God save the king.
The only thing that’s as predictable as a political corruption scandal in Philadelphia — like last week’s federal indictment of union boss John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, City Councilman Bobby Henon, and six others — is what follows: the Jacob Marley-like wailing from the accused pols’ peers, who warn that the city is going to be worse off in the long run if prosecutors succeed in getting a conviction.
Dougherty spent 25 years controlling some of the biggest chess pieces in Philadelphia, building Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers into a political powerhouse that helped to elect mayors, council members, and members of the state Supreme Court, including his brother, Justice Kevin Dougherty. He’s been credited with playing an integral role in the ongoing redevelopment of the city’s Market East corridor, ensuring union members have steady work, and even helping the Phillies to land Jim Thome.
But the indictment showed a darker side of Doc, a man who allegedly used his power and influence to fleece his own union of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and bully the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia — allegedly with Henon’s help — when it tried to use nonunion labor to install new MRI machines. Let the outrageousness of that last one marinate for a minute. Who strong-arms a children’s hospital?
Yet a day after the U.S. Attorney’s Office detailed those allegations in a 116-count indictment, an anonymous Democratic consultant bemoaned the potential loss of Dougherty, asking Politico’s Holly Otterbein: “Now, who is going to do big things?”
It’s a premise we’ve been presented with before: Philadelphia can’t survive without its kingmakers, the political figures who amass power behind the scenes, and then exert their influence on the city in not-so-subtle ways. One of the more blatant examples of this style of politics unfolded in 2015, when Dougherty correctly predicted that most of the city’s labor unions would unite around a single mayoral candidate. They eventually found one in Jim Kenney.
In this fairy-tale version of reality, we’re encouraged to look the other way on the corruption stuff, unless we want the city to turn into a dilapidated shantytown, devoid of ambition and possibility.
When then-Congressman Chaka Fattah was preparing to face a federal corruption trial in 2016, it was then-U.S. Rep. Bob Brady who stood up and waved a warning flag. “It’s billions of dollars he brought back, and it would be billions of dollars that we would be losing,” Brady, who remains the chairman of Philadelphia’s Democratic City Committee, said at the time. “Why would we lose that? Because somebody thinks that something went wrong? That don’t work. It doesn’t work in the United States. You’re innocent until proven otherwise.”
Fattah, accused of siphoning money from an education nonprofit to repay an illegal campaign loan, was convicted on racketeering charges, and sentenced to a decade in prison.
A similar defense was offered on behalf of former State Sen. Vince Fumo, whose 2009 federal corruption trial introduced OPM — Other People’s Money — into the political lexicon. “Being a senator is the next best thing to royalty,” he once wrote to an ex-girlfriend.
Fumo defrauded the Senate and a pair of local nonprofits to the tune of $3.5 million, resulting in a 55-month prison sentence. Still, during Fumo’s trial, former Gov. Ed Rendell suggested that Fumo had faced an unfair amount of scrutiny, given all that he accomplished. “[T]he microscope is so intense,” Rendell testified, “I sometimes wonder how we will continue to get people into public service.”
The takeaway, for Philadelphians, was that no truly great men or women would want to bother running for office if they knew they might have to contend with being held accountable.
David Thornburgh, president of the good-government group the Committee of Seventy, has one word for the political establishment’s tendency to defend its disgraced leaders by hoisting them on a heavenly pedestal: “Pathetic.”
“You wander into this closed-loop thinking that the only people we can depend on are political fixers,” he said. “That’s our choice? That either we get big stuff done with people who are under investigation or indicted, or we don’t get big stuff done at all? Really? Come on.”
Thornburgh argues that the forces that drive Philadelphia are bigger than a Dougherty, Fumo, or Fattah, that developers, employers, and students flock to the region — or don’t — for myriad reasons. And despite all of the deal-making clout those kingpins brought to the table, Philadelphia continues to wear the banner of the poorest big city in America.
In 2008, Dougherty took his only swing at elected office, spending more than a million dollars on a bid for Fumo’s old Senate seat. Fumo backed Larry Farnese, who handed Dougherty a stunning defeat. Fumo wore a Cheshire Cat grin during Farnese’s victory party at a crowded Italian restaurant in South Philly, chanting “Doc is dead! Doc is dead!” along with the rest of the revelers.
But Fumo’s career was the one that was about to flatline. Dougherty grew so powerful that he was soon able to pressure a conglomerate like Comcast, during private hotel meetings, to steer nearly $2 million worth of work to his old friend’s electrical company.
The time has come to put a final nail in the coffin of the kingmaker myth, to write a future for the city that isn’t dependent on the largesse of leaders who believe they’re too important to be toppled by rules and laws that apply to everyone else — while they take, take, take to their heart’s content.
So how do we avoid a retelling of this very Philadelphia story?
This is an election year for City Council; two incumbents are iffy on their intentions, and a record number of primary challengers are expected to flood the ballot. Kenney, too, is up for reelection. Those races could end up serving as a possible referendum of Dougherty’s influence and alleged misdeeds, assuming a large number of voters are stirred to life.
“This should be a campaign issue,” Thornburgh said. “If it isn’t, then we’re in trouble.”