherty's support. Others call that dead wrong.

Either way, fact or fantasy, the belief is good news for Dougherty.

tnadolny@phillynews.com

215-854-2730

@TriciaNadolny