Philly’s Political Odd Couple

Why is mayoral aspirant and would-be reformer Bill Green hanging around with that lightning rod of a union boss, Johnny Doc?

 THIS ISN’T THE CONVERSATION Bill Green wants to be having.

Ask him about something in his wheelhouse—the school district’s budget woes, or the open-government white paper his office released in April—and he’ll talk your ear off. His emerald eyes will lock on yours, and the vault of factoids stored in his brain will open up and pour out in mile-a-minute run-on sentences. This is the Bill Green who has become a media darling: the smartest guy in the room no matter what room he’s in. And yes, he’s a little arrogant, but it’s arrogance you shrug off as the unavoidable by-product of gray matter on steroids.

But I’m not asking that Bill Green. I’m asking the Bill Green who, despite having spent the past four years carving a niche as the bullshit-calling, fresh-thinking adult in a City Council of small-minded parochialism, is close friends and closer allies with that scourge of Philly’s do-gooder set, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 business manager John J. Dougherty Jr.

Johnny Doc. The hot-tempered, larger-than-life union boss whose brass-tacks tactics are the stuff of local legend; who built from scratch a political machine unrivaled in this city; who, at 51, has amassed power beyond a Two Street kid’s wildest dreams; who has picked fights with Democratic heavies and lived to tell the tale; who’s had his house raided by the FBI; who sued the city’s ethics board to prevent it from looking at his political action committee’s books; who, to his many critics, personifies what’s wrong with the city’s old-school, corrupt power structure.

Johnny Doc. The last man on earth you’d expect a guy like Bill Green, who looks in the mirror every morning and sees a future mayor, to give a full-throated, unqualified endorsement to.

And yet: “You know what, you can judge a man by what other people say, or you can judge a man by what he’s done, and I think deeds are far more demonstrative of who a person is. John Dougherty took a broke—I mean, his story is impressive as hell—he took a bankrupt union with 1,200 people, half of them out of work, at 33 years old, and turned it into a union of 4,000 members, and during the deepest parts of the recession, only 600 were out of work. … You’ve got to be very strategic, you have to be a man of your word, to have that kind of success.”

We’re at McGillin’s, one of 46-year-old Green’s favorite Center City haunts, in late May, a week and a day after he was renominated for his at-large Council seat. Green won easily, and figures to be a major player, if not the front-runner, in the 2015 mayoral race. He did this not on strength of personality (he can be priggish), but by positioning himself as a bright light on what his father, former mayor and longtime congressman Bill Green, famously called “the worst legislative body in the free world.”

And yet: “I still think [Doc] is viewed with a great deal of suspicion,” one political insider told me a few days later. “In the business community, there’s a lot of suspicion about Green because of his relationship with Dougherty.”