Philly labor leader John 'Johnny Doc' Dougherty, under federal scrutiny, raises more campaign money than ever

John Dougherty is the leader of Philadelphia’s electricians union, whose political action committee raised more money in 2017 than in any previous year.

When the Pennsylvania Supreme Court redrew the state’s congressional district map this year, progressives and good-government groups hailed the ruling as a crucial win for democracy in the fight against partisan gerrymandering.

Constitutional scholars can debate the merits of that decision, which withstood appeals, but one thing about the coup is clear: It would not have happened without the 2015 takeover of the high court by Democrats.

Which is another way of saying: It couldn’t have happened without the powerful, colorful, and feared Philadelphia labor leader John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, whose support was crucial to electing three Democratic justices, including his brother Kevin.

That Dougherty — whose home and union buildings were raided by federal agents in the summer of 2016 — would be key to a liberal cause that could help flip the U.S. House underscores his enduring political influence, even under the cloud of a criminal investigation.

In an interview, Dougherty said he saw the Pennsylvania high court as vital for organized labor as he watched Republican legislatures in several states chip away at unions’ ability to organize, abetted by the courts.

“These decisions are decisions that could change our whole world in one moment,” he said, talking in his characteristic fast-paced staccato and peppering every other sentence with “OK?”

Now, in the nation’s high-stakes midterm elections, Dougherty is also working to cement power: He is pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into Gov. Wolf’s reelection campaign, attempting to send a close ally to Congress, and trying to put favored candidates in key Philadelphia state House seats.

Next year, a longtime friend, Mayor Kenney, is likely to seek Dougherty’s help in his 2019 reelection bid. Meanwhile, Dougherty’s Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers continues to have connections to just about every corner of city government.

And yet everything Dougherty has built could come crashing down, depending on the outcome of an FBI investigation of the electricians union and its leader.

Court filings indicate that authorities are interested in everything from Local 98’s prolific political giving and the network it has built across all levels of government to allegations of work-site intimidation and the misspending of funds meant to foster union jobs. As recently as February, a federal grand jury was hearing witness testimony in the probe, according to sources.

Indictments could imperil Dougherty’s allies, sap the mayor’s political capital, and reshape organized labor in one of the last remaining cities in the country where unions are a powerful force.

They could take out one of the last old-school political bosses in America — a person who some call the most powerful man in Philadelphia.

Or Dougherty could emerge unscathed, as he has before.

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When federal agents tore apart Dougherty’s house and union properties, some thought that he would take a step back from politics — or that elected officials might take a step back from him.

If this were another town, and Dougherty were another labor leader, perhaps that would have happened. But this is Philly, and this is Doc, a man whose union’s deep pockets have helped elect governors, congressmen, mayors, judges, state lawmakers, and Council members throughout Pennsylvania.

In fact, Local 98’s political action committee raised more money in 2017 than in any previous year: $6.5 million. This is a union that was already deemed the single biggest independent source of campaign funding in Pennsylvania four years ago.

The beneficiaries of Dougherty’s uninterrupted spending spree include numerous Democratic incumbents up for reelection this year, including U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, four state senators, and more than a dozen state representatives. Dougherty’s union has also continued to funnel money to the vast majority of Philadelphia’s 17 Council members.

One of the biggest recipients of Dougherty’s continued largesse is Wolf, whose 2018 reelection campaign is seen as a must-win for Democrats. IBEW Local 98 has donated $260,000 to Wolf’s bid, while also providing him with manpower behind the scenes — something Dougherty talks about in his typical braggadocious way.

Camera icon JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Gov. Wolf, pictured last year, has received substantial support from Local 98.

“Local 98 and the political operation did about 14,000 signatures for Tom Wolf,” said Dougherty. That’s a whopping 35 percent of the names Wolf submitted to get on the May 15 ballot.

Dougherty isn’t merely trying in 2018 to protect his allies already in office. He also wants to put his confidants in open seats. At the top of that list is Rich Lazer, a Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania’s Fifth Congressional District. Dougherty launched an independent expenditure committee for Lazer in March called “Middle Class PAC,” which can spend unlimited money to support him. Local 98 has contributed $200,000 to the group.

“I want working-class people to have the same tools that the rich people have,” said Dougherty, explaining why he has financed super PACs.

Lazer, who spent almost all of his career working for Kenney, was employed as a consultant to Local 98 in 2015. Lazer’s wife is a secretary at 98.

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Elected officials happily accept Dougherty’s financial support. But any charges stemming from the long-running federal investigation into his union would threaten to wound Dougherty’s political allies. Public officials facing scrutiny include City Councilman Bobby Henon, whose offices were raided in 2016.

Search warrants obtained last year by the Inquirer and Daily News suggest that investigators have spent months poring over seized records pertaining to union picketing and other job-site actions, Dougherty’s personal finances, and dozens of union officials, contractors, political consultants, and Dougherty family members with ties to the union.

Camera icon ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
City Councilman Bobby Henon’s offices were raided by the FBI in 2016.

Possible charges include embezzlement, attempted extortion of contractors, fraud, tax evasion, and honest-services fraud by public officials, the legal documents say.

Sources suggested that the investigation has all the hallmarks of a classic racketeering conspiracy case scrutinizing the levers by which Dougherty and his union exert their clout.

Though under federal investigation, Dougherty is unafraid to admit that he remains close to politicians, including Lazer. “Do I talk to him? Yeah, I always talk to him,” he said, adding, “I’m not going to have anything to do with his day-to-day campaign.”

In the same breath, though, Dougherty insists that he doesn’t “care” about politics and downplays his leverage.

“I have no clout,” he said, when asked to describe his role in Pennsylvania politics. “Here’s the good news: I don’t want any clout, and I am so happy that I probably have the most politically savvy group of young business managers at the building trades than we’ve ever had. And that it’s easy for me to drift away. And I don’t see myself after this, there being too many more campaigns. So my days in politics are coming to a close.”

Dougherty said he spends much of his time at the hospital with his wife, who is gravely ill.

Why does Dougherty jump from boasting about his clout to soft-pedaling it? Is such tension inevitable in a 57-year-old man attempting to burnish his legacy at the same time the FBI eyeballs him?

Dougherty has denied any wrongdoing, and his spokesman has scoffed at suggestions of financial impropriety, noting that the union is subject to annual audits.

“They’ve been investigating [Dougherty] for the [25] years that he’s been a labor leader,” said Anthony Gallagher, business manager of Steamfitters Local 420 and a Dougherty ally. “It gets old after a while, when somebody’s just trying to do their job, protect working people. That’s how I view it.”

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Dougherty, a native son of South Philly, joined the electricians union in his 20s. He wasn’t great at working with wires, but had a knack for politics. By 33, he was head of the union.

Under Dougherty’s leadership, the electricians drew the attention of federal regulators in the late 1990s and early 2000s, who accused the union of flouting labor laws with illegal blockades and threats of violence against nonunion workers.

The union settled, and as its power grew, Dougherty was seen as a potential candidate for mayor.

Instead, he ran for the state Senate in 2008, and got beat by a little-known candidate connected to former South Philly political boss Vince Fumo, who was convicted of corruption charges. On the night of the election, Fumo’s crew chanted, “Doc is dead! Doc is dead!” at a party on East Passyunk.

Thereafter, Dougherty embraced the role of behind-the-scenes power broker and tried to reinvent himself as civic spirit-oriented “New Doc.”

Although the 2016 raids led many to believe New Doc was the same as Old Doc, Dougherty sounds as if he’s once again remaking his image for the 2018 elections.

These days, he boasts that Local 98 has “been ahead of the curve” on everything from installing electric car chargers at his union hall to providing same-sex benefits (“not that we got a lot of people using them”) to limiting opioid prescriptions for members.

Even before a single ballot is cast in 2018, Dougherty is positioned to take credit for Democratic gains in Pennsylvania. The new congressional map imposed by the state Supreme Court is much more favorable to Democrats.

That doesn’t mean Dougherty’s preferred candidates have a sure path to victory. He is operating in a new political landscape in which progressives long seen as to the left of the city’s building trades have notched victories.

Last year, Dougherty’s union spent $3.2 million on contributions to candidates, political action committees, and expenses like “get out the vote” operations. A super PAC linked to Dougherty spent $322,000.

That far eclipsed the $2 million spent by another perennial heavyweight in Pennsylvania: the Committee for a Better Tomorrow, the PAC formed by the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association. But the results of Dougherty’s spending were mixed: On one hand, his union helped elect 13 of the 16 judges it supported with about $450,000 in campaign contributions.

At the same time, Dougherty-backed Republicans in Delaware County suffered historic losses last year amid anti-Trump backlash in the suburbs. Dougherty’s favorite candidate in the city’s 2017 district attorney race, Jack O’Neill, also got crushed by progressive Larry Krasner, including in South Philly, where gentrification has modified the electorate. Krasner also benefited from a super PAC funded by billionaire George Soros.

One test of Dougherty’s staying power is whether his machine-style politics can beat back rapid change in city neighborhoods and shifts in the Democratic Party. An answer could come in the Fifth Congressional District race, where 11 candidates are vying for the Democratic nomination. The vast majority of the district is based in Delaware County, but Lazer could benefit as one of just three Philadelphians in the large field. The candidates’ home counties are listed on the ballot.

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Rich Lazer, a former aide to Mayor Kenney, is running for Congress with Dougherty’s support.

Delaware County Democrats are eager to elect one of their own to the open seat and have also expressed reservations over Dougherty’s support for local Republicans: Local 98 has contributed more than $500,000 to Delaware County GOP candidates and committees since 2014.

For his part, Lazer is casting himself as an anti-Trump stalwart, saying he supports impeaching the president, Bernie Sanders-style Medicare for all, free college, and a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

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In the wake of the FBI’s 2016 raids, the political chattering class has wondered what Dougherty’s downfall would portend for City Hall, Harrisburg, and organized labor.

To be sure, he hasn’t been charged with a crime, and there is no indication he will be. But gossip about the ramifications of such an indictment continues.

Consider that Fumo’s robust political organization was absorbed into other coalitions after the state senator was convicted in 2009, as was part of the machine built by former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, who was sent to federal prison last year.

An indictment could reveal unseemly connections between Local 98 and City Hall, leaving Kenney vulnerable to backlash from liberals and others.

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Mayor Kenney

What’s more, Dougherty was instrumental in securing Council votes for the mayor’s signature tax on sweetened beverages. Without Johnny Doc, Kenney may have difficulty advancing his agenda.

In Harrisburg, antiunion sentiment is ascendant with the rise of State Sen. Scott Wagner, the GOP’s endorsed candidate for governor. An alleged racketeering conspiracy involving Local 98, one of Wolf’s biggest donors, could damage the governor during his reelection campaign.

Dougherty very well may never be indicted. Federal investigators targeted him in 2006, but only indicted a friend, who pleaded guilty to theft, tax evasion, and making false statements.

Even if Dougherty were charged, he’d have super PACs.

“ He [would] still have influence with money,” said former Gov. Ed Rendell, who added he didn’t think Dougherty would be indicted.