The Single Weirdest Campaign Donation in the Philly Mayor’s Race

Is George Norcross behind a big contribution aimed at helping Jim Kenney?

Jim Kenney | Photo by Jeff Fusco

Jim Kenney | Photo by Jeff Fusco

A strange thing happened last week.

Campaign finance reports revealed that an Edison, N.J-based group called the “Carpenters’ Fund for Growth and Prosperity” donated $750,000 this spring to a political committee known as “The Turnout Project.” Not long after that, The Turnout Project cut checks totaling $725,000 to Building a Better Pa., a super PAC that is supporting Jim Kenney in the Philadelphia mayoral race and which is partly funded by the city’s powerful electricians union.

Stay with me now. I promise it gets weird. See, the Philadelphia carpenters union has endorsed another candidate for mayor: state Sen. Anthony Williams. As in, um, Kenney’s chief opponent. Labor groups from out of town don’t typically jump into a city election to help fuel a super PAC that is propping up the No. 1 rival of the candidate backed by their union brothers.

It only gets stranger from there. WTF is going on?

To be frank, Citified is not entirely sure. In fact, we have a lot of questions about this odd donation. And we think some of them ought to be raised publicly.

1. Why would New Jersey carpenters help fund a pro-Kenney super PAC? Perhaps the simplest explanation is that the carpenters saw the writing on the wall. Kenney is polling in first place, according to more than one internal survey, and the carpenters wanted to make nice with the guy who might win. But couldn’t they have done that for a lot less than $725,000? That’s a huge sum, way more than the $11,500 the city carpenters have given directly to Williams. Williams has a super PAC backing him too, and the carpenters didn’t give that outfit any cash.

For his part, Philadelphia carpenters union chief Ed Coryell reaffirmed his support for Williams when I asked his spokesman Marty O’Rourke about the odd donation. “The Metropolitan Regional Council of Carpenters and I unequivocally support Sen. Anthony Williams to be the next Mayor of Philadelphia,” Coryell said in a statement. “Senator Williams has been a long-time advocate for improving education and strong ethics in government. We wholeheartedly stand united behind Senator Williams.”

Meanwhile, Lauren Hitt, a spokeswoman for Kenney, says of the donation, “We didn’t know anything about it.”

2. Furthermore, why would New Jersey carpenters help fund a super PAC with ties to John Dougherty? Coryell and electricians union boss John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty are sworn enemies. More than a year ago, the Philadelphia carpenters allegedly failed to sign onto new work rules at the Pennsylvania Convention Center by a key deadline, and they have been shut out ever since. A board member called Dougherty shortly beforehand, asking if his union members would come to work even if the carpenters didn’t agree to the new contract in time. Dougherty said yes, and later he even crossed a picket line to get into the Convention Center — something unheard of in this labor town.

Could this donation possibly be a sign that Coryell and Dougherty have recently made amends, and the carpenters will soon be let back into the Convention Center? It seems unlikely. For one thing, Convention Center CEO John McNichol says changing the contract to allow the carpenters inside would require a unanimous vote by the four unions working there, the Convention Center board, a private operations company and a labor supplier. And for another thing, some worry that exhibitors would cancel shows if the carpenters returned.

“I don’t anticipate any discussion about reopening the customer satisfaction agreement,” says McNichol. “It’s a 10-year deal that’s working well for our customers.”

What does Coryell have to say about this possibility? That statement a few paragraphs above is all I heard from him. And Doc? When I reached out to him for comment, his spokesman Frank Keel had this to say: “The International Carpenters Union clearly understands that John Dougherty is consistently on the right side of the issues‎ and they want to work with him.”

3. Which brings us to our next question. Are the leaders of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters & Joiners of America involved in this donation? Is it some sort of message from the top dogs to Coryell? We may never know. The messages we left at the group’s Washington, D.C. -based headquarters were not returned. O’Rourke, the spokesman for the Philadelphia carpenters union, did provide us with this statement from Frank Spencer, the Eastern District Vice President of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters & Joiners: “The UBCJA unequivocally supports Ed Coryell and our leadership in Philadelphia — as well as the local political decisions the Regional Council makes.”

So either the New Jersey carpenters have gone rogue, or somebody is fibbing.

We also don’t know which New Jersey carpenters, exactly, are behind the Carpenters’ Fund for Growth and Prosperity. According to documents filed with the City Commissioners’ office, the group has the same building address as a  New Jersey carpenters pension fund, the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters and other related organizations. Attempts to reach the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters were unsuccessful, however.

4. Is New Jersey political boss George Norcross involved? Campaign finance reports show that The Turnout Project, which registered with the IRS just last month, received five donations in 2015: three $25,000 donations from Brown and Connery, Parker McCay PA and Ferreira Construction Company, respectively, in addition to two checks from the Carpenters’ Fund for Growth and Prosperity. Norcross ally William Tambussi is a partner at the Brown and Connery, according to the firm’s website. Tambussi has worked as Norcross’ personal attorney. Norcross’ brother, Philip, is an attorney and managing shareholder at Parker McCay, according to Bloomberg Business.

Dan Fee, a spokesman for Norcross, said on Tuesday that Norcross was traveling. We haven’t heard from him since.

Like we said, the donation is weird. And that’s about all we can say with confidence.