The Kingdom and the Power of Johnny Doc
Johnny Doc is as literal as they come. He’s a union boss, with a union boss’s brick-and-mortar vocab. His speeches are latticed with I-beams of simple stats: man-hours worked, charity dollars donated, health benefits delivered, pounds of drugs taken off the streets. But Johnny Doc, who thinks he can be the next mayor of Philadelphia, does have a weakness for one particular abstract concept, one that couldn’t be more central to his identity and his life philosophy, and if you ask him about it, you don’t get bricks and I-beams. You get real eloquence. You get Johnny Doc’s take on “the box.”
You know the box? You’ve heard of “outside the box”? That box. The box gets a bad rap with a lot of politicians, but not with Johnny Doc. He can’t understand what’s so terrible about the box. The box is a 40-hour workweek. The box is a pension. The box is good schools for your kids and low crime and strong families and morality and faith. Who wants to be outside the box?
John J. Dougherty Jr. — the business manager of the city’s powerful electricians union, Local 98 — is inside the box. It’s where he grew up. On his block at 2nd and Jackson, part of a working-class Irish neighborhood in South Philly, everybody went to the same schools, played in the same Little League, went to the same Catholic church and looked up to the same larger-than-life politician: Mayor Frank Rizzo. For years, Rizzo protected that neighborhood on behalf of white-ethnic constituents like Johnny Doc. Now Johnny Doc thinks he can pick up where Rizzo left off. He thinks he can be the next great white-ethnic savior of the box. Because there’s no one more qualified to protect the box than the guy who built the box in the first place.
Unions built the box.
Johnny Doc built the box.
“Not only did we build the box,” he tells a group of his top electricians, “we lit the box and we made it wireless.”
Johnny Doc is giving a speech to a group of his Local 98 “business agents,” the union equivalent of corporate vice presidents. It’s the evening of April 25th — Doc’s 46th birthday — and Doc is treating his agents to a buffet of bruschetta, antipasto and calamari at Spasso, a restaurant on Front Street. In an hour, Doc and his agents will carpool to the Sheet Metal Workers Union Hall on Columbus Boulevard for a union-wide meeting. There, Doc will present 1,500 or so of his 3,800 members — the construction arm of the union — with the terms of a new four-year contract with the National Electrical Contractors Association. The terms are excellent: By the contract’s final year, electricians will be earning $49.15 per hour, not including benefits paid into the union’s fat pension and health-care funds. These are the load-bearing walls of the box, and Doc ticks them off, there at Spasso, one by one. He wants his guys to know that he’s doing for them what he hopes to do, on a much vaster scale, for the entire city. In his clipped, nasal, Cagney-esque voice, Doc tells his agents that the contract is “a win-win-win-win-win situation.” He says he expects the meeting to be “overwhelming” and the vote to be unanimous, “a home run.” He pumps his guys up by telling them that he’s “the boss” of the union but they’re “the heart.” They’re the box’s foundation. They’re the guys who did the lights on Boathouse Row, gratis. They’re the guys supporting Doc’s recent anti-violence project, Enough Is Enough.
“We transcend everything that’s good about the City of Philadelphia,” he tells them. “Every piece of fabric of Philadelphia, we ought to be a part of. We are Philadelphia.”
JOHNNY DOC WANTS TO be the mayor. He claims that only the health of his wife, Cecelia — who suffers from a knot of defective blood vessels in her brain and requires another in a series of major surgeries this September — could keep him from running. He and his people are laying the groundwork for a campaign. Doc is not yet a declared candidate, but neither are Doc’s potential competitors. A Democratic primary could include three blacks (Congressman Chaka Fattah, State Rep Dwight Evans, Councilman Mike Nutter) and four whites (ex-Controller Jonathan Saidel, party chieftain Bob Brady, wealthy insurance executive Tom Knox, and Doc). At this point, with 10 months until the 2007 primary, the race is an elaborate game of chicken. Doc may not run at all. He may run until the very last second, then swing his support to the front-runner, playing kingmaker to the next mayor. To keep his options open, Doc’s machine is raising money, and Doc is trying to stay visible, which has never been one of Doc’s problems and certainly hasn’t been lately. That night at Spasso, he told his agents not to worry about the “petty jealousy” of Local 98’s enemies — the forces behind “everything that’s in the paper.”
That’s an oblique way to talk about the saturation bombing Doc endured in the media in late 2005 and early 2006. It was the worst press of his career. For starters, Rick Mariano, the electrician Doc rammed onto City Council back in 1995 and got re-elected ever since, was investigated by the FBI and convicted of taking bribes — but not before climbing to the observation deck of the building Doc put him into, spawning rumors of a suicide attempt. Then, both dailies reported that subpoenas started whizzing past Doc’s nose, part of an apparent federal investigation into Doc’s union and especially an electrical contractor named Gus Dougherty. In May, the Inquirer reported that Gus had allegedly paid union electricians in cash without remitting benefits to Local 98, and that Gus had sold Doc a condo in North Wildwood and performed renovations on Doc’s South Philly home. Gus and John aren’t related, but they’re very close. Gus’s son is John’s godson. In 2001, Gus told Philadelphia magazine, “I’d take a bullet for that guy.” John says that Gus is still a “good friend.” He says the housing transactions are on the up-and-up, and of the alleged cash payments, “If he did do that, he did it without the knowledge of myself or anybody here.” He says he’s “not worried” about the investigation, but he has to be, because these are potentially catastrophic stories to any young campaign, the kind that send donors scurrying for the hills. One early mayoral poll shows Fattah in the lead and Doc near the bottom, with eight percent; when the poll’s respondents were asked which potential candidates they perceived negatively, an astounding 55 percent named Doc — more than any other politician. Fifty-five percent: It’s enough to force a guy into semi-permanent hiding.
I’ve been following Doc off and on for three years, and even I was surprised by what Doc did instead. He went to war. Not only that, he went to war with the two most powerful people in the Democratic Party: the Mayor and the party chairman. He went to war with the two people who, aside from Doc himself, could be said to have made John Dougherty: John Street, who appointed Doc to head the Redevelopment Authority (RDA) in 2000, and party chairman Bob Brady, who made Doc the treasurer of the local Democratic Party in 1999. In each instance, Doc’s casus belli was substantive — the war with the Mayor had to do with possible cutbacks at the RDA, and the war with Brady had to do with labor’s voice within the party’s power structure. But still, Doc made sure that both feuds tracked nasty, juicy quotes through the dailies. “For the life of me, I can’t figure it out,” says media consultant Neil Oxman, who points out that while lots of pols fight with John Street, nobody fights with Bob Brady. Brady is “an icon,” says Oxman. “I mean, you would rather not have those stories in the paper.” Brady, a peacemaker by temperament, even launched an internal probe to examine the checks Doc cut as party treasurer. (Doc says the books are in order. “I mean, come on,” he scoffs. “This isn’t intramurals. This is the big leagues.”) The chairman wouldn’t comment for this story, but according to one party source, “I’ve never seen Brady this angry on a continuing basis in my life.” In mid-June, Doc withdrew as party treasurer.
Doc’s response is to spin this recent tension with party leaders as proof that he’s dangerous. “The problem is that I’ve become too effective for too many people,” he says. The fact that he’s being attacked means he’s on the right track and needs to keep firing away. Says Anthony Wigglesworth, a labor mediator and a Doc admirer, “I’m not convinced John distinguishes between famous and infamous. … It’s name recognition.” Instead of demurring, Doc dishes new dirt; instead of calling off his attack-dog lieutenants, he lets them loose. Brady’s “a fuckin’ pig,” says Ed Kirlin, Doc’s opposition researcher and gonzo leafleteer. “I hope he does run. I’m gonna have a lot of fun humiliating him.”
And if Brady and Street and Senator Vince Fumo, Doc’s longtime nemesis, don’t back off? Well, Doc will have to think hard about his place in the world. He’ll have to consider shifting his millions in political donations and his hundreds of loyal ground troops … elsewhere. “My intent is to be in the Democratic primary,” he says. “But the way some people are acting, I’m not ruling out any options.”
He might leave the Democratic Party, in other words, and run as a Republican. Just like a certain other voluble Democratic politician the party couldn’t control. Just like Frank Rizzo in 1986.
WHO WAS Frank Rizzo?
Frank Rizzo was a tough-guy cop beloved by white rowhome voters and feared by blacks. He was a populist demagogue who for 25 years bestrode the city like a racist colossus. If Johnny Doc wants to be the second coming of Rizzo, he needs to be a tough-guy populist minus the racism (this being 2006, not 1971). In fact, this is exactly how Johnny Doc is being positioned. Ed Kirlin says that Doc is “like an Irish Frank Rizzo, only he’s smarter and more inclusive.” Frank Keel, one of Doc’s PR consultants, says that “we need some of that Rizzo-esque toughness in City Hall.” And Doc himself told a recent gathering of cops to “shoot first” at criminals. “Don’t worry about the public or the newspapers,” he told the cops, because if cops are judged by anyone, it ought to be “the masses” — the same masses who gave Rizzo two terms at the reins. “Rizzo’s politics wasn’t any calculated message,” says Doc. “It was politics of the people.” In case Doc needs some help reinforcing his populist credentials, his longtime buddy and fellow union leader Mike Fera has installed a billboard facing the Schuylkill Expressway. It reads: JOHN DOUGHERTY/MAYOR 2007/THE PEOPLES CHOICE.
Although Doc-as-Rizzo is the dominant narrative, Doc’s PR consultants are spinning a second, opposite narrative designed to counteract stories about the federal investigation into the union. (As of mid-June, no indictments had been handed down.) Call it “Doc-as-Reformer.” Doc, the narrative goes, has never been on a public payroll. Unlike the party elites from whom he’s estranged, Doc can credibly restore transparency to a murky city government. Doc likes to say that Ron White — the icon of Philly corruption — “used to complain to anyone who would listen that I didn’t take orders from anybody, which I’m very proud of.” Doc says that when White used to call, “I basically told Ron White to go scratch.”
The FBI wiretapped Ron White’s phone, and the transcripts of those calls do demonstrate that White had trouble getting Doc to play ball. On one tape, White says he wants to “take over” bond work at the RDA because “Doc got too damn much anyway.” Responds Janice Davis, Street’s then-finance director, “Yeah, Doc got a kingdom over there.” The tapes don’t suggest that Doc did anything improper, but they also don’t validate Doc’s reformist stripes. Doc acts like a guy who knows he’s got a kingdom and is proud he’s got a kingdom — and you can’t simultaneously own a kingdom and try to crash its gate as a reformer. “I think he could make that argument,” says ex-Mariano aide John Lisko, “but I don’t think people would buy it.”
So that brings Doc back to his more natural narrative: Doc-as-Rizzo, the People’s Choice.
A populist campaign, especially one that’s explicitly Rizzo-esque, needs its concrete appeals to crime, wages, faith, etc. — the walls of the box. Even more crucial, however, is an ineffable quality to the candidate himself. This quality — an intense personal magnetism — is what gives the campaign its air of strength and inevitability. It’s what destroys the usual barriers between parties and neighborhoods and political machines to bind whole swaths of the city to one man and one man’s vision. Rizzo’s biographer, Sal Paolantonio, writes that “he crushed the party under the weight of his personal charisma,” and this charisma is what Rizzo’s friends remember most acutely when they are asked to describe him. “You really had to watch him walk into a room,” says talk-show host and author Michael Smerconish, who ran Rizzo’s 1987 campaign. “It was really an experience. The guy, his appearance, it was just something to behold.”
When people talk about Johnny Doc, they say that he is also something to behold — and they say little else. Nobody, neither friend nor foe, talks about his ideas or policies; Doc isn’t a man of ideas or a policy wonk. Instead, they talk about his “likability” (Frank Keel) and his “energy” (building trades leader Pat Gillespie). Says John Lisko, “It’s enough for some people to go to a ward meeting and be convinced he’s the guy.” Says Keel, “He’s just got that charm and that charisma that [make] people feel comfortable.” Doc’s detractors also talk about his charisma, but they don’t find it so comfortable. “Years ago,” says one Doc opponent, “I thought he was an ambitious guy who was energetic. He could probably become the life of the party.” Agrees Councilman Frank DiCicco, a former Doc ally and current enemy, “He’s charismatic. And unless you spend a lot of time with him, you really don’t know who he is.”
And then you get to know him, says DiCicco, and you see the darker side of John Dougherty. The thuggish half. The menacing half. The half that once told DiCicco he’d like to throw him “out the fuckin’ window.” The half that one year ago told Daily News reporter Dave Davies that instead of suing him, he’d “come over there and make you eat that paper,” as Davies reported. (Doc says he was being “tongue-in-cheek.”) The half that, according to lawyer Carl Singley, had an interesting exchange with him prior to the 2003 campaign. Singley had fallen out with Mayor Street; Doc was approaching Singley to broker a peace. Singley told Doc to “fuck off.” Then, according to Singley, Doc said, “Be careful.”
“Is that a threat?” Singley asked. “Did John Street ask you to deliver that threat?”
Doc didn’t deny it, Singley says. He just stared back.
Doc says that Singley actually approached him: “Carl says, ‘Go tell your guy I never throw anything away.’ I said to him, ‘You need to be careful with that kind of conversation.’ He then runs his mouth with a bunch of vulgarities … I walk away and smile.” Singley agrees he told Doc about his personal trash-retention policy, but says it wasn’t the trigger for Doc’s warning to “be careful.”
My own experience of being threatened by Johnny Doc, though more ambiguous than Singley’s, was just as memorable. It was October 29, 2003, the week before the mayoral election. I had spent the night with Johnny Doc as he pinballed between glitzy Center City fund-raisers on behalf of the campaign to re-elect John Street. I had spent the night, in other words, in the presence of Doc’s charisma: watching him dance into rooms; watching him kiss a woman full on the mouth; watching him swoon up to a podium at the Ritz-Carlton, lean down, whisper something into John Street’s ear, then work his way back through the room to throw his arms around an electrician who, incidentally, once took an ice pick to the tires of a contractor’s van while a guy was still in the van.
As the evening wound down, Doc was still wound up. All that day, the Republican candidate, Sam Katz, had been accusing Doc’s Local 98 “thugs” of disrupting his campaign events. Katz’s statements were pointed, documented and truthful, but Doc didn’t seem worried. He seemed energized. Katz was merely reinforcing the Doc-centricity of the universe. Doc started joking that Katz had damaged his reputation so severely that he might have to leave town in a hurry. On the bottom floor of the Ritz, Doc happened to run into Gary Barbera — the Dodge dealer — and he said to Gary Barbera, “I need a Viper. A Dodge Viper.”
“You couldn’t handle no Viper,” somebody said.
“I’ll get a Viper and I’ll drive it outta this town.”
And that’s when Doc put his arm around my shoulder and pulled me close. That’s when he told me what he would do if he didn’t like the story I was writing:
“We’ll run over you on our way outta town.”
Doc winked, slapped my shoulder, and smiled.
“Just bustin’ on ya.”
DOC TELLS ME now, three years later, that “I would not have said anything like that with you,” and that if he did, it was “obviously tongue-in-cheek.” But this is actually a quintessential Doc exchange. It swings between intimacy and menace, humor and terror. The moment is a fusion of his buddy-buddy side and his threatening side and is therefore a natural artifact of Doc’s Jekyll-and-Hyde personality. Doc creates this moment wherever he goes, which is why, from Doc’s standpoint, a Rizzo strategy makes so much sense. It blows the moment up to the size of the city. It creates the impression of wide-scale likability and wide-scale toughness: the time-tested powers of Frank Rizzo. And if Doc were likable and tough in a Rizzo-esque sense, it would be a brilliant strategy indeed.
Doc’s likability and toughness are actually quite different from Rizzo’s, and to see how, you have to look at how the two men came up in the world. Rizzo’s story is one of those classic American arcs: Ethnic kid and high-school dropout gets his cop’s badge, beats the piss out of perps, makes his tough-guy name on the beat; kid works his way up to division commander, inspires loyalty, becomes commissioner — and then, only then, do the party hacks approach him, the dropout, and ask if he’ll do them the favor of running for mayor.
Doc’s story is not that story. It’s similar only in a few circumstantial details, such as the fact that both Doc and Rizzo had apolitical and conflict-averse fathers. Rizzo’s father enjoyed growing tomatoes. Doc’s father was a family-court officer and coached kiddie baseball. “Mister Doc,” as he was called in the neighborhood — the Mount Carmel parish along Two Street, populated by second- and third-generation Irish-Catholics who were the constituents of the city’s Irish-Catholic-dominated Democratic Party machine — never raised his voice. Doc’s younger brother, Kevin, was the same way, and Kevin says Doc himself was “pretty quiet” until he got his Local 98 union card.
Doc hadn’t planned on joining 98 or any other union. He originally wanted to be “an Ed Rendell-type lawyer,” as he told Philadelphia in 2001. Then he got his girlfriend, Cecelia, pregnant, and had to retrench. He poured his ambition into the local. When he was no older than 30, Doc approached Pat Gillespie — Philly’s building-trades kingpin — and asked Gillespie to help him win the 1993 election. “I think Pat thought that might have been a little brazen,” laughs Doc. Says Gillespie, “He was looking to take existing leadership out. … He was an impressive young man.”
Doc forked onto the path of a political climber. That story is not quite as classically Rizzo-esque. It goes like this. Ethnic kid — ambitious, energetic, obsequious — sidles up to the men who run his union. He gets sponsored onto the executive board and starts standing on his tippy-toes in press photos to make sure his head’s in the shot. His energy is noticed by a longtime family friend (now-Councilman Jim Kenney), who brings him to the office of a powerful man (Senator Vince Fumo). The kid becomes “a pony in Vince’s stable,” as the kid later recalls; the kid, using campaign facilities lent by said powerful man (though the kid later says this is “absolutely false”), crushes the incumbent boss of his union. Now he’s got his own stable, with his own ponies. He feeds them, nurtures them — and then unleashes them against Fumo, who soon finds his Fumocrats facing Doc-funded challengers and finds himself in the path of a Ford F-150 driven by a probable Local 98 member. (Fumo said he was sideswiped by the truck’s mirror; Doc said he thought Fumo overreacted.) Other powerful men, impressed, or maybe afraid, give the kid what he wants, “all these boards and commissions,” says DiCicco. “People would die to be on those things.” And it’s never enough. In 2004, as soon as the kid’s appointed to the board of the Port Authority — against whose windowpane the kid has been pressing his nose for years — all he can say is this: “The rumor is I’m the heir apparent to the chair.” Then he later denies saying it.
This bright-burning ego and narcissism is head-scratching enough; says one Doc opponent, “He’s legitimately, not figuratively, crazy. Everybody laughs and stuff, but I really think so.” Just as mysterious, though, is Doc’s style. It’s archaic, the way he fights when it doesn’t seem necessary and burns bridges when it seems self-destructive. People aren’t prepared for it. “It reminds me of the politics of 40 years ago,” says DiCicco. “It’s a throwback to that era. It’s the good guy/bad guy.”
DiCicco is talking about an outdated leadership style known as “bossism.” Doc is a boss in the manner of Carmine De Sapio, of New York’s Tammany Hall machine, and, to a lesser extent, Richard Daley of Chicago. The hallmark of a boss is a sphere of broad unelected power held together by loyalty and fear. Doc has that. Rizzo never did. Rizzo had his cops, but as Paolantonio writes, he didn’t have his own political machine; he didn’t need to, because he was genuinely big, genuinely magnetic. Doc is ultimately far less magnetic than Rizzo, but his network is larger. Doc has influence in the public sector (the RDA), the private (his corporate boards; his charity for the disabled; his union), and the political (his various political fund-raising arms). These are a series of interconnected carrots and sticks. Doc can give a guy a job or take it away. Same with a contract, or a Thanksgiving turkey for a poor family in South Philly. The union alone — with its nearly $3 million payroll, its multiple PR firms and lobbying shops on retainer, and its $2.8 million in political donations between 2003 and 2004 — gives Doc the ability to throw large feasts or hand out small treats. Doc can fill Local 98’s snack room with hoagies and soft pretzels; he can send five-pound coconut balls to all 69 ward leaders every Easter; he can give a reporter a $100 gift certificate to the Capital Grille. He can get things for his friends. I once saw him onstage with Bill Clinton and a group of other Democratic power pols, except Doc wasn’t exactly onstage — he was the guy ferrying water bottles, puppy-like, to keep the big dogs hydrated.
People are grateful. Doc’s union electricians certainly are. When Doc took over the union, it suffered from high unemployment and low cash flow. Today, thanks to his efforts, 98 enjoys the wealth associated with being a dominant union in one of the last great union towns. Its members have rewarded Doc with their loyalty: In the last three union elections, he has run unopposed. “No dissent under him,” says union president Harry Foy. “A lot of good things can happen when you’re rowin’ in the same direction.”
Doc got everyone rowing in the same direction, but at the cost of meaningful democracy; Doc saved the union, but he did it by turning Local 98 into a personality cult centered on himself. According to one 98 member, it used to be that “you weren’t afraid to stand up at your local meeting and say whatever you want.” Now? “They don’t say shit anymore. They don’t say a word anymore … everybody’s scared.”
On the Friday before Mother’s Day 2006, I overheard Doc give a motivational speech to a group of his business agents in a closed-door meeting. He was appealing for their help in the final few days before the May 16th primary election the following Tuesday. He began by telling his agents that they were morally superior to the forces of Doc’s nemesis, Vince Fumo, who “takes fuckin’ free rides on yachts.” He talked about 98’s efforts that weekend to drum up support for Doc’s candidates. Then he made his demands. “I understand how to capitalize off a win better than anybody in the city,” he said. “If you don’t show up, I’m gonna make you pay for it. Let me rephrase that. I’m gonna make you earn your money. … I don’t care, cancel some shit, cancel some stuff tomorrow, stuff on Sunday.” He closed by reminding his agents how good they had it now as opposed to the dark days before John Dougherty: “I paid for the chairs you’re sitting in, paid for the jobs you’ve got now.”
Exit Doc. He rejoined me in the next room. “You heard,” he said. “That’s what I do. Motivate people. Get ’em up, down.” He was proud to have threatened to make his people “pay” — with their livelihoods — if they didn’t show up to political events on Mother’s Day weekend. That’s what I do.
OBVIOUSLY, DOC IS comfortable inside the box. He’s so comfortable inside the box that he thinks he’s inside the box when he’s actually outside the box, where different rules apply. Doc keeps playing by the rules he’s used to. And strangeness ensues.
Doc believes that by threatening to bolt to the Republican Party, he’s scaring the political establishment, instead of promising to fulfill its most fervent dream.
“Everyone would love him to run as a Republican,” says one Democratic source.
“Everybody would love for him to switch parties,” agrees a Republican source. “Then we’d be rid of him forever.”
What else does Doc believe?
Doc believes that he can beat Mike Nutter, a black candidate, by being “blacker” than Mike Nutter, when Doc has all the goofiness of Steve Martin in a Queen Latifah movie.
Doc seems to believe that talking about his sick wife Cecelia — in every interview, in great detail, at least once in front of a large crowd, and once even using the phrase “gamma-ray surgery” to derail a reporter, me, from pursuing a difficult line of questioning — masks his ambition with familial piety, making him seem sympathetic and human.
Doc, in other words, believes that an effective rhetorical strategy is to make himself the greatest expression of every issue. Family values? Doc is the world’s greatest husband and father. (His biological daughter is Erin, 25.) Drugs? Doc took in a girl with a drug-using mother — Tara, now 22. Race? Doc was born a poor black child. He can’t just have gotten off the phone with the Mayor — it has to have been the Mayor, the Governor, five ward leaders, two cops, Senator Rick Santorum, Bono from U2, and Pope John Paul II. He can’t just give to one or two charities — he has to go on a five-day jag he describes as “more than the others, Vince [Fumo] and them, do in their entire lives,” and during which he doesn’t just donate to a charity basketball game, he rules the game, blocking the shots of the guys from Channel 3. He can’t just create a few jobs for black people — he has to have created “10 times more” than the local NAACP and the black chamber of commerce combined. …
Inside the box, this stuff plays. It makes him large and powerful. Outside the box, it falls flat. It’s not that Doc isn’t a good husband or a charitable person. It’s just that outside the box, it’s distasteful to hear it shouted so loudly. If Doc weren’t always insisting he’s the most likable guy in the city, he might actually be sort of likable. If he weren’t always saying, “The number one thing about me is loyalty,” people wouldn’t be so surprised when they find the counter-examples. Doc’s political waterfront has more burning bridges than the Tigris during shock-and-awe, his smoking shores a who’s who of ex-friends-and-supporters. Vince Fumo, Jim Kenney, Frank DiCicco, John Street, Bob Brady, Rick Mariano, ex-councilman Dan McElhatton — which John Dougherty did they sign on with, and which did they see as he threatened to roar his cruise missiles into range?
And those cruise missiles? How do they play once they fly outside the box? Doc and Doc’s people say and do scary things. There is a consistent pattern of intimidation described in a series of rulings by the National Labor Relations Board and in stories told by politicians who have competed against Doc’s candidates. Doc’s people show up at job sites and campaign events. They vandalize tires. They bring cameras. An electrician says, to a man overseeing workers from a rival union, that he knows where the man lives, and if he doesn’t give the work to Local 98, “It would get rough.” An electrician says, to a political opponent, that he should keep a better eye on his girlfriend and make sure she doesn’t walk down any dark alleys at night. As reported by the Inquirer’s Nathan Gorenstein — who himself received several threatening anonymous calls after his story ran, and who was told by a fellow reporter that Doc was “investigating” him, which Doc at first says he won’t comment on and then denies outright — the NLRB found that a 98 agent named Timothy Browne told a contractor’s employee, “I know who you are, I know where you live. We’re going to get you someday.”
Some of 98’s classic election tactics were on display back in 2003. Early on Election Day, I found Doc standing outside Local 98’s headquarters. He said there would be no thuggery. The very idea of thuggery was laughable.
“So my guys here, if you look around, I got Ira Shrager here.”
Ira Shrager is one of Doc’s lawyers.
“Ira, how tall are you? Five-foot-what?”
“On a good day, five-four,” said Shrager.
“On a good day, five-four,” said Doc. “You see what I got here. I got all kinda women and kids here. You know?”
And of course, there were big guys there, including two I followed to a polling place at 4th and York, where I watched them ask a tiny old lady for her ID; and of course there was a guy, possibly a 98 member, who later that day struck a man with a two-by-four — but the most telling thing about 98’s thuggery isn’t the thuggery itself, but how Doc responds. Generally, when Doc is confronted with these stories, he waves them off. He says they’re “all allegation and no fact.” Sure, some of his guys are big, he says, but the ones that are big can’t help being big, and the rest of his guys are five-foot-whatever with muscles of tofu. It’s actually Sam Katz who employs thugs to create “chaos and confusion,” Doc says, and it’s Doc who then must “clear it up so there’s no intimidation or voter suppression.”
This isn’t just Doc’s response to questions about thuggery. It’s also his response to the dynamics of his potential mayoral run. Doc says he’s not the one who started the fight with Brady and Street; they kneecapped him because they were worried that Doc, the little Irish-Catholic kid who “lives in a rowhome, who goes to the same pew, same church, every week, would ever be able to position himself to be the mayor of the fifth-largest city.” Doc says he doesn’t have any control in the Democratic Party; “The Senator [Fumo] and the Congressman [Brady] have control of the party.”
Doc’s problem? His toughness and likability don’t scale. The hundred small favors and threats and jokes that sway people when delivered from close quarters, one on one, don’t translate to the podium, the stump, the Inquirer column inch. They only clog the media filter that dominates a mayoral campaign. When it comes to projecting power more broadly, through ideas — which is what any mayoral candidate, and not just one running as the second coming of Rizzo, would have to do — Doc recedes. He appears how the box would never permit him to appear. He appears small.
JOHNNY DOC PROBABLY WON’T end up running for mayor. There’s too much to lose. He has never run for elected office. He’s never been tested in that way. If he pushes the boulder and the boulder doesn’t move — if it turns out that he can’t raise money because his press is too negative, or he makes it to a Democratic primary but only gets 10 or 15 percent of the vote — he’ll need to spend years rebuilding the mystique and self-promotional momentum that are the hallmarks of his power and have always served him well. “To be honest with you,” I once heard Doc tell a group of electrical contractors, “we probably were given a lot more credit for Street’s victory in ’99, but bein’ the nice little Irish-Catholic kid I was, once I got 10 yards behind the linebacker, I kept running. Okay?” The contractors laughed, and John smiled. “So I took all the credit,” he continued. “Come on! Right? Okay? That’s a trait they teach us in grade school. That’s a nun thing. Don’t feel guilty. Something’s gonna happen to you if you stop runnin’. I’m still runnin’. Okay?”
If Doc runs for office, he’ll have to leave the box. And why would he want to leave the box? I spent the evening of Doc’s 46th birthday at the Sheet Metal Workers Union Hall on Columbus Boulevard, where Doc was presenting the new four-year contract to his electricians. In a vote conducted by a show of hands, Local 98’s members approved the contract unanimously. After the meeting, John stood near the door, greeting guys as they walked out — back pats, hugs, soul-shakes. “I still haven’t missed a name,” he said, then pulled me aside. “See, they don’t want me to leave. They’re happy with me staying here.” I asked him about the vote total. He smiled and held his arms wide. “Sixteen hundred to nothin’,” he said.
In the pre-meeting warm-up, attended by roving packs of Local 98 business agents in polos and suits, Doc had been sitting at a table on the right of the stage, fiddling with a laptop. The hall was cavernous, with a 10-foot-high video projection screen and Gehry-like waves of steel rippling across the ceiling, the union equivalent of a megachurch. Doc flipped through the slides as his sound guy ran through the music: U2, Kanye West, “Born to Run.” Doc grabbed a microphone and did a geeky pseudo-moonwalk across the video screen. Then he faced his audience and started doing an indescribable dance. Every few seconds he slammed his heels down hard on the stage like a kid stomping a spider, making this crisp slapping sound of first one foot and then the other — fwaack FWAAACK! fwaack FWAAACK! — that crashed up against the ceiling metal’s waves until the entire hall echoed with johnnydocness. At the opening bars of Outkast’s iconic “Hey Ya,” Doc started flapping his arms like a chicken.
Then somebody killed the music.
Doc stopped cold, anchored to the floor with those heavy feet.
And now, at last, an empty moment with nothing to fill it. No music, no hand on the shoulder, no wink, no kiss, no menace. No momentum.
Something’s gonna happen to you if you stop runnin’.
We looked to the stage, to Doc.
Doc shot a look to his sound guy.
“Whaddya got for me now, buddy?” Doc said.