The Pa. politicians who got Local 98 campaign money aren’t having second thoughts, even after Johnny Doc’s conviction
Prominent Pennsylvania politicians who’ve benefited from the union’s largesse aren’t renouncing its campaign cash — or saying much of anything.
Convicted of bribery, the powerful Philadelphia labor leader John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty has resigned from the union he led for almost three decades and is likely headed to federal prison.
But prominent Pennsylvania politicians who’ve benefited from the union’s largesse aren’t renouncing its campaign cash — or saying much of anything about the trial that starkly illustrated the city’s sometimes toxic mix of money and politics.
When The Inquirer contacted a number of high-profile elected officials and candidates who’ve received recent campaign donations from Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, most expressed pride in the support from the labor group or didn’t answer at all. Only one major recipient expressed any qualms about the contributions, which ranged from thousands of dollars to more than $1 million.
The list of recent beneficiaries of Local 98 donations includes some of the biggest names in state politics, including Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, and several looking to move up to top positions, such as Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, and Republicans such as Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman and former Delaware County Councilman Dave White, both now running for governor.
“Gov. Wolf has always fought for higher wages, good benefits, and worker protections while stopping dangerous antiunion legislation from becoming law,” said a spokesperson for the governor. “He is proud to have a pro-labor record that has earned him the support of hardworking union members throughout Pennsylvania.”
Wolf received more than $1 million from Local 98 during his two successful gubernatorial campaigns. His response was emblematic of the wider answers from public officials.
A number of public officials have continued taking Local 98′s money well after a 116-page indictment in 2019 painted Dougherty as a powerhouse who bribed a City Council member, Bobby Henon, to pursue Dougherty’s personal agenda.
The responses suggest the union’s political power may endure after the Dougherty scandal — perhaps no surprise given its 4,700-strong membership and the pile of political cash it accumulates every year from members’ paychecks. The relative shrug from officials also underscores the extent to which much of the political class sometimes accepts donations from sources with significant clouds over them.
And while many of those who’ve received Local 98 support say they are allies of organized labor, some Dougherty critics argue that the political contributions have helped prop up a corrupt regime at the union.
“We need a cultural shift in the way we do business,” said State Rep. Jared Solomon, a Northeast Philly Democrat who gave Local 98 contributions to charitable causes after the grand jury indictment. “What we need to start thinking about is how John `Johnny Doc’ Dougherty and 98 leadership have failed the labor movement. It’s not about working people. It’s about padding the pocket of Dougherty.”
The Inquirer contacted 10 of the most high-profile public officials who have received recent donations from the union. The questions went to Wolf, 2022 gubernatorial and Senate candidates, and several U.S. House members.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro, now running for governor, said through a spokesperson that he had rejected Local 98 support ever since the investigation became public through FBI raids.
No other officials asked about their Local 98 support expressed concerns about the money.
Most touted the donations as evidence of their ties to the working class.
“Dave is proud to have received the support of the hardworking men and women of the IBEW, the same workers who now make up the heart and soul of the Republican Party,” said a spokesperson for White, a former county councilman in Delaware County.
White got $20,000 from Local 98 in May as he was moving toward a gubernatorial run. Before that, between 2015 and 2019, he received a total of $65,000 — much of that supporting his campaigns for council.
The officials contacted for this story represent just a sliver of those who have received Local 98 support over the years. The union has been one of the biggest sources of campaign money in Pennsylvania, mainly giving to Democrats but also backing some Republicans.
David Thornburgh, CEO of the good-government group the Committee of 70, said his main concern was less about how officials handle the money and more that any single group could spread so much money unchecked, because of wide-open state law.
“The real issue here is unlimited contributions in state races. It’s just been sort of a festering issue for a long time,” Thornburgh said.
A spokesperson for Local 98 declined to comment for this article.
Some officials — such as White and Democratic U.S. Reps. Brendan Boyle and Madeleine Dean — accepted Local 98 campaign donations as recently as this past spring, more than two years after Dougherty’s abuses were laid out in federal charges unveiled in 2019. Corman, now running for governor, got $25,000 last year. And another PAC affiliated with Corman has received $75,000 from Local 98 since last year. U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Pa.) got $5,000 a few months after the charges became public.
“I am proud of my local 98 support — and am fortunate to have the faith and support of hardworking union members — and I will continue to fight for labor workers,” Dean said in a statement.
Boyle did not respond to questions about the contributions. He has been one of the most prominent recipients of Dougherty’s support, including during a 2014 Democratic primary that helped propel him to the House. Local 98 formed the backbone of a Super PAC that spent more than $350,000 supporting Boyle in that campaign.
A Corman spokesperson said that the senator “respects our judicial system” and that “Local 98 has begun a new chapter in its service to working families.”
Some of the donations preceded Dougherty’s indictment. Fetterman, now a top candidate for U.S. Senate, got $25,000 in 2018. State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, another Democratic Senate contender, has received $14,000 since 2018. (Both of those donations were for their state races, not their Senate campaigns, which face more strict limits on contributions). U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R., Pa.) last got a donation for his 2016 campaign.
Fetterman, through a spokesperson, declined to comment. Kenyatta’s campaign did not respond to messages. Neither did Fitzpatrick’s office.
Others stood by the union, drawing a distinction between its members and its leader.
“The contributions from any labor organization are pooled together from the members of that union and not one individual,” Evans said in a statement.
The union collected $41 million in paycheck deductions for its main political committee from 2002 through 2018, The Inquirer previously reported.
But the U.S. Labor Department has questioned whether Dougherty’s leadership reflected the will of the members. In January, the government sued to void the union’s most recent election, alleging Dougherty and his allies had threatened rivals who had considered seeking their leadership positions.
Most public officials have long been reluctant to publicly criticize Local 98. Many want to show their support for labor, particularly for a local with 98′s political clout.
For at least one prominent official, though, Dougherty’s indictment was a red flag. Shapiro sent Local 98 letters explicitly rejecting its donations in 2016 and 2020.
He had previously received $220,000 from Local 98′s PAC, with the last contribution he accepted coming in 2015, for $10,000.
But in September 2016, a month after the FBI raided Local 98′s offices and Dougherty’s home, Shapiro wrote to the union citing a possible grand jury investigation by the then-state attorney general. A donation as Shapiro sought that office, the letter said, could “create the appearance of a conflict of interest — or an actual conflict of interest.”
Local 98 supported a rival candidate during the 2016 Democratic primary for attorney general.
Still, the union offered a $10,000 donation for Shapiro’s reelection last year.
He declined. In a letter to the union, a copy of which was provided by a Shapiro political aide, his 2020 campaign wrote: “While AG Shapiro is steadfast in his support for labor, it would not be appropriate to accept this contribution given the legal issues surrounding union leadership.”