A History of Violence: Philadelphia Political Brawls

Do I believe Philly's Streets Commissioner was charged with simple assault? You bet I do!

"Justice" engraved on Philadelphia's City Hall

Photo | Jeff Fusco

The first thing I do when I wake up, before I fully open my eyes, is indulge a ritual that goes back to my cable-less childhood, when school days were bookended by Action News broadcasts and Jim Gardner was God: I grab my phone and open the 6ABC app to see what’s happened in Philly overnight. How many shootings? How many fires? Was there was a hit-and-run, or a standoff with police? Did something tragic occur in some town I’ve never heard of in Gloucester County or Delaware? I can’t start my day until I know.

The other morning when I clicked on the app, the headline read: “Philadelphia Streets commissioner charged with simple assault.” Donald Carlton, who started his career almost a quarter century ago as a trash collector, was alleged to have punched a man several times at a party in December. The DA brought charges that also included reckless endangering. Given that he’s been Streets Commissioner for all of five minutes, I said aloud (to the dog, I guess), “Jesus! I can’t believe it.” Then I thought of that comedy routine by Tig Notaro:

In the bit, Notaro talks about getting an email update from a friend that says, “Caitlin is starting kindergarten this year. Can you believe it?” And Notaro thinks for a minute, and then decides that she can. “What is she, about five? That sounds about right. I can believe it.’ If they were to contact me and say ‘Caitlin has never grown any bigger since the day she was born, never spoken a word in her life, and she’s graduating from college today — can you believe it?,’ I’d be like, ‘God, no. Send more photos.’ But can I believe that Caitlin is following the natural progression of life? Yeah, I can totally wrap my head around that.”

That routine seemed perfect for the headline about Carlton. Keeping in mind that he’s innocent until proven guilty, and has only been charged, of course I can believe the story, at least in its broadest outlines. I mean, I grew up here. A Philadelphia public official who loses his temper and lashes out? “Yeah, I can totally wrap my head around that.”

To be fair, most of the local pols best known for bad behavior — think: Fumo, Cianfrani, Mariano, Perzel — were never accused of violent crimes; they either did their brawling in private or had someone else do it for them. (Kidding! Sort of!) Yet a public official flying off the handle seems all too plausible here. Even officials who have never touched a hair on anyone’s head often seem like they’re on the edge of fury. Bill Green, for instance, never punched anyone, to my knowledge, but he could have. Same with Mayor Kenney. In fact, if the two of them came to blows in the middle of Dilworth Park, the fountain shooting jets up their dress slacks, well, I could believe it. No problem.

Here, for fun, are a few examples of local officials who have actually engaged in hand-to-hand combat. I’ll keep checking my app for more.

Rafferty vs. Blackwell, 1979

This is back when Milton Street was taken seriously by the political cognoscenti, when he was a state rep and his brother John Street was just a candidate for City Council. The two attended a Council session regarding the city’s application for millions of dollars in community development funds, which the Streets suggested would displace low-income residents. It got ugly when protesters supporting the Street position came into chambers, stood on chairs, and knocked over desks. The police came, the Council president pleaded for peace through a bullhorn, and 13 people were arrested. But the real fireworks came after the police left, and Councilman Lucien Blackwell began complaining about the cops’ use of blackjacks. His insistence upon talking about this, even when asked to be quiet, led fellow Councilman Fran Rafferty to shout at Blackwell, “You’re an instigator. You’re a troublemaker.” Blackwell replied: “You’re a racist. You’re nothing.” Rafferty then said to Blackwell: “You’re a faggot” — and things got physical. Rafferty punched Blackwell right in the eye. According to a Washington Post account of the incident, “that punch led to more fighting in the spectators’ section between the remaining demonstrators and police.” The Street brothers both jumped over a railing and onto the floor, at which point police carried Milton out and arrested him. It is worth noting that both Rafferty and Blackwell had been boxers in their youth, and later joined forces to present the Rafferty-Blackwell Invitational Diamond Belt Tournament to support the cause of amateur boxing.

Rafferty vs. Street, avec Tayoun, 1981

Relations between the Street brothers and Fran Rafferty did not improve much in the ensuing two years. In 1981, after John Street had been elected to Council, he was angered by something said during an emergency Council session on schools and he reached out and grabbed the stenographer’s equipment. Councilman Jimmy Tayoun — who’d go on to star in his own episode of Philly Pols Gone Bad — grabbed Street from behind while Rafferty got in front. Then it was just Street and Rafferty, swinging at each other then falling to the floor. Police officers broke up the fight while, according to a UPI report, clerks swept up broken glass. Afterward, Street claimed that Rafferty had been underhanded, “sneaking” a punch in his eye. “My eye is hurting,” he told reporters, conceding that he hit back. The Pittsburgh Press headline for its article on the incident: “No Brotherly Love Lost in City Council.”

Matlack vs. Humphreys, 1781.

Lest you think that public figures punching each other is a recent development in the city, here’s a fight that took place when the country was barely minted. Timothy Matlack was a leader of the American Revolution and secretary of state during the Revolutionary War. After serving as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress in 1780, the Penn trustee and Secretary of the American Philosophical Society founded the Religious Society of Free Quakers, a spinoff Quaker group in opposition to the Yearly Meeting. Matlack had been kicked out of the Yearly Meeting for failure to pay debts as well as generally unbecoming behavior. In Historic Philadelphia: The City, Symbols & Patriots, 1681-1800, William C. Kashatus writes of beer brewer Matlack, “This Free Quaker’s claim to fame before the Revolution was his penchant for gambling, horse-racing and the lower class sport of cock-fighting.” Aside from his “hedonistic attitude,” Kashatus says, “Matlack’s tendency to offer his unsolicited political opinions” got him into trouble, as it did when he got into a public fist fight with the affluent and influential Whitehead Humphreys, who brawled with Matlack after the former heckled him during a speech. Later, Humphreys would publish a poem about the fight in which he lamented Matlack’s climb from the lower classes to a position of influence: “But all of once you’ve raised so high, Quakers can’t safely pass you by!”

Joseph Dougherty vs. Quakers, 2013

The stereotype of Philadelphia union members and their leaders as violent thugs has long shadowed organized labor in this town, which isn’t at all fair to rank-and-file membership. But when a prominent union’s leader goes to prison — along with 11 of his union confreres — for arson, sabotage and intimidation, it does tend to cast a pall on things. Joseph Dougherty ran the Ironworkers Local with an (appropriately) iron fist, and — according to the judge at his sentencing — got his subordinates to do his dirty work for him, including perpetrating acts of violence like beating nonunion workers with baseball bats. One of the more egregious acts the Ironworkers carried out, given the fact that Quakers (Timothy Matlack notwithstanding) espouse non-violence, was an arson attack on the under-construction Chestnut Hill Meeting House, which caused $50,000 worth of damage. Writing about the incident for the New York Times, Jon Hurdle said, “The episode is the latest in Philadelphia to prompt allegations that unions engage in violence and intimidation in an effort to secure work.” At Dougherty’s sentencing, Judge Michael Baylson echoed Hurdle’s word, saying the top ironworker’s actions “continued the bad reputation Philadelphia has for tolerating union violence.”

Johnny Doc vs. Joshua Keesee, 2016

Philadelphia’s more beloved union leader John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty (no relation to Joseph), head of the Electricians Local 98, recently got into a physical altercation with nonunion electrician Josh Keesee. The two came to blows outside of a nonunion building site at Third and Reed after Doc reportedly saw a union sticker on Keesee’s car and objected. Though there’s no question that punches were thrown, neither man will admit to starting the fight, and no charges have been filed; both Seth Williams and Kathleen Kane recused themselves due to potential conflicts. Dougherty has claimed self-defense and also implied that the whole thing has been blown out of proportion, while Keesee says Doc broke his nose. The feds are said to be investigating, but don’t hold your breath.

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