Why John Dougherty Won’t Get to Pick Our Next Mayor

Unions were supposed to anoint the winner. But they're as dismayed by the field as everyone else.

Demonstrators protest ahead of Mayor Nutter's budget address at City Hall in March 2013. AP photo/Matt Rourke

Demonstrators protest ahead of Mayor Nutter’s budget address at City Hall in March 2013. AP photo/Matt Rourke

A year ago, it looked like labor unions might just pick Philadelphia’s next mayor.

Led by influential electricians union chief John Dougherty, labor leaders across Philadelphia hatched a plan: They would coalesce around one and only one candidate in 2015. In other words, they wouldn’t make the same mistake they made in 2007.

That year, unions supported different mayoral contenders, which diluted their power and, in their view, ultimately led to Michael Nutter winning the race — and that got them fire department brownouts, a bid to privatize Philadelphia Gas Works, a contract-shredding School Reform Commission and years without raises or contracts for many public workers.

This time around would be different. By February of last year, most of the city’s union leaders already had a favorite potential candidate: Council President Darrell Clarke, a longtime labor ally. If they threw their collective get-out-the-vote operations and political action committees behind Clarke, he would be tough to overcome.

“It’s not a matter of if we’re going to be all together,” Dougherty told the Daily News last February. “It’s a matter of who we’re going to be all together behind.”

With only four months to go until the 2015 mayoral primary election, though, Dougherty’s plan for a unified labor campaign is already cracking. And it could soon crumble altogether — thanks, ironically, to Clarke himself.

In November, Clarke said he would declare “real soon” whether he’d run for mayor. In December, he told supporters at the Pennsylvania Society that he’d make an announcement around New Year’s Day. Almost two weeks after the Mummers strutted and day-binged down Broad Street, campaign spokesman Dan Gross told us Clarke will “have an announcement soon.”

This isn’t behavior befitting a man who wants to be mayor deep down. Many, if not most, political insiders are betting Clarke will ultimately decide not to run, with an official announcement possibly coming as soon as this week (the “as soon as this week” talk has been going strong for weeks).

If Clarke stays out, Dougherty’s dream of labor unity is likely dead.

“Without Clarke in the race, it’s going to be very, very tough to get behind one person,” says Fred Wright, president of the city’s white-collar union District Council 47. “Not impossible, but tough.”

A few months ago, that wouldn’t have been the case. Many union leaders see another possible candidate as a worthy plan “B”: City Controller Alan Butkovitz. But Butkovitz announced that he wouldn’t run in November — chiefly because, sources say, Clarke hadn’t yet made up his mind, making it near impossible for Butkovitz to raise money from unions and other backers that were holding out for Clarke.

Butkovitz has left the door slightly open, being careful to not tell reporters exactly what he would do if Clarke finally decided he would not run. But it’s widely understood that Butkovitz would need, essentially, a silver platter to consider getting in — say, all the unions in town and a number of big business leaders writing him checks for the campaign. That option is all the more unlikely now. City campaign finance law caps donations on an annual basis, and so by missing out on 2014 dollars, Butkovitz has lost his chance to cash two maxed-out checks from big labor PACs and Clarke-friendly business leaders.

Another plan “B” for some labor leaders is City Councilman James Kenney. Like Butkovitz, Kenney hasn’t gotten into the race partly because of Clarke’s indecision. Kenney says he still could run, but most insiders consider that highly unlikely. He would have to resign from his six-figure job on Council, and unless he’s wooed extensively by labor and handed a private-sector job to pay the bills during the campaign, that won’t happen.

What about the, um, actual declared candidates? Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, lover of charter schools and vouchers, appears to be a non-starter for the teachers’ union. Wright calls his education record “problematic.” And Pat Gillespie, head of the Building and Construction Trades Council, says Williams helped prevent his re-appointment to the Pennsylvania Convention Center board.

Former District Attorney Lynne Abraham, meanwhile, is seen as too old-school by some in labor, and she pissed off teachers recently when she told this magazine they were “part of the problem.” As for past city solicitor Ken Trujillo? Lorenzo North, head of the city’s correctional officers’ union, sums up how many in (and outside of) labor feel: “I don’t know nothing about him.”

North is so concerned by the current mayoral field that he sent a letter to Butkovitz last week urging him to reconsider running. “The candidates in the pool now, I don’t have no faith in them,” he says.

Gillespie, too, says, “I don’t think there’s anyone in the race right now that could meet the standards we’re putting on them.”

In other words, big labor is just as disappointed with the 2015 mayoral field as business leaders, progressives, millennials and journalists across the city.

Add to this the fact that the carpenters and Teamsters have already decided to back Williams, and Dougherty’s strategy seems doomed. (Dougherty, for his part, says the carpenters have always beat to the sound of their own drum.)

The plan wasn’t folly. Theoretically labor should matter more in mayoral elections than it has. The building trades throw around a lot of cash, and the blue- and white-collar municipal unions, whose employees are required to live within Philadelphia, account for about 14,000 potential voters. Add to that total all the city-dwelling cops, teachers, laborers, building trades members and so forth, and the collective numbers of Philadelphia’s most politically active unions should be big enough to be a major force in mayoral elections. Historically, though, union leaders have been unable to set aside differences and settle on a single candidate in crowded Democratic primaries, to say nothing of the union rank and file. So while unions are big players in mayoral politics, they don’t dominate in the way their leaders feel they should.

Yet “Johnny Doc,” the ever-confident alpha male, say his plan can still work. There’s a lot riding on it: Whether labor has the clout it once did in the city is an open question. The School Reform Commission has cancelled the teachers’ contract. The carpenters have been locked out of the Convention Center for months. Across the country, union membership has plummeted dramatically.

Dougherty says most of the city’s unions are attending monthly meetings to discuss the mayor’s race. The AFL-CIO has agreed to put off its endorsement process for a few months. And of course Clarke could still choose to run.

“I haven’t seen this much unity and this much consensus in labor since I’ve been doing this,” says Dougherty. “The consensus is still to keep our powder dry and unite around one person.”