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How electricians' union became huge force in Pa. elections

A relatively small Philadelphia union has become the biggest independent source of campaign money in the state. Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers has poured $25.6 million into political races since 2000, an Inquirer analysis of campaign records found - more than statewide powerhouses such as the trial lawyers, teachers' unions, or Marcellus Shale gas drillers.

John J. Dougherty Jr. (center) at the Palm during a postelection celebration in 2012 joined by (from left) Ken Adams, Tom Rumbaugh, and Dan McCaffery.
John J. Dougherty Jr. (center) at the Palm during a postelection celebration in 2012 joined by (from left) Ken Adams, Tom Rumbaugh, and Dan McCaffery.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

 A relatively small Philadelphia union has become the biggest independent source of campaign money in the state.

Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers has poured $25.6 million into political races since 2000, an Inquirer analysis of campaign records found - more than statewide powerhouses such as the trial lawyers, teachers' unions, or Marcellus Shale gas drillers.

The donations, financed by members' paycheck deductions, have helped turn the local and its business manager, John J. Dougherty Jr., into a potent and even feared political force.

"Fear is not a bad thing to have on your side," Dougherty told a reporter in 2001, when the union was just beginning to ramp up its political spending.

Now, what Dougherty recently called "the Local 98 political machine" is going full-tilt. Its money and manpower have helped elect mayors, City Council members, county commissioners, and congressmen, state legislators, governors, and 58 judges, including Dougherty's brother - and five of the seven justices of the state Supreme Court.

The union's political action committee has contributed more than $5.5 million to current officeholders in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and the federal government - from the courthouse to the White House.

And if some voters aren't interested in Tuesday's primary, Dougherty's union is. Local 98 has given more than $760,000 to candidates on the ballot, including $223,425 plus in-kind contributions to Democrat Allyson Schwartz's gubernatorial run. A Schwartz banner drapes the union's redbrick headquarters on Spring Garden Street.

Whoever wins Tuesday will face another Local 98-backed candidate in the fall: Republican Gov. Corbett. It has given his campaigns $87,500, plus $50,000 to help celebrate his 2011 inauguration.

Local 98 cares about the bottom of the ticket, too. Its donations to this year's races include $100,000 to Dan Savage's bid to unseat State Sen. Tina Tartaglione and $100,000 to help a favored Pennsylvania congressional candidate, State Rep. Brendan Boyle - through a PAC in New Jersey.

Though other unions outnumber the local's 3,800 members, none approach its $25.6 million in campaign spending since 2000, after the state's records were computerized. As a close observer of Pennsylvania politics, G. Terry Madonna, said, it has become "a major force to be reckoned with."

"We're talking about an extra-powerful union that has tentacles throughout the city in a whole variety of political contexts," said Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin and Marshall College. "And that influence is not just expressed in the normal way through giving to candidates. They have alternate PACs and other ways to reach the electorate for the candidates they want, through ward leaders and so-called consultants that roam around to deliver their influence."

He and others say the key to the union's outsized political profile is its leader.

"Local 98 is the most powerful and most feared political entity in Philadelphia and maybe the state," said Zack Stalberg, who heads the watchdog group the Committee of Seventy. "That's mostly because of the campaign contributions and somewhat because of the people that they can put on the street to help a candidate - and also because Doc is extremely smart and focused on having that most powerful role."

Six-foot-2, white-haired at 54, and known universally as "Johnny Doc," Dougherty has led the local since 1993, earning a reputation as a forceful adversary in both labor disputes and politics.

Those qualities were on display last week as he signed on to new work rules at the Convention Center and led electricians past jeering Teamsters there.

The local's largess has helped make Dougherty the strongest backstage player in city politics - particularly in Council.

"When Johnny Doc goes to bed at night, he has 13 City Council members in his pocket," said another labor leader, Henry Nicholas, with a mixture of jealousy and admiration.

"John is a brilliant, skillful, pragmatic labor leader-politician, at the top of the class," said Nicholas, head of AFSCME Local 1199C, the hospital and health-care workers' union. "He wants to be what he is, a major player in Pennsylvania politics. . . . It's true that you have to pay to play. And he understands that."

Nicholas is likely overstating Dougherty's grip on Council, whose president, Darrell L. Clarke, declined to comment for this article. But no one disputes that the electricians' leader wants a seat at the table.

"He wants to be at any number of different tables," said Mayor Nutter, a frequent target of Dougherty's ire. "And, certainly, the contributions and dealing with elected officials helps in that regard."

He credited Dougherty with having laserlike focus: "Jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs . . . for someone in his union, or someone else's union."

Stalberg took a harsher view: "Doc probably cares about issues, but he cares about power and influence more than anything else, and he's been very successful at aggregating that."

Dougherty declined numerous interview requests for this article. (Spokesman Frank Keel cited "his and the union's disinterest in commenting.") A hand-delivered letter seeking his views went unanswered. When a reporter left messages at the homes of union members seeking interviews, the local's lawyer, Joseph Podraza Jr., threatened to press charges.

State Rep. Ed Neilson, a former electrician whom Dougherty credits with helping him build the "machine," says union leaders realized campaign money would get them "in the right room" with contractors, developers, and politicians who controlled jobs.

Neilson, now running for Council, remembers the landscape when Dougherty's slate took over.

"Our unemployment numbers were through the roof," he said. "That's when we took office - John, myself, the whole team. We looked at the contractors. . . . They were politically active. At the time, we were giving a penny an hour [from wages] to our political fund. We couldn't afford to go to a clambake or anything else."

So they raised the hourly donation to a nickel - because without campaign money, "most elected officials wouldn't let you walk in the door," Neilson said. "The members were very supportive, because it's not about the contributions - it's about jobs."

One 15-year-plus member agreed. "Absolutely," said the electrician, who spoke on condition of anonymity, "because it takes politics to get work done in this city."

Neilson said PAC money "puts us in the rooms with the right people, the people awarding the contract."

If Neilson wins a Council seat - and he is heavily favored in the special election that coincides with Tuesday's primary - he will join a Local 98 official, Bobby Henon, already there. Both have received heavy campaign financing from the PAC they helped build.

The $25.6 million it has raised and spent since 2000 is roughly three times the amount given to Pennsylvania races between 2000 and 2012 by the Marcellus Shale natural gas industry, according to one study.

Pennsylvania's largest teachers' union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, has 45 times the members Local 98 does but has spent less than half as much on politics, campaign records show.

The money Local 98 spends on politics comes entirely from members' paychecks, as a percentage of electricians' pay, which now exceeds $80 an hour (including wages, health benefits, pensions, dues, and other deductions) on standard union jobs.

The union's federal and state disclosures show how the PAC is funded. Dougherty chipped in $2,805 last year, about 1.52 percent of his $184,192 salary, and other union officers paid the same percentage.

The fund's biggest donor in 2013 was electrical contractor Donald Dougherty Jr. - no relation to John Dougherty but a friend since boyhood and a local member. He gave $4,629 last year, records show.

Donald Dougherty was released from federal prison in 2010 after serving a 22-month sentence for tax evasion and bribery, including providing $115,600 worth of free electric work at John Dougherty's home.

To the limit, and more

Three years ago, the union found ways to skirt Philadelphia's campaign-contribution limits, now set at $2,900 for individuals and $11,500 for PACs. The caps were enacted in 2005 after the pay-to-play scandal triggered by the discovery of an FBI bug in Mayor John F. Street's office. Local 98 tried to have the state Supreme Court void the law.

In early 2011, when the union PAC maxed out on donations to favored candidates, more money made its way to those candidates - through other PACs receiving heavy support from Local 98, such as Philadelphia Phuture, Concerned Irish Americans, and Blarney PAC.

Council moved to close that loophole in April 2011. But that fall, a candidate for mayor in Reading donated $20,000 to two Philadelphia Council races - the same day he received $30,000 from Local 98. Berks County officials found the candidate had helped Local 98 funnel money in violation of the caps.

Stalberg said the caps may have actually enhanced the union's clout. He said the limits caused law firms and corporations to donate far less than in the past, "but Local 98 is still spending as much as it can, and maybe more than it should."

It can spend freely on state races - Pennsylvania law doesn't limit what a person or PAC can give. That explains why Local 98 can contribute five-figure sums to any number of state campaigns, from former Gov. Ed Rendell's to Corbett's.

The union also is generous at street level. After the Democratic City Committee, Local 98 is a top provider of "street money" - thousands of dollars in cash distributed just before elections. This Philadelphia tradition is often reported as GOTV costs, for "get out the vote."

Local 98's PAC gave out $890,500 in street money over the last seven years, with no public accounting of who received it.

Though state law requires PACs to keep vouchers documenting such expenses and make them available on request, the union has stymied Inquirer requests to see those records.

When state officials forwarded one such request to the union, its lawyer, Podraza, said it would not respond because of legal disputes with the newspaper. Calls seeking further explanation went unreturned.

Local 98 also keeps candidates' supporters properly attired. Records show it has spent $683,934 on campaign T-shirts, jackets, and hats at KO Sporting Goods in South Philadelphia, part-owned by State Rep. Bill Keller, the top recipient of the PAC's donations.

It has dropped more than $1.1 million at Third Base Sports & Trophies in Cherry Hill for an expanded campaign fashion line: all of the above, plus towels, hoodies, visors, banners - and $6,600 worth of attaché bags for Rendell's 2002 gubernatorial campaign.

Born to city politics

Dougherty still lives in the Pennsport section of South Philadelphia, where he grew up in a family steeped in city politics.

His father worked in the courts. His grandfather served eight terms in the state House, and for a time was party whip. Dougherty graduated from St. Joseph's Prep, attended La Salle University, became an electrician, and joined Local 98.

Gregarious, energetic, and ambitious, qualities that still characterize him, he was tapped in his 30s to join the union board and soon rose to the top post.

Under his watch, the local took a harder line against nonunion contractors. In politics, he became a force one crossed at a risk.

In 2011, he withdrew his support for longtime City Commissioner Marge Tartaglione when she refused to back Henon, then the union's political director, for a Council seat. She had pledged her support to another candidate.

Henon won, Tartaglione lost, but the bygones are not bygone. On Tuesday, Local 98 is backing a Democratic ward leader, Savage, in a challenge to Tartaglione's daughter - despite the latter's record of support for organized labor.

Dougherty also returns favors. Why support Schwartz for governor? In part because "she was willing to jump in the middle of a primary and support Bobby Henon," Dougherty told WHYY-FM. "And we don't forget that stuff at Local 98. You're good to us, we're good to you."

For candidates the union supports, direct PAC donations can be just the beginning.

"Dougherty has the capacity to dictate or strongly influence who else gives to his candidates," said Thomas Massaro, a former city housing czar who offers a crash course to rookie Council members on how City Hall works.

"He can get seven or eight other union PACs to give to you, or not to give to you," Massaro said. "And he has a seamless web of other contributors - electrical contractors, suppliers, and developers, people who have needs to be addressed in City Hall."

Plus, the local's ability to field hundreds of workers on Election Day and spend six-figure sums on consultants, street money, and advertising is legendary.

Then there is the network of Democratic ward leaders whose organizations regularly receive Local 98 donations, giving a leg up to its preferred candidates - especially in primaries for low-profile offices such as judgeships.

This all makes Dougherty a major force as potential candidates jockey for position in advance of next year's elections, when Philadelphia voters will choose a mayor, Council members, and occupants of other local offices. For more than a year, Dougherty has been pushing city unions to unite behind a candidate for mayor.

Local 98 spent more than $2 million - an unprecedented total for an independent PAC in Philadelphia - in the last big municipal election, in 2011. Much of that money helped elect Henon to Council - $10,600 from the union, $50,000 more from other PACs that Local 98 had helped finance, and $44,048 for T-shirts and other items described as "Henon propaganda" in the union's filings.

 Since taking public office, Henon has stayed on Local 98's payroll, earning $79,900 in 2012 and $71,146 last year, on top of his $125,000 salary from taxpayers. (Council members are allowed to moonlight.) His union work was described only as "office" in Local 98's annual report to U.S. labor officials. On a city disclosure, Henon listed his job as electrician.

Henon has pushed a pro-union agenda on the Council floor, repeatedly ripping Nutter's administration for stalled contract talks with city workers and playing a key role in bills affecting construction, a major concern since last year's fatal Center City building collapse.

He declined to discuss the union or his job there, saying, "I'm not going to say anything about Local 98 business."

Henon's predecessor as Local 98's political director, Neilson, now represents Northeast Philadelphia in the state House. Local 98's PAC spent $190,000 helping him win in 2012. This year, he's an odds-on favorite in a new race - for Council. Democratic ward leaders made him the party's nominee in Tuesday's special election to fill the seat Bill Green vacated to become chairman of the School Reform Commission.

Dougherty's younger brother, Kevin, became a Common Pleas Court judge in 2001 with the union's support and now is in charge of Family Court. He's expected to run next year for the state Supreme Court.

A Local 98 lawyer, Henry Lewandowski, was elected last year to Municipal Court despite a "not recommended" rating from the Philadelphia Bar Association. The union gave $70,000 to Lewandowski's campaign fund, more than three quarters of its total.

Dougherty was treasurer of the city Democratic Party - and reputedly its top fund-raiser - until he lost the post in 2006 in a showdown with the longtime chairman, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady.

Two years later, Dougherty launched his only run for public office. Funded by more than $600,000 from Local 98 and its related PACs, he sought to replace his onetime ally, Vincent J. Fumo, in the state Senate - but finished second in a three-way Democratic primary.

Fumo kept his own support for winner Larry Farnese quiet until election night, when he led a small crowd chanting "Doc is Dead" at a Passyunk Avenue restaurant where Farnese was celebrating.

Far from dead, Dougherty rebounded from that loss to rebuild and enhance his political power, becoming First Ward Democratic leader (though he lives just outside the ward), spreading PAC dollars throughout the city's Democratic power structure, and positioning himself to become party chairman whenever Brady, who declined to comment for this article, decides to give up the post.

Clout in City Council

In the last Council election, in 2011, the union's PAC donated to 16 of 17 winners. Council members privately say Local 98 was a major, perhaps decisive, factor in swinging support to Clarke over rival Marion Tasco when the chamber chose its president.

Why such interest in Council's make-up? For one thing, Council members and builders say, bills don't move on major construction projects without a tacit agreement that contractors will use union tradespeople.

The union didn't win all of its Council fights that year.

It opposed incumbent Maria Quiñones Sánchez in the Democratic primary. That fall, mailings attacked GOP Council candidate David Oh for exaggerating his military service.

The mailings were paid for by Philadelphia Phuture, one of what political scientist Madonna called the "alternate PACs" - committees heavily financed by Local 98's PAC.

Sanchez and Oh prevailed nonetheless.

"When my supporters saw that Doc was supporting my opponent, they dug deeper into their pockets," Sánchez said.

Behind the scenes, Dougherty helped organize vituperative protests against Nutter's handling of contract talks with municipal unions - including the protests at a Council session in March 2013 where city union members, with piercing whistles, drowned out Nutter's budget message.

Clarke let the protest continue for 10 minutes before adjourning.

Dougherty's enmity toward Nutter dates at least to 2007, when Local 98 printed anonymous handouts in the mayor's race, defying state law by failing to disclose who was behind them.

One leaflet, distributed outside churches two days before the 2007 primary, questioned the religious faiths of two mayoral candidates - Nutter and Brady.

Local 98 owned up to the leaflets only after a yearlong investigation by the city Board of Ethics. Henon, then the union's political director, signed a settlement acknowledging the union's responsibility and agreeing to pay $10,000 in fines.

The purpose of the printing expense had been described only as "GOTV" on the union's campaign finance filings.

When the board sought more details, the union went to federal court, contending its free-speech rights were in jeopardy. A judge dismissed the claim.

Then-Mayor Street, whose campaigns received $693,208 in contributions and other assistance from Local 98, named Dougherty chairman of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority.

Once in office, Nutter removed Dougherty from that post. But now Dougherty is positioning himself to help choose Nutter's successor.

Publicly, at rallies to support the city's unionized workers, and privately, at a series of monthly meetings with other Philadelphia union leaders, he has repeatedly called for labor to unite behind one candidate.

'A place at the table'

It's hard to measure how much benefit Local 98's rank-and-file members derive from the PAC donations. But an experienced political fund-raiser who asked not to be identified said Dougherty's clout benefits union households statewide, protecting prevailing-wage provisions in government contracts and maintaining labor's say in appointments to public agencies big and small.

For instance: The state Department of Labor and Industry oversees 28 panels and committees, including one that decides how much work on union jobs can go to lower-paid apprentices.

The electricians helped finance Rendell's races - and as governor, Rendell named Dougherty to the Delaware River Port Authority. He returned to the DRPA this year, appointed by state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, another Local 98-backed candidate.

Dougherty has served on the boards of a half-dozen other public agencies, including the Convention Center, where he has played an integral role in the latest labor drama.

His decision to sign on to the center's new work rules and lead electricians past Carpenters and Teamsters picket lines has given cover for less-powerful unions to follow suit.

Like Nutter, the fund-raiser spoke of Dougherty's getting seats at tables.

"When they make those large contributions, it gets you a place at the table," he said. "And there are a lot of boards and commissions that are very important to them."

Still, Nicholas, the hospital union leader, says the political donations would add up to little were it not for the mind behind them.

"Money alone won't do the job. You have to have the vision and the skill," he said. "I think Johnny Doc is a pragmatic politician. . . . He has an agenda. The mayor has eight years at best. Johnny Doc's years are unlimited."