Meet the New Doc. Same as the Old Doc?
John Dougherty’s famous picket-line crossing at the Convention Center last spring was meant to signal a new approach for the powerful union and political leader — one in which he puts the best interests of Philadelphia above all else. But with Johnny Doc, is anything ever that simple?
I’m searching for the good Johnny Doc, the one he wants me to find. The new one.
And here he is, in plain sight, on a cool, partly cloudy morning in early October, sitting quietly on a folding chair near the corner of 12th and Market streets in downtown Philadelphia.
Quiet is unusual for John Dougherty, who’s been head of the electricians union in Philadelphia for better than two decades and who’s used that position to inject himself into all things political in his city. Along the way, he has donated, through his union, tens of millions of dollars to office seekers across this city and state, and has made a lot of noise and a lot of enemies. There are many people who don’t like the rough-and-tumble way he’s conducted himself or run his union. Plenty of people he’s picked fights with — and even those he hasn’t — are afraid of him. Others have a different view: They say he knows, perhaps better than anyone else in Philadelphia, how to get things done. And that, particularly in the past few years, he’s used the political power he’s accumulated as a force for good, for bringing the city back. Last spring, for instance, Johnny Doc and his electricians crossed a picket line of carpenters and Teamsters outside the Convention Center, and in that one very public gesture, the most union of all union guys said No more: No more union strife at the center, which has been hamstrung by nasty behavior for a decade, costing the city tens of millions of dollars in lost conventions. Already, bookings are up.
This isn’t a quiet man. But the troubling way John Dougherty operated, how that rubbed people wrong — that’s old news. He tells me that himself one day, because he’s very determined that we understand the new Johnny Doc. “I have changed the foundation of how I do things,” he says. “Everybody knows the stories.” The old stories. And then, almost confessionally: “I can’t change who I am. I did things I didn’t want to tell anyone about.”
I watch him sitting silently, a guest at the groundbreaking of a new project here at 12th and Market, a high-rise that will combine retail and apartments and just might kick-start the makeover of a sad stretch of one of the oldest retail streets in the country. Jeff Kanne, the D.C.-based developer, speaks first and says, “There is one reason I’m here: Mr. Johnny Doc. He’s like a terrier, nipping at your heels. He is one of the finest assets you have in the city.”
Dougherty, now 54, wears the praise well, but even in repose, he’s disarming. His feathery white hair lies haphazardly, his skin is pink, his eyes are green; he appears impish and threatening simultaneously. Dougherty is wearing a handsome gray suit and black wing tips, but his crossed legs reveal light gray socks with odd black and blue horizontal stripes, as if he can dress up swell but something of the neighborhood kid will invariably poke through.
Mayor Nutter gets up to make a few pro forma remarks on the project, but he can’t help himself, suddenly anointing Dougherty with a new moniker: “John ‘Terrier’ Dougherty.” The Mayor seems amused. “Some others might put some other words in there instead. But I think ‘Terrier’ is going to get around.”
It’s in good fun — sort of. The Mayor and Dougherty have long been combatants. They work together because they have to, and the Mayor clearly couldn’t quite let it go, what he really thinks of Johnny Doc, even on this day.
Still, Doc is good at this, at corralling old enemies and making them friends. Or at least allies. Jim Kenney is an extreme example. Kenney was a South Philly kid who, as an acolyte of Vince Fumo, rose to City Council; it was Kenney who helped launch Dougherty’s own political career by bringing him to Fumo almost a quarter century ago. But Dougherty would soon want the space Fumo occupied in Philly, so everybody connected to Fumo became a sworn enemy. When Kenney was out and about politicking, he’d sometimes confront hecklers; when he went to vote, he might get surrounded by big union guys. At one point, fliers about Kenney were distributed on his street that were so personal and nasty, his camp scrambled to pluck them from porch railings and windshields.
When I mention this last episode to Dougherty, he’ll fervently deny having anything to do with it, or that it happened at all. (As for the other heckling and bullying of Kenney, “Stories of harassment are urban myth,” Dougherty emails.) Kenney himself says he has no proof Dougherty was behind the fliers. But here’s the rub: Kenney is back in the Doc camp, which speaks, perhaps, to Dougherty’s powers of persuasion and most certainly to his political clout. Jim Kenney needs Dougherty, because Kenney just might want to run for mayor.
Later, privately, Jeff Kanne will tell me a great deal more about John Dougherty: how he came down to Washington four or five times over the past few years, telling Kanne, whose company is currently building in 20 U.S. cities, how ripe Philadelphia has become for development, that he absolutely had to come see for himself, firsthand, and that he, John Dougherty, would pave the way. Indeed, two years ago, Dougherty organized a meeting at the Navy Yard for Kanne, bringing some 25 city officials together; Dougherty is bound and determined to come up with a billion dollars to extend the Broad Street subway there, which could create thousands of jobs in the Yard. And now Kanne is on board there, too, working on a proposal for a data center, a power plant and a massive greenhouse. Dougherty, he says, is like no other labor leader he’s ever dealt with. He’s more like a mayor — not a nuts-and-bolts guy, but a vision guy. “He’s nuclear!” Kanne says.
Here he is, the good Johnny Doc, pink and smiling in the wan October light. I’ll float the idea to many power brokers in Philadelphia that he might be the city’s most powerful man, and most of them say, Well … yes, he just might be. A man who, for better or worse, will have a big impact on next year’s mayoral race. A man of gargantuan energy — he sleeps only four hours a night, and in the wee hours, when there are no more calls he can make, no more convincing to be done, John Dougherty zones out playing fantasy sports, perhaps his only escape. Otherwise, he is driven to get things done for Philadelphia. He says this over and over. It’s all for the city he loves.
JOHNNY DOC is a big-league talker, his voice high and fast. He tends to go off on wild flights of self-advocacy. In mid-October, I sit for four hours with Dougherty at the dining room table of a rowhouse his union owns in South Philly. Right off the bat, he’s talking about the clean campaign he ran in 2008 when he tried to take the state Senate seat Vince Fumo vacated as Fumo went to prison. I ask Dougherty whether he should have run a more aggressive campaign. He says (take a big breath):
“No. Because I might’ve won an election for senator and I might not have been able to get the Franklin Square PATCO Speedline open. Or I might not have been able to make the difference at the Convention Center, or I might not have been able to get the subway moving into the Navy Yard or the transportation bill passed, okay? All these things that, as you probably well know with yourself, I don’t need any more press. If I never get another story or get another award, I won’t be upset. Okay? My goal — there’s a side of me that, it’s difficult for me to sit back and watch people take advantage of people. That’s why I think I’m in the business. I represent people for a living. This is what I do. I’m a people person. I like people. I’m not in the bond business, I’m not in the legal business, and I’m in the political business because it’s almost like I got put in through necessity, okay? … And I had family — my grandfather was the majority leader of the state House. And my dad was born later in my grandfather’s life. So I didn’t get to spend as much time with him as I would’ve liked. But he was instrumental in putting a 40-hour workweek in for the firefighters and the police officers in Philly.”
This is the way he talks, one thing leading to the next in a riff of shaky sense and many accomplishments. If a conversation with John Dougherty were a Venn diagram, question and answer would barely intersect. But one thing is clear: Dougherty is trying to convince me of something. After a press event at the electricians headquarters on Spring Garden Street, as Dougherty and I walk around the building into the parking lot, he points things out in his rapid-fire way: “We were first to use Philly CarShare, solar power on the roof, there’s the hookup to recharge car batteries” — then, not skipping a beat, as a half dozen young men exit from the rear of the building — “We teach, apprentices, diversity … ”
“Diversity” is a nod — a literal nod — to one of the young apprentices, who is black, and there’s a good reason to point him out: Dougherty has long faced accusations that his union is far too white. Now he approaches the open side window of an SUV pulling in and quickly beckons me over to say, “This is a guy who’s retiring, an electrician. He’s telling me all I’ve done for him with benefits.” The guy looks a little startled. Then, as we walk back out to the street, Dougherty sums up for me, just in case I missed any of the salient points: “Solar power, CarShare, apprentices, diversity … ”
HE GREW UP in the Irish ghetto, in Two Street’s Mount Carmel Irish-Catholic parish. Doc’s father was a Family Court officer and coached kiddie baseball. The original Johnny Doc never raised his voice. Doc’s mother, though — she was a spitfire; Doc got his fire from her. His didn’t emerge until he was a union guy, in his 20s. A classmate at St. Joe’s Prep remembers him as just a guy. Ordinary. Just … there.
Doc was planning on becoming a lawyer like Ed Rendell, who was Philly’s D.A. when John was young. But he got his girlfriend Cecelia pregnant, they got married, and he became an electrician. Cecelia suffered a major stroke a decade ago, and her recovery — and how he has been by her side every step of the way — is something Dougherty references often. He also tells me within 20 minutes of meeting him that their daughter Erin is a lesbian, and that he’s fine with that, a stance his record backs up: This year, he received a lifetime achievement award from the William Way LGBT Community Center for his longtime support.
As an electrician, he was never much for laying wire. Doc was good at talking, a schmoozer, a politician — those skills came on fast — and soon worked his way onto the union’s executive board. That’s when fellow Two Streeter Jim Kenney brought him to Senator Fumo, who gave him a room upstairs in his office to grease his political acumen. Doc was running the electricians by the time he was 33.
He ruled with aggression and generated fear. Through the ’90s, there existed a pattern of intimidation cited by the National Labor Relations Board and in stories told by politicians who competed against Doc-backed candidates. His people — electricians — showed up at job sites and campaign events. They vandalized tires. They blockaded buildings. A dozen years ago, the Inquirer detailed those NLRB complaints; for example, a union organizer allegedly told workers who voted not to join the union that he knew their addresses and “how their kids dressed.”
Few people in Philadelphia said boo about the tactics; maybe the union playing rough even gave Dougherty tough-guy appeal. He got on all sorts of boards and commissions, sliding right up the civic ladder, making deep inroads into the city’s political life. A decade ago, he seemed poised for a mayoral run, but then he tried for Fumo’s seat in 2008 and lost to little-known Larry Farnese. It was a stunning defeat; the victory party at Paradiso on Passyunk Avenue featured Fumo and Councilman Frank DiCicco leading a chant of “Doc is dead! Doc is dead!” That loss, coupled with an earlier FBI investigation into his and the union’s finances — no charges against Dougherty were ever filed — seemed to push him under for a time.
Doc now says he’ll never run for anything again. But in the past few years, he’s emerged with a stronger grip on behind-the-scenes power, and with a newfound desire not just to get jobs for his union, but to do good things for his city.
It all starts with money. Early on, as head of the union, Dougherty raised payroll deductions for his guys from one cent per hour of work to five cents, with the money put into the electricians’ political action committee. Back in May, the Inquirer added up the nickels: Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers had donated $25.6 million to political races since 2000, all over the state and city, from governors to Municipal Court judges. A union with 5,000 members has become the largest independent source of campaign money in Pennsylvania. A prime political goal now for Doc, insiders say, is getting his brother Kevin, recently appointed Common Pleas administrative judge in Philadelphia, to the state Supreme Court.
In Philly, Dougherty’s influence is especially strong in City Council. In 2011, the union’s PAC donated to 16 of 17 winners; he has a jones for Council members because with the city’s web of financing, ordinance compliance, zoning variances and so forth, major construction projects demand Council’s attention. And a Council with a union hand loading everyone’s political war chest is highly unlikely to upset the unwritten rule of how everything must be built in Philadelphia — with union labor, no matter the cost.
That makes Council a good place to take a look at how John Dougherty operates. To begin to figure out just what all this power he’s spent two decades accruing might actually mean.
ONCE, THERE WAS Ricky Mariano. An electricians union guy. A guy even more born-and-bred than Doc, who got behind Ricky for a Council seat two decades ago.
Doc selected Ricky’s chief of staff, and Ricky gave Doc whatever he wanted — a voice and a vote on Council — and kept him apprised of everything that happened in Ricky’s office. But Ricky did something stupid. He took some money, bribes to help a company get business. Not a huge amount — $23,000. Ricky got indicted by the feds in 2005, and Doc was done with him.
Ricky felt abandoned. One day he climbed high up in City Hall’s tower — to think, he says. Or, as others believe, to kill himself. People ran up to try to save him: then-mayor John Street, Democratic Party boss Bob Brady and John Dougherty. Doc didn’t make it all the way. Ricky came down in Bob Brady’s embrace.
Someone else raced up the rickety wooden stairs, though he didn’t make it to the top, either: Darrell Clarke, then a councilman and now Council president. He ran into Dougherty on the way up, and Clarke later shared with Mariano what he’d said at that moment: “He’s fucking up there because of you!” Because Dougherty had abandoned Mariano. (In an email, Dougherty confirms that he went up the stairs with Clarke, but denies that Clarke admonished him.)
Johnny Doc would get smarter in whom he chose to run for Council.
He has two former electricians on Council now: Bobby Henon and Ed Neilson. They’re much smoother and cleaner than Mariano. Henon, who used to be political director of Local 98, is a pleasant, hardworking guy with a gap-toothed smile, someone who openly calls himself “John’s Boy.”
Dougherty tells me how he and Henon get things done, a story that goes right to the heart of new Doc, pushing hard for big things in his city:
“I get a call probably 5:30 on a Tuesday night last summer. It’s really hot out — one of them three or four 100-degree days. I’m sitting with a group of Teamsters down at Spasso at Front and Chestnut Street, talking about the Convention Center and how the Convention Center changes went into play. Bobby Henon calls me, says, ‘Where you at?’ He comes down. The Teamsters just left. The little waitress comes out. I give her $25 and tell her we’re going to be here. And I said, ‘We need two glasses of ice water and lemon, and we’re going to be here for a little bit. That’s not your tip. I’ll take care of you later.’ And Bobby says, ‘You see this deal? The frickin’ Sixers are leaving.’ I said, ‘It’s the practice facility’” — a sweetheart deal to build a basketball practice facility in Camden.
“He says to me, ‘I’m so close on this Dietz & Watson deal.’” (The food company was being lured to the city after a warehouse fire in Jersey.) “He says, ‘John, if [Camden’s] throwing 10 years’ worth of tax breaks at $8 million a year at these guys, I’m not sure we can match that here.’”
They both got on the phone — Doc with Ed Rendell, Henon with Mayor Nutter. Doc: “I’m asking Rendell to call [76ers owner] Josh Harris to see what’s up. He’s calling people to see if this deal’s 100 percent done, if there’s any way we can work it. I said, ‘Bob, I think at this point the best deal we can do is maybe trade off. We won’t interfere with their deal, they don’t interfere with ours.’ I wanted to make sure we didn’t get caught losing two things, by making a stupid mistake.”
New Doc indeed: Bulldozers started in on the $50 million Dietz & Watson expansion in Wissinoming two months ago.
Doc’s relationship with Ed Neilson is trickier. Dougherty and Neilson say they’re amicable union guys. Two high-ranking Philadelphia power brokers tell a different story. Neilson’s family has been in the electricians union since World War II, which gave him a nexus of support there, the power brokers say. Years ago, he confided in one of them: “I’m going to take Dougherty out” — that is, push him out of leadership in the union. But Doc got Neilson out of Philly by going to then-Governor Rendell and getting Neilson a job in the Department of Labor in Harrisburg.
Not true, says Ed Neilson. Why, it was Rendell who came to him, offering him a job, and in fact John Dougherty called him two weeks into his furlough mid-state to tell Neilson he wanted him to come home.
Ed Rendell, smiling in his office in the Bellevue because he loves political intrigue, is clear on where the wooing came from: Dougherty wanted Neilson in Harrisburg. Early this year, Dougherty saw another opportunity in what looks like a version of Keep your enemies close. Neilson was facing a tough primary fight in Northeast Philly for reelection to the state rep seat he’d won in 2012, and Dougherty went to Bob Brady to anoint Neilson as Bill Green’s successor on Council. Dougherty himself confirms that maneuver with a wink, which lets me in on the deal: He’s running Neilson, not vice versa. A second electrician on Council, this one both at a remove and held tight.
How long-standing and complicated these relationships are! Jim Kenney’s father is the godfather of John Dougherty’s sister. Kenney, after almost two decades of abuse for being aligned with Vince Fumo, initially refused to speak to me about Dougherty, but then at Doc’s bidding invited me to his office to hit a “solid working relationship” note. A political friend of Dougherty’s tells me the maestro is “laughing his ass off” about how Kenney is kissing up to him now.
And then there’s Darrell Clarke. It was John Dougherty’s persuasive oomph behind the scenes that helped lift Clarke over Marian Tasco for the City Council presidency. A Dougherty insider notes the councilmen (and councilwoman) Dougherty pushed toward Clarke: Kenyatta Johnson (the electricians union has contributed $4,500 to his elections since ’08); Denny O’Brien ($12,000 since ’11); Mark Squilla ($29,100 since ’11); and Jannie Blackwell ($47,600 since ’07). (Bill Green — $65,000 since ’07 — and of course Bobby Henon — $39,600 since ’11 — were already on board with Clarke.) And the Doc insider also reveals how, using O’Brien as an example, the velvet hammer came down: “It’s better to work on some things knowing you have the support of your fellow colleagues moving forward. Reassurance of some of his goals was given. And that helps make a decision.”
But when I ask Darrell Clarke, in his City Hall office, how Dougherty helped him secure the presidency of Council, he claims to know nothing about that: “He said very clearly that he’s supporting me, in a very public way. What and how, I’m not privy to.”
When pressed a bit, Clarke gets annoyed: “Are you suggesting that I can’t get elected on my own? You’re suggesting that I couldn’t have done it without his support.”
Then, when asked about Dougherty’s support for a mayoral run — Doc’s already had a fund-raiser for Clarke — the president of City Council gets angry: “Your whole line of questioning is offensive. Now you’re saying I can’t be mayor without Johnny Doc.”
Clarke is said to be getting uncomfortable with the notion that he’s seen as Doc’s guy. And perhaps that’s why Clarke got so irritated. John Dougherty has spent two decades building a web of political connections. He gives vast sums of money. His support can make or break candidates. But Doc likes to get something for his support. And Darrell Clarke must understand that at some point, he, too, will be asked to pay the piper.
AND WHEN JOHNNY DOC can’t get what he wants?
Bill Green, who considers Dougherty a good friend, says, “Often the tactics you use to get in power are not the tactics you use when you are in power.” That, of course, is an argument for a softer, gentler Johnny Doc; Green says he’s never seen a side of Dougherty that gives him pause. But some say that Dougherty reverts to his old ways when jobs are at stake for his union.
Ken Weinstein is a longtime developer in Northwest Philly. He’s currently transforming St. Peter’s, a vacant Gothic church in Germantown, into a new home for the Waldorf School — a $6 million project. Weinstein’s contractor accepted bids from electricians. A contractor from IBEW 98 — Doc’s union — wanted about $100,000 more than the local, non-union electrician who got hired.
The electricians union started protesting in February at Trolley Car Diner in Mount Airy, which Weinstein owns, accusing him of being a “greedy profiteer.” The protesters made some assertions, Weinstein says: that the contractor on the Waldorf project was hiring Mexicans for $5 an hour; that patrons of the diner would get food poisoning. One protester told a customer, “I hope you choke on your food.” And then it ratcheted up one more notch.
One morning in early February, Weinstein says, he and his then-11-year-old son Noah brought hot chocolate and doughnuts to two protesters sitting in a car across the street from the diner — a conciliatory gesture. The protester in the passenger seat said, “No thank you. But we really appreciate it.” The protester in the driver’s seat said, “We know where you live, and we will visit you.” Weinsten and Noah went back into the diner and called the police.
Weinstein says he heard from friends in the area that Dougherty himself was poking around, trying to dig up dirt on him. On the day of Noah’s bar mitzvah, the electricians union staged another protest, at the Mildred restaurant in Bella Vista, located in a building that Weinstein also owns; the timing seemed very curious to him.
John Dougherty denies that he tried to dig up dirt on Ken Weinstein. Nobody threatened Weinstein, he says, and the union filmed the Trolley Car Diner protesters the whole time, so they know. And he says that he pulled his protesters from the diner in October because he learned that Weinstein’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. But when I prod Dougherty about Weinstein’s claims, he goes into angry Docspeak: “He said that I picketed his kid’s bar mitzvah. Okay? And I knew about it. The insinuation, I was insensitive to Jews. I wouldn’t be where I’m at if it wasn’t for the Jewish religion, Jewish community. My lawyers are Jewish. Lynne Abraham I eat with all the time. It’s ridiculous. Because that’s what they play when they break a rule or they set something up. They get a dreadlocked African-American they want me to hire and then it still gets down to money. It’s always about money. It’s not about capitalism, it’s about greed. Okay?” Dougherty later reached out to Weinstein and told him the Mildred protest wasn’t timed to his son’s bar mitzvah. Weinstein now says he takes Johnny Doc at his word on that.
Then there are the Pestronk brothers, developers who tap deeper into old Doc. The Pestronks renovated the Goldtex ladies’ shoe factory at 12th and Wood, in the Loft District, in 2012; it’s a 10-story building they converted into 163 apartments, a $38 million job. They bid it out to both union and non-union contractors, very unusual in Philadelphia for big projects. Then they did something even rarer, by awarding unions just 40 percent of the work.
Here is how Mike Pestronk says things went down between him and Johnny Doc:
They first met in the spring of 2012 at Famous 4th Street Deli, Doc’s prime hangout. Dougherty told him, Pestronk says, that he wanted to work with him and didn’t care if other, non-electrician work was union or not. If the Pestronks got lower bids, Doc would match the price. Business was done in five minutes; Pestronk says Dougherty then told him a story: how he was in a councilman’s office one time with a developer whom Dougherty picked up and hung from a coat hook because he wasn’t properly enthused about using union labor. Dougherty smiled, then segued to his charitable work, all his good deeds, including the orphan he had personally taken in. Pestronk thought he must be running for mayor. (Dougherty says via email that he never said anything about hanging a developer from a coat hook.)
When Pestronk left, his Toyota Tundra, parked out front, would barely start. Later, back at his office in Germantown, Pestronk took a look under the hood. The battery cable was loose, and shrimp tails and a fruit cocktail had been dumped on the engine.
Enraged, he called Dougherty and accused him of vandalizing his truck; in fact, Pestronk says, there had been union guys hovering outside of Famous 4th Street when he got there, checking him out.
Dougherty acted outraged himself. “The carpenters must have known we were meeting and watched you come in,” he said.
But Pestronk believes Dougherty was sending him a simple message: “I can fuck with you and you can’t do anything about it.” He’d have more trouble with his truck — one time it was a rack of ribs someone stuck under his hood that attracted rats, who also feasted on the wiring.
(Dougherty’s response: “I thought Mike was a young developer, not a fiction writer.”)
Nevertheless, the Pestronks did hire a union electrician named Gus Dougherty, who is a close friend of Doc’s but not related. After about a month, though, during the summer of 2012, unions that didn’t get work on Goldtex started picketing, and Gus Dougherty pulled his workers, about 15 men, off the site in solidarity with them. The Pestronks then hired a non-union electrician.
Now Congressman Bob Brady got involved, organizing a meeting of all the trade unions and the Pestronks. Nothing was resolved, but Brady issued a press release saying everything was peachy; the picketers went away. A couple of weeks later, Dougherty called Mike Pestronk and wanted Gus Dougherty back on the job. Pestronk was open to it. About $1.5 million of the original $3.5 million in work for electricians remained; according to Pestronk, Gus wanted $2.5 million. Pestronk said no. (Gus Dougherty didn’t return calls for comment.)
Five minutes later, John Dougherty was on the phone: “I got those picket lines down,” he said. “You owe me.”
Gus Dougherty called again a few minutes later. So did Johnny Doc. Finally, Bob Brady called and said, “I talked to John and Gus — what’s this about backing out of the contract?”
“They want a million more than it’s worth,” Pestronk told the Congressman.
There was silence for a moment. According to Mike Pestronk, Bob Brady then said: “I know the Doughertys. I wish you good luck.”
So began a war. Mike Pestronk says he was followed for a year. His girlfriend was followed sometimes, too. (John Dougherty says, “This is the first I’ve heard of these tall tales.”)
Then a film was made by John Dougherty’s union: Deconstructing Post Brothers. “Post Brothers” is the name of the Pestronks’ business, and the film is a broad indictment of their use of non-union labor — how it creates unsafe conditions, how the work is second-rate — with talking heads including Bob Brady and Jim Kenney. There are some interesting pictures: of moldy sheetrock, and of many, many bottles that two shadowy figures in the film claim were filled with workers’ urine and ended up behind walls, up high in Goldtex. The Pestronks believe they’ve identified the two accusers in the film as electricians union members who, the Pestronks say, secretly got themselves hired on as carpenters and set up bogus shots of the mold and would-be urine.
When he hears the accusation that his union planted workers to make a bogus documentary, Dougherty says, “No. First of all, first of all, listen. First of all, okay. You know as well as I do there’d be lawsuits coming out the kazoo, okay? There were buckets and buckets of piss. You gotta watch it.”
Then Johnny Doc goes into a long riff about Licenses and Inspections violations by the Pestronks. (Mike Pestronk acknowledges that L&I did cite the project for infractions that, he says, were quickly rectified.) “On the urine,” Dougherty says. “There was so much urine in that building that I would’ve had to put a hundred electricians in there just to urinate in enough bottles to make that story valid.”
This is the territory you get into with Johnny Doc. Back when Ed Rendell was mayor and Dougherty was just getting his legs under him, Dougherty would picket small-potatoes non-union jobs — even, Rendell says, just a guy fixing up his condo. “I’d call him up,” Rendell remembers. “‘Doc, what are you doing? Why are you picketing this schmo?’”
“It’s the principle,” Johnny Doc said.
“Keep your eye on the big stuff,” the Mayor advised, and the picketers would go away. Ed Rendell shakes his head. “He loves to fight,” he says. “Almost as much as he loves to win.”
IT IS NOT JUST that many political candidates get lavished with large amounts of cash from John Dougherty’s union. IBEW 98 public filings are filled with all sorts of side expenditures as well: In 2013, $54,956 on sports tickets “to promote job creation”; $9,908 at Lore’s Chocolates; $10,000 on a fashion show; $26,527 to Mike Connell Catering; another $87,582 at Sporting Event Boxes Brokerage; $40,240 to one Heidi Winkel, a massage therapist. And much more.
I ask Dougherty about a union expenditure I cite arbitrarily: practically half a million dollars spent at the Waldorf Astoria in New York over the past six years. For what? And what’s the benefit to his union? That’s an easy one: The Pennsylvania Society’s annual extravaganza in New York is attended by this state’s biggest movers and shakers in politics and business, and Doc’s union puts on “the most well-attended party in New York during Pennsylvania Society.” Jobs! Networking! Influence! It comes at a price, he informs me: “When you bring people up to go there, you pay hotel rooms. Okay?”
Recently, a candidate for IBEW’s executive board named Ken Rocks started questioning the way his union spends members’ money, even bragging to the Inquirer that Dougherty was “threatened, because I’m going to question his expenses.” A union memorandum distributed to members just before the election last month alleged that Rocks, among other misdeeds, had been charged with aggravated assault a dozen years ago and more recently had “AN ACTIVE PROTECTION FROM ABUSE ORDER in place against him by his wife. Was known to BEAT HIS WIFE.” In a rare move, the U.S. Labor Department intervened to oversee the elections. Rocks, who says these accusations are unfounded, was soundly defeated.
But the most daunting — and personal — questions about Dougherty and money came to light a few months ago, via a sworn FBI affidavit from 2006 with allegations about his personal finances. In it, an agent stated that she had probable cause that Dougherty violated federal criminal laws. The affidavit cited him getting $200,000 in free renovation work on his house in South Philly — including “multiple plasma televisions” and a fancy alarm system — and around $115,000 worth of free work from electrician Gus Dougherty.
He’s the same Gus Dougherty Doc pushed the Pestronks to hire — after Gus was out of prison. He did time after pleading guilty to 99 charges, including doing free work for John.
The affidavit had more. It said that Gus Dougherty claimed, for example, that John Dougherty paid him by handing him brown paper bags filled with huge amounts of cash outside Doc’s Union Pub in South Philly. According to Gus, Doc claimed that the money came from his in-laws. And there are more allegations: that John Dougherty significantly underreported income on his tax returns, and bought a Wildwood condo on the cheap, making it a possible illegal gift.
It’s important to remember that the affidavit is just that — not an indictment, but a statement by an FBI agent — and Dougherty was never charged with a crime in connection with any of it.
I bring it up, at the end of my four hours with Dougherty, and tell him it’s been the talk of the city since its release: “What a lot of people say is that they can’t believe Gus Dougherty went to prison and you didn’t.”
Now a man who normally talks like his hair’s on fire really lets me have it:
“Listen. I didn’t even want to do these articles, to go through — it’s not worth it. It’s been — listen, you’re going to bring up something that doesn’t mean anything, okay? I did not commit a crime. I was in the hospital with a wife that couldn’t walk or talk. Okay? When some of this stuff went down. Okay? I was in there. There was nothing there. … Listen, the [Gus] Dougherty stuff’s insulting to me. That’s insulting. That’s actually insulting. That’s not integrity, that’s insulting!”
This crap, he says, is ancient history. People like me have a problem, because we can’t let it go.
IT’S A STRANGE mayoral field for next year’s election. John Dougherty says Darrell Clarke can win if he wants it, but he seems hesitant. Much of the rest of the field — Tony Williams, Ken Trujillo, Terry Gillen — is not inspiring. Will Jim Kenney run? We know that longshot Lynne Abraham is a Dougherty buddy. But if Clarke stays safely tucked in Council, it’s unclear whom Dougherty will back. The best early return comes from a longtime Johnny Doc observer: “Doc will be on the side of whoever wins.”
And that will give him enormous influence: the mayor, City Council, perhaps his brother on the state Supreme Court in the not-so-distant future …
But which Johnny Doc will we get, wielding all that power?
New Doc? Oh, how he keeps pushing! Lately he’s been a strong voice in national Democratic circles, trying to get the party’s convention here in 2016. He’s been working behind the scenes to save the sale of PGW. How much he wants to be seen as the savior of his city. In crossing the picket line at the Convention Center in May, he took a big step in that direction. But even that isn’t so simple. Because nothing with Johnny Doc is.
For a long time, the electricians were part of the problem there. The unions were fighting with each other for jurisdiction and every scrap of work, making life miserable, and too expensive, for conventioneers, costing the city dearly in lost bookings. Doc fought viciously with Buck Riley, the Convention Center board’s head from ’07 to ’11, and Ahmeenah Young, who managed the center. Dougherty claims to this day that her poor management was the problem, not union greed.
But Dougherty had another possible reason for taking on Young. He and Dwight Evans are political enemies, and Young was a protégé of the state rep. Just as Ed Coryell, the head carpenter, became an enemy, too, especially after muscling his way onto the center’s board in place of Pat Gillespie. Gillespie, the head of the Building and Trades Council, was once upon a time Dougherty’s mentor; now he’s an acolyte.
Dougherty bided his time and found his moment: Ed Coryell balked at signing a new agreement on union comportment in early May. At the 11th hour, Dougherty got a call from a board member:
Was Doc with them? Would he continue to live up to the agreement even if Coryell’s union didn’t sign?
Yes. He was with them. His men would still come to work. The carpenters’ behavior had become the main problem at the Convention Center, and the board made its move, jettisoning the union.
Ed Rendell, for one, takes a sunny view of John Dougherty’s motivation: “I’d say it was one part animus toward Coryell and four parts what was right.” The ex-governor smiles. “John Dougherty has a lot of motives.”
We can give this one to him. People all over town have been saying, Bravo, Doc! The biggest union guy taking on a union. You got balls! And what a great thing for the city!
But … why would the most powerful man in Philadelphia wait so long to act?
“I don’t know,” John Dougherty says, and then collects himself in the next breath: “Here’s the thing. We were under agreement, and every time I attempted to do something, I got spanked. Ahmeenah and them stopped talking to me; Buck — they played the political game. That was fine. So you know what happened? I said, ‘Look, I’m gonna continue to push for privatization of management.’ I never stopped pushing for … ”
He is a marvelous talker. And he is still Johnny Doc because he can’t let go of the old way. Everything in his world is still filled with intrigue, and at every turn there is a terrific fight. Nothing has changed, except that he has grown much more powerful. But there is hope, because he wants us to believe in him. That is the Johnny Doc he wants me to find.
Originally published in the December 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.