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Carpenters union is endorsing former City Councilmember Cherelle Parker for mayor

Money from the carpenters helped propel Mayor Jim Kenney’s 2015 victory.

Mayoral candidate Cherelle Parker, right, has won major endorsements from the unions in the construction and service industries.
Mayoral candidate Cherelle Parker, right, has won major endorsements from the unions in the construction and service industries.Read moreTom Gralish / Staff Photographer

The regional carpenters union on Tuesday announced it is endorsing former City Councilmember Cherelle Parker for mayor, adding a politically powerful labor ally with financial might to her side in what remains a wide-open race to lead Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia Building Trades Council, which represents more than 30 unions in the construction industry, had already endorsed Parker. But the deep-pocketed carpenters often go their own way, and they were not part of the council’s endorsement process.

William C. Sproule, who leads the Eastern Atlantic States Council of Carpenters, said endorsing Parker was a “no-brainer” because she has worked closely with the union for years, going back to her tenure as a state representative.

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“Cherelle has always been there for us, whether it was up in Harrisburg or whether it was right here in Philadelphia with regards to City Council,” said Sproule, whose union represents 14,000 carpenters in the Philadelphia area and 43,000 carpenters across the Mid-Atlantic.

Parker said she has seen carpenters unions help elect mayors and governors across the country.

“I wouldn’t want to have another constituency by my side more,” she said.

Trades unions have long been criticized for lacking diversity, but Parker, who is Black, applauded the carpenters’ pre-apprenticeship program, which she said helps “working men and women, ensuring that they have access to a family-sustaining wage.”

The endorsement continues a hot streak for Parker, who was also recently endorsed by Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union and who launched her first TV ads two weeks ago. But the race is still very much up for grabs, with 12 candidates seeking the Democratic nomination in the May 16 primary election.

Support from Philadelphia-area building trades unions, including money that came from a New Jersey-based carpenters union amid a clash in its leadership, helped propel Mayor Jim Kenney’s 2015 victory.

While the carpenters spoke with one voice Tuesday, that was far from the case in 2015, and the tale of how the union has changed in the last decade is a complicated one.

In the run-up to the 2015 election, electricians union leader John J. Dougherty, who was also the head of the Building Trades Council, sought to consolidate labor support around one candidate, which ended up being Kenney.

But the Philadelphia carpenters union, led by Ed Coryell Sr., had long feuded with the other building trades and with Dougherty, most notably over work at the Convention Center. It endorsed State Sen. Anthony Williams, who finished second to Kenney in the Democratic primary in 2015.

But the New Jersey-based carpenters union shocked many by breaking with its fellow carpenters and contributing more than $700,000 to a Dougherty-connected outside spending group, or “super PAC,” that backed Kenney.

That carpenters union had ties to South Jersey political boss George Norcross. At the time, a source told The Inquirer that Norcross steered resources to Kenney to curry favor with the Philly building trades so that they would support his brother, U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D., N.J.), in future elections.

George Norcross was one of the first people to meet with Kenney on the night he won the primary election in 2015.

A year later, Coryell was ousted by the national carpenters union, and the region’s locals were consolidated in 2018 into the entity that endorsed Parker on Tuesday. The umbrella union is based in Philadelphia, but Sproule comes from the New Jersey carpenters.

Poetically, it is now the electricians’ union that is in the midst of a leadership struggle. Dougherty is awaiting sentencing on federal bribery and honest-services fraud charges in an unrelated case, and has stepped down from his roles with the Building Trades Council and with Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

The electricians union still has millions in its political action committees but appears politically sidelined as it fights internally about the path forward. It’s a sea change for a union that had been the largest spender in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania politics.

Dougherty was replaced as leader of the Building Trades Council by Ryan Boyer, an ally of Parker’s who leads the Laborers District Council. The electricians were one of two locals, along with the stagehands union, that abstained from the trades council’s otherwise-unanimous endorsement of Parker.

Those abstentions raised questions about how much money the trades would be able to muster for her. The carpenters’ endorsement Tuesday has likely answered those questions.

“We bring a significant amount of resources,” Sproule said.