For years before he was indicted last month, Electricians union leader John J. “Johnny Doc” Dougherty plugged into a renewable source of political power and became one of the last of the great unelected bosses in America.
Week after week, small-dollar donations withdrawn from the paychecks of members of Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers piled up in the bank account of the union’s main political action committee, Committee on Political Education, or COPE.
From 2002 through 2018, the union collected just under $41 million to invest in helping elect allies to local, state, and national offices, according to an Inquirer analysis of Local 98 member contributions to the political committee. The yearly haul has increased sixfold over the last decade.
“The ability to generate that kind of money from that many people compared to other potential players in the political funding sweepstakes puts them head and shoulders above others,” said David Thornburgh, head of the Committee of Seventy, the Philadelphia government watchdog group.
“The power of payroll deduction is, [donors] don’t miss $5 per week or $10 per week as much as if you have to cut one check,” he said.
The 159-page indictment returned by a federal grand jury entangled only one elected official — Councilman Bobby Henon — and didn’t charge anyone with making or receiving improper campaign donations. For a probe that took at least two years, it also gave barely a nod to the breadth of the influence and impact that Local 98 and its leader have amassed.
Dougherty’s perpetual money machine, combined with the bodies he can put on the street for get-out-the-vote operations, has helped elect senators, members of Congress, governors, state legislators, judges, mayors, City Council members, and ward leaders for the Philadelphia Democratic machine. Local 98 was a major backer of Gov. Tom Wolf, for instance, giving him slightly more than $1 million in contributions and support between his 2014 and 2018 campaigns. The union is credited with making Jim Kenney mayor.
Perhaps the crowning moment came in 2015, when union money helped Democrats take control of the state Supreme Court by electing three justices, including Dougherty’s brother, Kevin, whose campaign got $1.5 million.
Amid the critical 2018 midterm elections, the justices ordered that new congressional district boundaries be drawn after ruling that the existing districts were gerrymandered unconstitutionally to benefit Republicans. Democrats flipped four seats in Pennsylvania on their way to taking control of the U.S. House.
After the indictments, it’s possible that Local 98 will keep spreading political money around as Philadelphia holds elections for mayor and City Council this year. Its main political action committee, COPE, had nearly $7.2 million in the bank as of Dec. 31.
Some analysts wonder whether pols will begin distancing themselves from the union amid the legal troubles.
It may be instructive to see what happened in August 2016, when federal investigators raided homes and offices of Local 98 officials to gather evidence. Many expected that it was only a matter of time before indictments would be issued by a federal grand jury examining how the union leaders spent money.
Essentially, nothing happened. COPE kept churning away, collecting donations from its members. And it continued to give to candidates for the next 16 months.
It raised about $6.2 million in 2018, almost all in donations of under $250 from members, spread across 9,212 pages of seven state-required campaign finance reports filed for the year. The union spent $4.5 million in COPE funds in the same year.
Mayor Kenney, a beneficiary of Local 98′s financial support, emphasized the role of rank-and-file Local 98 members when the indictments became public on Jan. 30, charging Dougherty, Henon, and six other union officials with stealing from the union.
“The campaign contributions don’t come from him, they come from the members,” Kenney said of Dougherty. “The members are supported by me. They support me, and I support them.”
Kenney, now seeking a second term, was right in one sense. The money comes from union members. But Dougherty has the final word on how it gets spent.
Dougherty took control of Local 98 in 1993 and made his first political move two years later, helping electrician-turned-politician Rick Mariano unseat City Councilman Dan McElhatton in the 1995 Democratic primary. That established a Local 98 beachhead in City Hall.
But Dougherty was planning on a bigger bet. In 1999, he had Local 98 back then-City Council President John F. Street for mayor, splitting with other powerful Democrats. Street won a narrow victory.
Dougherty was rewarded with leadership of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, adding that to a growing roster of titles, including treasurer of the Democratic City Committee.
Two years later, Local 98 helped Kevin Dougherty win a seat on Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas.
Local 98 also looked out for friends and colleagues who didn’t seem to need the help. State Rep. Bill Keller, who represented Dougherty’s South Philadelphia neighborhood, received more than $1 million in Local 98 campaign contributions and support from 2000 through 2018, though he often ran without an opponent.
The longtime legislator announced in February 2018 he would not run for reelection. The union’s final donation of $50,000 came three months after Keller said he was retiring.
Mariano, the union’s first political success, also brought its first brush with federal investigators. He was accused, and later convicted, of accepting money from businessmen in his Council district to pay off personal debts. Local 98 received a subpoena for records about Mariano, and Dougherty testified before a federal grand jury.
Along the way, the union dropped Mariano after investing $269,300 in his campaigns.
Mariano, who spent five years in federal prison and emerged a critic of Dougherty’s and the union’s leadership, compared the members’ payroll deductions to what is known as “macing,” when political bosses require public employees to donate to the party.
Though Local 98 members sign up to make the donations, Mariano said it’s not really voluntary — if they want to work.
“It’s a business where your reputation is important," Mariano said. “It can ruin your reputation like that.”
For all the power he amassed, Dougherty was not tempted to run for elected office himself until 2008, when he tried to fill the state Senate seat of mentor-turned-enemy Vincent J. Fumo, who went to federal prison for his own troubles. Fumo’s candidate, Larry Farnese, prevailed. Some in the party wondered whether Dougherty’s days in the sun were ending.
That talk didn’t linger.
In 2011, Henon, Local 98′s political director, easily won an open seat on Council and started to climb, becoming majority leader and sparking speculation that he would one day try for Council president, a post currently held by another beneficiary of the union’s largess, Darrell F. Clarke.
With money to spend that year, Local 98 looked for loopholes in the city’s campaign finance laws. It used COPE to fund other political action committees. Then COPE and those PACs each contributed the maximum allowable amount to favored candidates, doubling and tripling down on the limits.
The city’s campaign finance laws had to be amended to halt the practice.
Dougherty was not dissuaded. He announced in 2012 that his members had voted unanimously to double the amount of political contributions deducted from their paychecks.
Local 98 also took heed of Citizens United, the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that political action committees could not be regulated if they acted independently and did not coordinate efforts with candidates or campaigns.
So the union launched Building a Better Pennsylvania, an independent expenditure PAC run by Local 98 officials and funded by it and other building trades unions in the region. It was ready to roll by 2014.
In its first effort, the PAC helped then-State Rep. Brendan Boyle of Philadelphia defeat three Montgomery County Democrats in a primary for a seat in the U.S. House. It dropped $354,000 two weeks before the primary, spending that did not have to be reported until well after the voting was done. Two out of every three of those dollars came from Local 98.
In 2015, the Supreme Court race provided a synergistic opportunity in Philadelphia, as Building a Better Pennsylvania backed Kenney for mayor. Strong voter turnout in the mayoral primary benefited Kevin Dougherty’s bid for the high court.
Then, the next summer, the federal authorities parked a rented truck in front of the Local 98 union hall on Spring Garden Street as agents hauled out boxes of documents.
At the height of its power, helping a mayor win City Hall and a brother reach the state’s highest court, bustling in the middle of a presidential election, Local 98 appeared to be in retreat.