What the Johnny Doc Raids Mean for Philly Politics

The landscape for local Democrats could be dramatically reshaped as federal authorities investigate powerful union leader John Dougherty.

Dougherty photo by Jeff Fusco

Dougherty photo by Jeff Fusco

I started thinking about Back to the Future Part II the other day.

Remember when Marty went back — again — to 1955, and experienced a mind-boggling wave of déjà vu as he watched himself make awkward small talk with his own mother in the front seat of Doc Brown’s cream-colored Packard before the “Enchantment Under the Sea” dance?

It was a weird moment, at once both familiar and unsettling. That scene reminded me of the back-to-back “Stop the presses!” stories that we saw late last week: Joey Merlino, the face of the Philly mob of yesteryear, was arrested on federal racketeering charges on Thursday, and then on Friday the feds conducted highly visible raids on numerous properties connected to the city’s ultimate union mover and shaker, IBEW Local 98 leader  John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty.

While the headlines about Merlino and Dougherty shared a similar we’ve-been-here-before vibe, the stakes for both men and the city they’re forever tied to couldn’t be more different.

If the case against Merlino (and dozens of other East Coast mobsters) is strong, he could go back to prison, a familiar outcome for a guy who’s already spent large chunks of his adult life behind bars. Dougherty and the local Democratic Party, meanwhile, could be faced with a landscape-altering shakeup.

First, a caveat: Dougherty has not been charged with committing a crime. And he’s had the feds dig into his life before, without it leading to any charges. But Friday’s very public raids made it clear that the the scope of this latest federal investigation is wider than before. Records were hauled out of Local 98’s Spring Garden Street headquarters, Doc ally/Councilman Bobby Henon’s office in City Hall, the South Philly homes of Dougherty and his sister, and the New Jersey home of Local 98’s president, Brian Burrows. 

The Inquirer reported that investigators are looking into the union’s finances, and its involvement in political campaigns — like, oh, the recent elections of Mayor Jim Kenney, and state Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dougherty, John’s younger brother. If that wasn’t bad enough, the paper also reported over the weekend that a state grand jury is separately investigating Local 98 over intimidation tactics. That probe was sparked by a fistfight that Johnny Doc was involved in with a non-union worker in South Philly in January.

“It’s troubling and inappropriate that the State Attorney General’s office is talking to the media about an open, ongoing investigation,” Frank Keel, Dougherty’s longtime spokesman, wrote in an email on Sunday. “Any allegations that the union engaged in threats or intimidation are utter fabrications. Regardless of our questions, IBEW Local 98 intends to cooperate with the investigating authorities.”

It almost goes without saying that these twin investigations are being closely watched — and heavily gossiped about — by the region’s political and business leaders. As this BillyPenn chart shows, you could walk into an Election Night party in one corner of Philly or another while blindfolded and still run into a pol who has either received a donation from Local 98, or benefitted from Dougherty’s influence. Dougherty also rose to the head of the city’s building trades council last year, giving him even more clout.

The city’s political muscle has thinned out in recent years, as generational figures like former state Sen. Vince Fumo and U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah have lost their positions to separate scandals. But nature abhors a vacuum, and Dougherty has become The Guy who helps to settle contentious business beefs and get preferred candidates elected. (He talked about all of this — or bragged about it, really — in a lengthy Philadelphia magazine profile in 2014.)

“When I was running for governor back in 2002, he was a leader of a strong union, and a very active union. But he didn’t have the power that he’s amassed now, as the head of the building trades, and as a person who had as much to do with electing Jim Kenney as mayor as anyone,” said former Gov. Ed Rendell.

“We’re a long way from knowing if there’s any wrongdoing here. A guy like Johnny Doc, if you’ve done the things he’s done, and assumed the power he’s assumed, a lot of people don’t like you.”

In the short term, it’s unlikely that any political candidates will return donations they receive from Local 98, or reject the union’s get-out-the-vote efforts on Election Day. But one wonders if the specter of the state and federal investigations could have a chilling effect.

“People might think he’s made a deal [with prosecutors] and is wearing a wire now,” said one veteran of the local political scene who didn’t want his name used. “Everyone will be trying to figure out what the genesis of [the investigation] was.”

Rendell, meanwhile, argued, “If John were indicted and cleared, I don’t think it would affect his standing as the head of the union, or as the head of the building trades. If he were indicted, he might have to take a leave of absence, but I’m not even sure of that.”

The coming days and weeks will probably be a nightmare for elected officials who have the most obvious connections to Dougherty, like Henon and Kenney. They’ll be peppered with variations of the same questions about what they know about the investigations, and what it all means for the city.

The irony for Kenney, of course, is that he and Dougherty only recently patched up what had long been a fractured relationship.  That was good news for Kenney during the 2015 mayor’s race, because he benefitted from widespread support from organized labor, but also bad news for Kenney, because he then had to repeatedly field questions about whether he’d have to answer to Dougherty as mayor.

State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams often raised questions about Dougherty’s possible influence over Kenney during the Democratic mayoral primary. “He’s in real dark money,” Williams once said of Dougherty. “He gets an advantaged position. He operates and influences. He calls newspapers on a daily basis.”

But when reached by phone on Friday, Williams declined to tee off. “He has a family. He has his own legacy that he’s responsible for,” Williams said of Dougherty. “I can only hope that it doesn’t turn out to be something negative for him or anybody else. I’m not an axe-grinder.”

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