Johnny Doc Forgets He’s a Democratic Elite, Says Democratic Elites Need to “Wake Up”

Otterbein: John Dougherty is the face of the Democratic establishment—and only the latest party leader to shirk responsibility for last year's colossal loss.

John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty is leader of Philadelphia's building trades. | Photo by Jeff Fusco

John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty is leader of Philadelphia’s building trades. | Photo by Jeff Fusco

It’s hard to overstate how profoundly the Democratic Party screwed up in the 2016 election. Republicans will soon control the White House and both branches of Congress. Things are just as bleak when you look at state legislatures and governorships: Across the country, Democrats hold fewer elected offices today than at any other point since the 1920s—a jaw-dropping 100-year low.

If an average American performed this badly at their job, they’d probably be fired on the spot. If they were very, very lucky, they’d be given the opportunity to make a heartfelt apology and work on probation until they improved. But Democratic elites aren’t like you and me. They can apparently lose an election to a reality TV star, fail to take responsibility for the fact that their party may be in its death throes, and then continue to rule the party with an iron fist. Look at Nancy Pelosi—who recently said, “We cannot be taking the full responsibility for what happened in the election”—and then got reelected as House Minority Leader. Or consider the fact that Clinton loyalists are being put in charge of the DNC’s “Trump war room.”

The latest example of Democratic leaders acting with impunity takes place in our own backyard. As talk show host Dom Giordano first reported, Philly electricians union boss John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty wrote a letter to his local’s members about the election of soon-to-be President Donald Trump. IBEW Local 98 endorsed Hillary Clinton in the general election.

Doc was apparently so proud of the letter that his spokesman, Frank Keel, told Giordano he “had” to read it. He was right, but probably not for the reasons he thinks. 

First, it’s important to underscore that Dougherty—who, by the way, is reportedly under investigation by the FBI—is one of the most powerful Democratic leaders in Pennsylvania. The Democratic Party isn’t solely made up of elected officials and committee bosses: It also encompasses a massive network of donors, think tanks and friendly lobbyists. Doc’s union is the single biggest campaign donor in Pennsylvania politics, and while some of the money from Local 98 and a related super PAC goes to Republicans, most of it has been doled out to Democrats. Dougherty played a massive role in getting Democratic Mayor Jim Kenney elected in 2015, as well as in putting his younger brother, Democrat Kevin Dougherty, on the state Supreme Court. Doc was also, until very recently, the Democratic leader of the Philadelphia’s First Ward.

So there’s only one reasonable thing Doc can do here: Take a good, hard look in the mirror and explain how he’s going to rebuild the party that he’s helped control for years—and that his union members have sunk an enormous amount of hard-earned money into.

But he doesn’t do that in any meaningful way. He begins his letter by boasting about the city’s “460,000-vote plurality” for Clinton. Then he swaggers some more, talking up the union’s health care plan and pension fund: “At the risk of sounding boastful, your business office and political operation make it look too easy. We do double the work and have double the market share of any other IBEW local in the country.”

Boasting! After the biggest butt-whooping in 100 years! You can’t make this up. But that’s not the most shocking part of the letter. That comes when Dougherty has the gall to cast himself as an outsider to the Democratic machine. He says Democrats need to pay more attention to workers’ issues, especially as the country’s middle class and unions are getting smaller and smaller—a fair critique. He even calls for an “uprising” in the party. But he acts as if he’s an innocent in this situation, rather than one of the men steering the ship.

“The Democratic Party is too fixated on cultural liberalism and not focused enough on the populist economy,” writes Dougherty. “Wake up, Democratic Party leaders. You can no longer expect us to pay all the bills, but seldom get a seat at the table. You can no longer expect to receive our financial contributions, borrow our members, and count on our votes if you’re not going to give us jobs. Those days are over.”

Doc never explains what he means by “cultural liberalism,” exactly, though he suggests it may include LGBTQ issues as well as, confoundingly, opioid addiction. He also takes the opportunity to say that union leaders “look forward to working with the Trump administration on issues like infrastructure, energy and undocumented workers.” What does it mean that he’ll work with Trump when it comes to undocumented immigrants? He doesn’t say. Maybe it has something to do with the union’s drone, which a Local 98 spokesman had previously said would be used to hunt down undocumented immigrants—until the Daily News came calling.

The only time Dougherty comes close to looking inward is when he says the labor movement needs to “stop paying everyone else’s bills” and “stop attending the fancy dinners and fundraisers, and get back to union organizing.” But he fails to explain what that means, and a few paragraphs later, he says he’ll remain involved in politics: “We will continue to support candidates for political office who understand the value and importance of a strong labor movement, no matter which political party they claim.”

In case you think I’m making too much of a single letter, I asked Doc’s spokesman what changes he would make to strengthen the Democratic Party that he has been such a major force in. I also asked why he didn’t endorse Bernie Sanders, who made working Americans the centerpiece of his campaign. (The union didn’t officially back any candidate in the primary.) Keel said he declined to comment.

You were right about one thing, Doc: Democratic Party leaders to wake up.

Johnny Doc’s Letter by PhiladelphiaMagazine on Scribd

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