This week, as I watched the only televised debate between Mayor Jim Kenney and his two Democratic challengers, former City Controller Alan Butkovitz and State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, I felt as if one man was missing from the stage — John J. Dougherty.
The powerful business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 has been front and center in Philadelphia politics for years. In 2015, the union gave more than $500,000 to a political action committee called the Building a Better Pennsylvania Fund, which spent $1.8 million to propel Kenney to victory in the mayoral primary. And Dougherty has remained close to the Kenney administration throughout the mayor’s first term.
Kenney’s opponents say Dougherty’s influence has created a culture of corruption that helps to exclude black and brown Philadelphians from jobs inside and outside the administration. Kenney says his opponents are hypocrites for pretending they don’t have ties to Dougherty.
The question for Philadelphians is: Would a Kenney loss move Dougherty aside and create more opportunities for Philadelphians of color in the city’s booming construction industry?
I’m not sure that it would. But in my view, we can’t continue with business as usual, because business as usual has not only frozen black and brown people out of the construction jobs that Dougherty directly controls, it has also allowed a culture of corruption to continue in City Hall.
Where else but Philadelphia would one of the mayor’s closest outside allies (Dougherty) be charged with embezzlement in a federal indictment, along with Council Majority Leader Bobby Henon, who is still openly supported by the mayor?
Butkovitz tried to raise that point during a particularly testy exchange in the mayoral debate when Kenney blasted Butkovitz for losing to Rebecca Rhynhart in his last election.
“The fact of the matter is, Mr. Butkovitz was fired by the voters because he didn’t do his job,” Kenney said. “He was supposed to audit every department every year, and he didn’t do that. … I think it’s his activity or lack thereof is what caused his loss. Not wanting more women in politics.”
“I lost my job because I did do my job,” Butkovitz said. “I don’t act like Mayor Kenney and ask permission from John Dougherty or the powers that be before I investigate something, before I say Councilman Henon shouldn’t run for reelection. I do what the people expect us to do. A check and balance. ...”
“He didn’t mind taking $300,000 or so from John Dougherty over the last 10 years,” Kenney shot back. “And my opponent here [Williams] took $450,000.”
As Butkovitz and Williams tried to chime in, Kenney continued: “It’s the hypocrisy. You sit here and listen to all this, but the hypocrisy is unbelievable.”
I agree. Hypocrisy is an issue. Kenney, who as a councilman decried the presence of dark money in politics, was happy to take such money in his first race for mayor, and told me in an April 2015 WURD radio interview that he would not “unilaterally disarm,” since Williams, his opponent at the time, was also receiving money from a political action committee.
During that 2015 interview, when I asked specifically about the support Kenney received from Local 98, a union that, along with the other building trades, is mostly white, male and suburban, Kenney said:
“You act like the building trades are the only people supporting me, when the Carpenters and the Teamsters are supporting Anthony Williams. The Carpenters are the ones who have basically shut down the Convention Center to keep people from working. I mean, IBEW, the stagehands, and all the other people who work in the building crossed a Carpenters picket line and crossed the Teamsters picket line to get the Convention Center back up and running.”
Some of those same unions are referred to in the federal indictment of Dougherty, Henon, and others.
In taped conversations and text messages, Henon and Dougherty allegedly said they wanted to implement a soda tax to get back at the Teamsters for funding a pro-Williams commercial that they believed was insulting to “Johnny Doc.”
The indictment says Dougherty met with an official from the Kenney administration to talk about how the soda tax would be used. And in a recent interview on WURD, Williams told me that Dougherty was in at least one more meeting concerning the tax. According to Williams’ official state Senate schedule, that meeting took place on Feb. 1, 2018.
“I went to [Kenney’s] office,” Williams told me. “I sat down with Jim Engler, who I guess was his policy director at this time, himself, and John Dougherty, in that room."
In a meeting with the Inquirer Editorial Board, Kenney denied that this meeting happened.
“In this case, again, the person who advises the mayor on a consistent basis and his number-one adviser is John Dougherty,” Williams said. “And, under indictment or not, the reality is no one should have that level of access to the mayor on a regular basis advising him on a variety of things.”
I agree. I just wonder whether that will change with this election.