The Soda Tax Battle’s Biggest Winners and Losers

Clockwise: Union leader John Dougherty, Mayor Jim Kenney, Council President Darrell Clarke and soda mogul Harold Honickman. | Photos by Jeff Fusco, iStock.com and HughE Dillon

Clockwise: Union leader John Dougherty, Mayor Jim Kenney, Council President Darrell Clarke and soda mogul Harold Honickman. | Photos by Jeff Fusco, iStock.com and HughE Dillon

One of the longest and most expensive political wars in recent Philadelphia history has come to an end. On Thursday, City Council voted 13-4 to enact a tax on sugary drinks and diet sodas. The American Beverage Association has spent nearly $5 million since March to flood the airwaves with anti-soda tax ads. But even that doesn’t capture the full scope of the soda industry group’s spending: It worked diligently to fight off a soda tax since 2010 — when former Mayor Michael Nutter first floated the idea — by lobbying Council members and donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to political campaigns.

This year, though, the soda lobby’s deep pockets weren’t enough to kill Mayor Jim Kenney’s proposed tax. In the end, only Democrat Maria Quiñones-Sánchez and Republicans David Oh, Brian O’Neill and Al Taubenberger voted against the 1.5-cents-per-ounce tax on Thursday.

Philadelphia is the biggest city in the United States to approve a soda tax. The only other city in the country with a sugary drinks tax is Berkeley, California. Here, the levy will fund expanded pre-K, community schools, and an overhaul of the parks system, among other things. These are the biggest winners and losers in the city’s years-long battle over the soda tax:

The Winners

1. Jim Kenney

This is a career-defining victory for Kenney. The mayor took on one of the most powerful lobbies in the United States and won, which has boosted his national profile and proven that he has a critical number of allies on City Council. The fact that the soda tax will help pay for the renovation of the city’s parks, libraries and recreation centers — and that the administration will determine how to divvy up that spending with district Council members — means that Kenney could potentially have favors to give out for years to come. But how much political capital has the mayor spent in the fight over the soda tax? We may soon find out: District Council 33’s labor contract expires on June 30th. The city’s blue-collar union was one of the many groups that supported the mayor’s soda tax, which could make it more difficult for him to negotiate with it.
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How Jim Kenney’s Big Soda Tax Victory Is Upending City Hall

Photo by Jeff Fusco

Photo by Jeff Fusco

For years, Philadelphians saw government dysfunction everywhere they looked. In City Hall, former Mayor Michael Nutter was so impotent that he couldn’t persuade a single Council member to introduce his bill to privatize Philadelphia Gas Works, let alone hold a hearing on the plan or (gasp!) approve it. And in Harrisburg, it took Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican legislature nine months to do their most basic job, i.e. agree on a budget.

It’s almost sadly poetic: The same place where American democracy was born was where you could best see it falling apart.

That’s why it’s so extraordinary that Philadelphia City Council is expected to pass a soda tax this week in order to fund Mayor Jim Kenney’s major initiatives: expanded pre-K, community schools, and an overhaul of the parks system. The soda industry spent nearly $3 million to defeat Kenney’s proposed levy on soda, flooding the airwaves with anti-tax ads and stuffing politicians’ campaign coffers with cash. Council President Darrell Clarke did Kenney no favors throughout the last few months, calling a 3-cents-per-ounce tax “ridiculous” and “divisive.” History was also working against Kenney: Council had twice crushed plans by Nutter to create a soda tax, and the beverage lobby had a 45-1 record of killing proposed soda taxes throughout the country.

But in the end, Council hammered out a landmark deal with the Kenney administration, giving preliminary approval to a 1.5-cents-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks and diet soda. The fact that Kenney took on one of the strongest lobbies in the United States and won — and that the once all-powerful Clarke was, at times, working against him — shows that the mayor is a skilled politician who has enough votes on Council to pass ambitious, controversial proposals. This means Kenney could potentially get a lot done over the next three-and-a-half years. His victory also serves as a reminder of the unsavory things that are sometimes required to make government work: arm-twisting, special interests, and, of course, lots of money. Read more »

The No-Bullshit Guide to the Fight Over the Philly Soda Tax

Soda Tax Battle

Clockwise from left: Mayor Jim Kenney, Council President Darrell Clarke, Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez and union leader John Dougherty.

For the third time in less than 10 years, Philadelphia City Council is reaching the end of a debate on whether to impose a tax on soda and other sugary drinks. Former Mayor Michael Nutter tried twice to get a soda tax approved, pitching it primarily as a public health initiative with the added benefit of raising revenue. Both times, after intense lobbying from the soda industry, Council rejected the proposal.

Now, Mayor Jim Kenney is hoping the third time’s the charm. In his first budget, Kenney is calling for a three-cents-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks. That’s higher than the rates Nutter asked for, but Kenney, despite occasionally pointing out that the tax would help fight obesity, says that this proposal isn’t about public health. It’s about money, he says — money for programs that many Philadelphians and City Council members say they support.

Unless you’re a City Council member, you don’t get to vote on whether to approve, reject, or amend the soda tax. But that hasn’t stopped dozens of industry lobbyists and advocacy groups from trying to sway the outcome. We’re likely to find out where it will land Wednesday, when Council holds its last scheduled budget hearing before taking a summer recess. At the moment, lawmakers seem to be uniting around a compromise soda tax, but that could very well change as anti-tax advocates turn up the pressure today.

Not sure how to feel about it all? Here’s the deal. Read more »

The No-Bullshit Guide: 2016 Election’s Biggest Winners and Losers

From L to R:

Clockwise: Mayor Jim Kenney, state Rep. Dwight Evans, Councilman Darrell Clarke, U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman and labor leader John Dougherty.

Oftentimes, elections feel like they’ve been decided by the powers that be before they’re even over. The 2016 primary was different: It was full of genuine nail-biters. At 8:30 p.m., I headed to state Rep. Dwight Evans’ Election Night party at Temptations on Chelten Avenue, and everyone around me spent the first hour-and-a-half of the celebration hunched over, obsessively refreshing the Department of State’s website on their phones as votes from different areas were counted. They weren’t just tracking Evans’ bid for the 2nd Congressional District seat — they were also following the Attorney General’s race, which looked like it might be won by Stephen Zappala at the beginning of the evening, as well as several close state legislative races.

By the end of the night, a seemingly unstoppable labor leader had lost, along with an indicted congressman, a bajillion-year incumbent, and a state representative who is part of one of the most powerful political machines in the city. What a wild election.

The Winners

1. The Northwest Coalition

The Northwest Coalition, led by Evans and former Councilwoman Marian Tasco, helped put Jim Kenney in the mayor’s office last year. The alliance was also instrumental in electing Derek Green and Cherelle Parker to Council. Now, one of its own is going to Congress — Evans defeated U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah in the 2nd Congressional District race yesterday. (Yes, Evans will technically face Republican James Jones in the fall. But, with the district being overwhelmingly Democratic, we all know how this movie ends.) Another sign of the organization’s rising power: Relish, the Northwest Coalition’s Election Day lunch spot, drew bigger crowds yesterday than Famous 4th Street Deli.

What does this mean for the future? Good things for Parker, potentially, if she runs for mayor in 2023. It could also mean bad things for District Attorney Seth Williams if the Northwest Coalition decides to support a challenger when he runs for reelection next year. (Tasco isn’t a fan of Williams’.) It’s worth noting, however, that the coalition did suffer one loss yesterday, which proves it isn’t indestructible: state Rep. Tonyelle Cook-Artis, its pick in the 200th House District race, was not reelected. Read more »

Is Josh Shapiro the Guy to Clean Up Kathleen Kane’s Scandal-Ravaged Office?

Josh Shapiro | Photo by Matt Rourke

Josh Shapiro | Photo by Matt Rourke

Pennsylvania Democrats have been excited about Josh Shapiro for over a decade. The 42-year-old Montgomery County career politician has put his stamp on every institution he’s been elected to, and won attention from press and fellow politicians alike. Now he is running to remake the scandal-plagued, post-Kathleen Kane attorney general’s office, despite never having worked a trial.

In next week’s primary, both of Shapiro’s opponents have resumes tailor-made for an attorney general’s race and never miss an opportunity to remind voters that they have the prosecutorial experience Shapiro lacks. Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala and Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli see the office as it has always been: a means of pursuing guns, drugs and the occasional corrupt politician. They are well-equipped for it, having served as district attorney for more than 40 years between them.

But in 2016, perhaps decades of experience during the tough-on-crime era doesn’t have the cachet that it used to, at least in a Democratic primary. As Black Lives Matter ekes out concessions and Clinton-era policy becomes the bête noire of everyone to the left of John Kasich, maybe Pennsylvania voters are ready for something new. Shapiro’s campaign website features an ambitious agenda, covering everything from fracking to wage theft. On the stump, Shapiro — who is nearly always dressed in a conservative blue suit and rimless glasses — energetically reiterates his desire to take on “the status quo” and “the special interests.” His message is polished, and he’s clearly been taking notes on New York’s bank-busting attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, who promised more from the office than a parade of high-profile mug shots.

“It has always been abundantly clear to me that the office could be doing so much more,” says Shapiro in an interview with Philadelphia magazine. “It could be a force for progressive change. About 40 percent of our nation’s AGs weren’t prosecutors before they ran for the office. We’ve never taken that approach. But I really believe the people of Pennsylvania deserve someone with a vision far broader in terms of protecting their rights.” Read more »

Deputy D.A. Recommends Arresting Johnny Doc, Gets Demoted

Seth Williams (left); John Dougherty (right)

Seth Williams (left); John Dougherty (right)

Was a high-ranking member of the District Attorney’s Office demoted over a controversial investigation into Local 98 leader John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty?

Multiple law enforcement sources have told Philadelphia magazine that Laurie Malone, a deputy district attorney who oversaw the office’s Pre-Trial Division, was abruptly reassigned to a lower ranking post last month, not long after she recommended filing criminal charges against Dougherty for allegedly punching a non-union electrician at a South Philly worksite in January. The D.A.’s office denies that there was internal disagreement on the matter.

The case has been a political hot potato. District Attorney Seth Williams referred it to embattled state Attorney General Kathleen Kane because of a “long-standing professional relationship” with Dougherty, the D.A.’s spokesman, Cameron Kline, has said. Local 98 has made political donations to Williams in the past.

It was a notable decision for a district attorney who had previously boasted about his willingness to pursue criminal investigations no matter where they lead. “There are no free passes when it comes to political corruption. You don’t get a pass just because you are a friend, or a member of my political party, or race,” Williams said last March, when he filed charges against three longtime Philadelphia politicians who were ensnared in the infamous Tyron Ali bribery case that Kane had refused to prosecute. Read more »

Deputy D.A. Recommends Arresting Johnny Doc, Gets Demoted

Seth Williams (left); John Dougherty (right)

Seth Williams (left); John Dougherty (right)


Was a high-ranking member of the District Attorney’s Office demoted over a controversial investigation into Local 98 leader John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty?

Multiple law enforcement sources have told Philadelphia magazine that Laurie Malone, a deputy district attorney who oversaw the office’s Pre-Trial Division, was abruptly reassigned to a lower ranking post last month, not long after she recommended filing criminal charges against Dougherty for allegedly punching a non-union electrician at a South Philly worksite in January. The D.A.’s office denies that there was internal disagreement on the matter.

The case has been a political hot potato. District Attorney Seth Williams referred it to embattled state Attorney General Kathleen Kane because of a “long-standing professional relationship” with Dougherty, the D.A.’s spokesman, Cameron Kline, has said. Local 98 has made political donations to Williams in the past. Read more »

Report: Feds Have Joined the Johnny Doc Investigation

Clockwise from left: John Dougherty, Kathleen Kane, Seth Williams, and Reid's Auto Service.

Clockwise from left: John Dougherty, Kathleen Kane, Seth Williams and Reid’s Auto Service.

Federal investigators have joined the inquiry into a fight involving powerful union leader John Dougherty, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

The paper said James Reid, owner of Reid’s Auto Service, said he had been visited by FBI agents seeking a copy of his surveillance video showing some of the events surrounding the Jan. 21 confrontation involving Dougherty, the head of Philadelphia’s electricians union. Another resident of the block, James Daly, said he had also recently been visited by FBI agents.

FBI officials declined to comment, the paper said. Read more »

5 Takeaways From the Alleged Johnny Doc Brawl

Photo by Jeff Fusco

Photo by Jeff Fusco

The Philadelphia Inquirer broke a bombshell of a story today: John Dougherty, the politically influential labor leader, was in a physical altercation with a nonunion electrician on January 21st at a worksite — but spokesman Frank Keel says Dougherty acted purely in self-defense.

According to Keel, contractor Joshua Keesee threatened Dougherty’s family members, and then Keesee “rushed John and threw a punch” at his head. “John Dougherty ducked the contractor’s punch and countered with a punch to the assailant’s face. That was the end of the incident,” says Keel. “We firmly believe that there should be no criminal or civil charges filed in this matter.” Keesee, though, has another story: He claims that Dougherty took the first hit, and broke his nose in the process.

City police are investigating, according to the Inquirer. District Attorney Seth Williams referred the matter to Attorney General Kathleen Kane, whose office said Tuesday that she “set up a conflict wall regarding the decision to accept or deny the referral and/or initiate charges.” That’s because Dougherty’s electricians union was a donor to her 2013 campaign. There’s a lot to chew on here, lots of potential impacts. Here are five takeaways from the incident: Read more »

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