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John Dougherty and Local 98 remain political forces. Will his trial change that?

The union is still a big spender in elections, and few politicians dare speak out against Dougherty. But he’s been quieter of late. “I don’t feel his presence over my shoulder,” said one consultant.

John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty, shown here shortly after his February 2019 arraignment, still has sway but some have learned to separate him from his union. "The power of unions comes from its workers, the workers of all the building trades," said the political director of one Philadelphia progressive group.
John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty, shown here shortly after his February 2019 arraignment, still has sway but some have learned to separate him from his union. "The power of unions comes from its workers, the workers of all the building trades," said the political director of one Philadelphia progressive group.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

John Dougherty’s path to the center of Pennsylvania politics started three decades ago, when he took control of the city’s electricians union.

Over that span, the man known as “Johnny Doc” transformed Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers into one of the state’s biggest fund-raisers and political powerhouses. Along the way, he set a blustering tone of defiance, challenging anyone to cross the union.

The union is still a big spender in elections, and few politicians dare speak out against Dougherty. He remains a confidant of Mayor Jim Kenney’s, and the building trades unions have formed a mutually beneficial partnership with the city’s rising progressive movement.

But as the long-awaited federal bribery trial opens this week for him and City Councilman Bobby Henon, some things have changed: Dougherty has been a bit quieter since his January 2019 indictment. And Local 98 appears to have lost some influence.

City Council colleagues stripped Henon, a union electrician and the local’s former political director, of his majority leader role last year, and the trades unions have failed to fend off major pieces of legislation they fear will slow the pace of construction, including Council President Darrell L. Clarke’s new 1% tax on development and limits on the 10-year property tax abatement.

» READ MORE: John Dougherty’s ties to Bobby Henon will take center stage as the Philly powerbrokers’ bribery trial begins

Meanwhile, a potential heir to the building trades throne — Ryan Boyer, leader of the Laborers District Council and a staunch Dougherty ally — is gaining influence.

Local 98 is still a fund-raising behemoth. Its Committee on Political Education, the union’s primary political action committee, has raised more than $17.7 million since Dougherty has been under indictment. Most of that comes from a flow of steady, small-dollar donations from union members, voluntarily deducted from their paychecks. The PAC reported just under $13 million in the bank as of June 7.

The union has given $100,000 each this year to political action committees tied to Mayor Jim Kenney, New Jersey hospital and insurance executive George E. Norcross III, and one active in congressional races. And $50,000 went to Superior Court Judge Maria McLaughlin, a candidate for the state Supreme Court.

» READ MORE: How Philly’s electricians union and Johnny Doc converted payroll deductions into political influence (from February 2019)

Politicians such as Kenney have emphasized that campaign donations and other support from Local 98 and its affiliated committees represent the will of the rank-and-file members.

“People have been willing, and fairly so, to make the grand distinction between money from the average Local 98 worker and the union’s leadership,” said Mustafa Rashed, a Democratic political consultant. Still, he said, few politicians were willing to distance themselves from Dougherty or the union, a sure sign of enduring political power for both.

In January, the U.S. Department of Labor sued Local 98, accusing Dougherty and his allies of threatening and intimidating people who wanted to run for union leadership offices. The department seeks to overturn the election’s results and have a judge order a new contest.

Despite that, and the looming trial, Dougherty was unanimously reelected in June as business manager for the Philadelphia Building & Construction Trades Council, a collection of 30 unions operating in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Another consultant active in this year’s general election agreed that the union remains an important player — but said being on the other side of Local 98 in a race is no longer so daunting a prospect.

“They went all in for people,” said the consultant, requesting anonymity to speak freely about Dougherty and Local 98. “But I don’t feel his general presence as a specter over my shoulder.”

For the next four to six weeks, Dougherty’s focus will be on jurors in a federal courtroom along Market Street. The original indictment was split into two trials. In the first, Dougherty is accused of using a Local 98 salary to bribe Henon. After that, Dougherty is set to stand trial with five other Local 98 officials accused of embezzling more than $600,000 from the union. Then Dougherty and his nephew will have to reckon with another set of charges filed earlier this year alleging Dougherty threatened a contractor who prosecutors say was assaulted by his nephew.

Dougherty, Henon and the other Local 98 officials have pleaded not guilty and deny any wrongdoing. Dougherty declined to comment through a spokesperson.

Learning politics at an early age

Dougherty, 61, frequently presents himself as a guy who grew up on the streets of Whitman and Pennsport and found a path to success with a union job. But politics was always around him. His grandfather was a state representative. His classmates at St. Joseph’s Preparatory School included Kenney and former Mayor Michael Nutter.

Dougherty dropped out of LaSalle College when his wife gave birth to their daughter, becoming an apprentice at the union. He took over as business manager, the top job, in 1993.

He has toggled his union’s political ambitions at times — bragging about how his members had voted to double their paycheck deductions to fill Local 98′s coffers, and sometimes talking about pulling back from the political side of things to focus more on economic development.

» READ MORE: Who is Johnny Doc, Philadelphia’s most powerful union leader?

Sometimes misidentified as supporting only Democrats, the union has also backed Republicans, including former Gov. Tom Corbett and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum. Local 98 gave $55,000 in the last year to former Delaware County Councilman Dave White, who is now seeking the Republican nomination for governor.

In a 2019 book, Donald Trump Jr. presented Dougherty and Local 98 as prime examples of how unions aligned with the Democratic Party were “rife with corruption.” But that message didn’t seem to affect Dougherty’s standing in Washington during the Trump years; more than once, Dougherty and others were invited to the White House to meet with Trump economic advisers.

Ahead of the 2007 race for mayor, his union pushed a “Draft Johnny Doc” movement — but he did not run. His one campaign came a year later, for a seat in the state Senate, and ended with a Democratic primary defeat in 2008 to Larry Farnese.

Farnese was backed by former State Sen. Vince Fumo, a onetime Dougherty ally turned archenemy, who previously held the seat before resigning amid his own federal corruption investigation.

Dougherty got his revenge last year when he sided with Nikil Saval, a progressive who successfully ran an anti-establishment campaign to oust Farnese. Local 98 gave Saval $50,000 in the 11 days before the Senate primary, amounting to about 14% of Saval’s overall fund-raising.

That was the latest example of the union’s partnership with left-wing candidates, a marriage natural in some ways and strained in others. While the progressive movement embraces organized labor, the trades are far from the most liberal unions.

They have for years been criticized for a lack of diversity, and their construction-focused priorities don’t often align with progressive goals.

Dougherty, for instance, opposed the permanent closure of the South Philadelphia refinery to save union jobs there, while environmentalists celebrated its demise as a win in their fight against fossil fuels. Dougherty also pushes back against councilmembers’ attempts to reduce developers’ incentives such as the property tax abatement, which progressives cast as a giveaway to the rich.

Amanda McIllmurray, political director for the progressive group Reclaim Philadelphia, said the partnership will continue because the trades’ primary goal — “unionized jobs that are actually paying well and respecting the dignity of laborers” — aligns with those of activists.

“We cannot win a ‘Green New Deal’ without electricians in that union. We can’t have affordable housing without all the various building trades,” she said. “The power of unions comes from its workers, the workers of all the building trades. I’m less interested in everyone’s leadership.”

» READ MORE: On the job site and behind the scenes, Johnny Doc shaped Philly’s skyline. Will he still? (from February 2019)

But there have been signs of change.

State Rep. Jared Solomon, a Northeast Philadelphia Democrat, was the only local Democratic elected official to call on Henon to resign after the indictments were released. Frank Keel, a Local 98 spokesperson, attended Solomon’s news conference at City Hall in March 2019 and asked whether he would refund the union’s $30,000 in political contributions.

Solomon instead sent $10,000 each to three charities serving the Northeast. Keel countered that Solomon would face a difficult Democratic primary in 2020.

That didn’t happen. Solomon was reelected with no primary or general election challenger.

‘He’ll be King Kong’

Fumo has seen this sort of thing play out before: He took a federal corruption case to court, lost and went to prison. The odds of winning an acquittal in federal court, he said, are long.

“Maybe if I had realized that I wouldn’t have gone to trial,” he said. “Because the flip side is catastrophic.”

After his own conviction, Fumo said, Dougherty tried to rush in to fill a power vacuum in the city. He predicts something similar if Dougherty is found guilty. But what if Dougherty beats the charges?

“If he wins, he’ll be King Kong,” Fumo said, adding:. “That’s why he has three trials. They have a few shots at this thing.”

It’s not clear whether Dougherty will take the stand in court. In an interview last month, he sounded eager for the trial to start and for a chance to tell his side of the story.

During an appearance during the summer on the Labor Show, a Saturday evening radio program sponsored by building trades unions, Dougherty suggested he would turn the tables on federal investigators at trial, presenting their actions as corrupt.

“When I tell this story, people are going to sit back and their jaws are going to drop,” Dougherty said. “I’m finally going to get a chance to show the magnitude of the abuse that I went through.”