With the federal indictment last week of Philadelphia labor leader John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, Philadelphia magazine ran a piece on an apparent Dougherty operative demanding that, for fairness and balance, the media reach out to a list of prominent Philadelphians for the good works of Dougherty. I was not on that list.
However, if you do what I do for a living and you often make the point that the Philadelphia area has not been well served by the dominance of organized labor, then you will cross paths — and possibly swords — with Johnny Doc.
Dougherty, a Philadelphia character and one of the most powerful labor leaders in the country, has a complicated history with me that illustrates a lot of what Philadelphia really is and how it works.
The first time I met Dougherty was at the Palm Restaurant. I was invited to lunch there with then-Sen. Rick Santorum to talk about his 2006 race against Bob Casey. About halfway through the lunch, Dougherty strode into the restaurant, sat at our table, and ordered lunch; he and Santorum soon proceeded to eat food off each other’s plate. Doc proceeded to tell the senator of his clashes with me and, at one point, told him that I went to King of Peace in South Philly and he went to Mount Carmel in South Philly and that he once scored about 30 points against our team in seventh- and eigth-grade basketball. I assured Santorum that this was not possible — given how physical basketball was between those schools.
Takeaway from this first meeting: Dougherty and Santorum have a pretty decent political relationship, and “Johnny Doc” is a very central character in how Philadelphia works.
My next public sparring with Doc involved then-Councilman Jim Kenney and his battle with Chik-fil-A. Kenney objected to the chain’s presence in Philadelphia because of alleged anti-gay bias on the part of the company’s leadership.
I wrote a column calling Kenney, among other things, a “government bully.” Dougherty chimed in, and, as Chris Brennan reported in the Daily News, posted a series of attacks on me on Facebook and then submitted them as a letter to the editor to the paper. The slams included, “Only hope Dom comes home one night to find his son holding hands on the sofa with a male companion while watching ‘Brokeback Mountain.’ ” Another was, “Wonder if the embroidered ‘D.G.’ on Dom’s custom-tailored shirts actually stand for ‘Demi-God.’ ”
I proceeded to publicly defend my haberdashery.
Takeaway: Dougherty was publicly signaling that he had buried the hatchet with Kenney and that maybe he thinks conservatives wear monogrammed shirts.
The next time I met Doc publicly was outside the cathedral immediately after Pope Francis’s visit. He saw me leaving and hustled over and introduced me to his father while talking about his pride in the accomplishments of the unions in Philadelphia.
Takeaway: Johnny is clearly someone who has great love for his dad and family. He clearly had a lot of pride for helping to engineer the pope’s visit. This was a good encounter.
My final major public moment with Dougherty was when he was a guest on my radio show in December 2016. Frank Keel, his communications guy, had sent me a letter Dougherty penned to his membership in which he said things such as, “The Democratic Party has become almost solely based on cultural liberalism.”
He also wrote, “In fact, we look forward to working with the Trump Administration on issues like infrastructure, energy, and undocumented workers.”
In the radio interview, Dougherty talked about the ability to work with Trump at some length.
Takeaway: Dougherty is possibly the ultimate insider on everything major that happens in Philadelphia, but he relishes the role of publicly presenting himself as the outsider fighting for the little guy.
He probably still sees himself as a part of rowhouse Philadelphia rather than a guy who is living large.
To me the massive federal indictment that came down last week is not only about alleged crimes of individuals, but is also the story of how the system operates in America’s last big labor town.