As a leader of the progressive movement aiming to shake up Philadelphia politics, City Councilwoman Helen Gym is in many ways the face of all that’s new in City Hall.
But Gym is also a strong ally of Councilman Bobby Henon, an old-school political operative, standing with him even after he and seven others tied to the city’s Electricians union were indicted in January. Henon, union boss John J. “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, and others charged in the federal case — which includes accusations of public corruption, misuse of union funds, and lying to investigators — have pleaded not guilty to all charges.
On one level, the alliance seems natural. Gym and her fellow progressives strongly support organized labor, and have been aligned with the building trades on issues like supporting Mayor Jim Kenney’s sweetened beverage tax and raising the city’s minimum wage to $15 per hour.
But there’s also an inherent tension between the building trades and liberal insurgents. The labor groups driving the progressive movement primarily represent low-wage minority workers, while the better-paid building trades have long faced complaints about a lack of racial and gender diversity in their ranks. The sides often support different candidates, including in Council elections this year. The low-wage unions often push more liberal agendas, while the trades sometimes back Republicans.
And while many activists are seeking to end the transactional, machine-driven nature of city politics — a conviction displayed in the bottom-up structures of the movement’s volunteer political groups — Dougherty and the trades are masters of that style.
“If we focus on the corruption, then of course the connection between the two makes no sense," said Randall Miller, a political historian at St. Joseph’s University. "But if we focus on those instances where Local 98 has supported not just the politicians but also supported progressive causes, then it starts to make sense. They’re not necessarily a beautiful marriage, but there’s no reason they should get divorced, either.”
The alliance between Henon and Gym has been on display as Henon angles to hold on to his post as Council majority leader. While some of Gym’s Democratic colleagues hatched a plot to oust Henon, Gym stood apart by publicly praising him, calling him “a good majority leader” on Election Day. The leadership election takes place at next month’s swearing-in ceremony.
“I was elected to deliver for working people and families and get things done for our schools, for our neighborhoods and for our youth," Gym said in a statement. “That’s why I work hard to have a good working relationship with all my colleagues, including Council member Henon. I firmly believe unions are the best way to ensure quality jobs, decent working conditions, and counter the otherwise out-of-control corporate greed that has exacerbated inequality in our city and our nation."
Henon’s office didn’t return a message seeking comment last week.
Dougherty said International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 has supported Gym in both of her at-large Council campaigns — including in 2015, when she won without the local Democratic Party’s endorsement. He noted that he and the union have long supported progressive causes, including LGBTQ rights, the environment, and worker rights.
“Our support of Helen Gym is because I personally — and a majority of this union — believe that she stands up for the things we believe in," Dougherty said. “I wouldn’t have any problem at all if she was my mayor or congresswoman or U.S. senator.”
In the 2015 election, Gym narrowly finished fifth in the 16-candidate Democratic primary for Council at large, in which the top five vote-getters advance to the general election and are all but assured to win, thanks to the city’s overwhelmingly Democratic electorate. This year, after a first term marked by big headlines and several major policy wins, she finished first with a commanding lead over the field.
Local 98 "has been with her every single election,” Dougherty said.
The union did’t actually endorse Gym or donate to her campaign in 2015. Local 98, however, often quietly backs more candidates than it publicly announces by promoting them at polling places in certain parts of the city. The possibility that the union was helping Gym surfaced during the 2015 primary, when State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, who ran for mayor that year, suggested that Dougherty, a Kenney backer, and Gym were working together to undermine him.
State Rep. Chris Rabb (D., Phila.), an anti-establishment lawmaker, said progressives have an obligation to speak out about corruption and racial inequity regarding the building trades.
“Any partner or organization that is silent on or has retrograde policies related to diversity, inclusion, and equity is going to be something that I am going to speak out about openly, irrespective of what we may have in common,” Rabb said, adding that he didn’t know enough about Gym and Henon’s relationship to comment on that specifically. “That is something that is a priority for me as a progressive, not just as a person of color.”
Gym said she has been vocal about addressing racial disparities, including in the trades, noting that she supported strengthened diversity requirements for union construction workers hired in the Rebuild program, which uses soda-tax revenue to improve parks, recreation centers, and libraries.
“My track record on this issue is clear," Gym said. "I’ve voiced my concerns about equity and diversity in city departments, the School District, and unions, including the building trades — and I’ll continue to do so.”
Since the indictment came down last January, most local politicians have avoided criticizing Dougherty, Henon, and Local 98 — which still spends heavily on elections — while also being careful not to praise the union.
One of the few who has spoken out is State Rep. Jared Solomon (D., Phila.), who has called on Henon to resign. Solomon said that while he doesn’t know the details of Gym and Henon’s relationship, he believes Democrats should be doing more to combat corruption.
“We as Democrats do ourselves a service by calling this out," Solomon said. "This isn’t about union members. This is about political elites that aren’t living by the rules. By calling this out, we only help the labor movement.”
Continued support for Henon among Council members and other Philadelphia officials will make it harder for members of the city’s delegation to Harrisburg to maintain credibility in the GOP-controlled legislature, Solomon said.
“If Henon were elected majority leader, the message that that sends is, it’s beyond the eye roll," he said. "It becomes an impediment to working to build a progressive left-leaning agenda in Harrisburg.”