Mayoral Campaign’s First TV Ad Bought by Special Interests

A PAC affiliated with Johnny Doc has a positive spot on Jim Kenney. Lynne Abraham calls on rivals to denounce "dark money" ads.

[Editor’s Note: This is a continuing story that will be updated throughout the day.]

Today marks a turning point in Philadelphia’s mayoral race: The first TV ad is on the airwaves. The spot is a soft-focus introduction to former City Councilman Jim Kenney, “one of Philadelphia’s most progressive voices,” says the narrator.

But Kenney’s campaign isn’t behind the ad. Instead, a labor-affiliated super PAC known as “Building a Better PA” is responsible for it. That makes this a turning point in city politics, too: This appears to be the first time in a Philadelphia mayor’s race that the inaugural TV ad of the season was aired by an outside group, rather than a candidate. In other words, it’s a super PAC, not Kenney himself, introducing the candidate to many voters.

There are likely a few reasons for this, and they’re not new: The mayoral candidates are broke compared to contenders in past years, at least according the most recent filings, which tracked campaign contributions through the end of 2014. Super PACs also aren’t bound by the same strict rules as candidates: As long as they don’t coordinate with campaigns, they can spend unlimited amounts of money to influence the mayor’s race. Mayoral candidates, on the other hand, can only accept donations of up to $2,900 from individuals and up to $11,500 from political committees and unincorporated business organizations each year.

Building a Better PA spent $4,750 to air the 30-second spot five times on WPHL17 from March 11 to March 17, federal records show.

According to NewsWorks’ Dave Davies, Building a Better PA received considerable contributions last year from the political committee of the powerful electricians union IBEW Local 98, which is headed by John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty. The super PAC ran supportive ads in 2014 for Brendan Boyle in his successful run for Congress.

The ad about Kenney was produced by The Campaign Group — a major score. That’s Neil Oxman‘s Campaign Group, which was behind the famous ad for Michael Nutter during the 2007 mayoral campaign that featured Nutter’s daughter, Olivia. It’s been credited with helping him cinch the mayor’s race.

Lauren Hitt, a spokeswoman for Kenney, said of the ad, “Jim has a long history of standing up for civil rights even when it wasn’t popular to do so, and the ad accurately reflects that as mayor he wouldn’t be a ‘business as usual’ style politician.”

Kenney was expected to get a boost from outside groups, as was state Sen. Anthony Williams. A trio of businessmen from the Montgomery County-based Susquehanna International Group has already donated $250,000 to an independent organization called “American Cities,” which is backing Williams.

One mayoral candidate who wasn’t necessarily expected to get love from outside groups? Former District Attorney Lynne Abraham. Probably not coincidentally, she called on her contenders to reject “dark money” on the same day news came out about the pro-Kenney ad.

“Philadelphians want and deserve a clean election, free of ‘dark money,’ outside spending, or attempts to evade campaign finance laws. ‘Pay to play’ has no place in our city or in this election,” she said in a statement. “That’s why I am calling on all the Democratic candidates for mayor to join me in signing the ‘people’s pledge’ to keep outside money out of our elections.”

So far, no candidate has agreed to take her pledge.

Kenney spokeswoman Hitt said Abraham’s demand was “nothing more than a political stunt” since she made it after an outside group aired a TV ad.

“According to her pledge, if we sign this, then we’d immediately be on the hook for donating to charity a sum equivalent to what is being spent on this morning’s TV ad — which between production and buying the time is easily hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Hitt via email. “If we did that, we’d be leaving the paid messaging almost entirely to super PACs because that donation would seriously hinder our own ability to make a significant ad buy — and that increases the influence of dark money, not reduces it.”

Barry Caro, a spokesman for former city solicitor Nelson Diaz, said, “Any comment would be academic until we see whether Jim Kenney and Anthony Williams intend to reign in Johnny Doc and the Susquehanna Group. With Johnny Doc right now running ads on Kenney’s behalf, the burden of action falls on him and Williams. A ‘people’s pledge’ only works if all the candidates abide by it.”