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What’s up, Johnny Doc? Meet Jim Kenney’s not-so-secret weapon

Jim Kenney nabbed 45 endorsements before his primary win Tuesday, but one loomed larger than all the rest: That of John Dougherty.

Dougherty, known citywide as just “Johnny Doc,” has been a political juggernaut for decades, with influence that stretches from City Council to the state Supreme Court to the federal government.

So now that his choice is the city’s likely next mayor, what’s next?

Who even is this guy?

Dougherty is the business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, a Philly-based, 5,000-member union that over the years has become the largest independent source of campaign money in Pennsylvania. In 2014, The Inquirer reported that Local 98 had dumped $25.6 million of its resources into political campaigns since 2000.

Doc’s been in charge of Local 98 since 1993, and has been on the union board since he was in his 30s. He grew up in Pennsport, adjacent to Kenney’s East Passyunk stomping grounds; he attended St. Joe’s Prep — the same high school as Kenney — and went to LaSalle University — the same college as Kenney. (For what its worth, both schools are commonly attended by Catholics who grow up in South Philly.)

How do IBEW’s contributions work?

The money it spends comes from the dues paid by union members — a nickel for every hour worked by the members of the electricians’ union that make more than $80 an hour for standard jobs when you include pay and benefits.

They back candidates that pledge to advocate for working families and create jobs that can be filled by union workers. The amount of sheer cash flow that the group has the ability to pump into campaigns can sway a race easily, and in some ways that’s because when IBEW picks a candidate, other trade unions follow. Doc picks winners.

“Local 98 is the most powerful and most feared political entity in Philadelphia and maybe the state,” Zack Stalberg, the former head of Committee of Seventy, told The Inquirer. “That’s mostly because of the campaign contributions and somewhat because of the people that they can put on the street to help a candidate – and also because Doc is extremely smart and focused on having that most powerful role.”

Doc apparently sees that fear as a political plus, saying in 2001, “Fear is not a bad thing to have on your side.”

Local 98 is also a huge contributor of “street money,” or cash given to the City Democratic Committee that’s then used for grassroots efforts like handing out pizza on Election Day and giving voters rides to the polls.

Are Doc and Kenney best buds?

To misquote Lady Gaga, we could say Doc and Jim are caught in a bad bromance.

First off, their families are tight. Dougherty’s mother is Kenney’s godmother, and Kenney’s father is Dougherty’s sister’s godfather. But the two had a falling out of sorts in the last decade or two as Kenney became a protege of former state Sen. Vince Fumo, a Philadelphia institution who’s mentored some of the city’s most powerful politicians.

Fumo was found guilty in 2009 of 137 counts of corruption, ranging from mail fraud to wire fraud, conspiracy and obstruction of justice. He was sentenced to 55 months in prison.

But Doc was angry at Kenney for his closeness to Fumo, mostly because he wanted Fumo’s spot on the state Senate. It was reported that union members would heckle Kenney while he was out and about. In 2003, City Paper reported that Doc was talking to a union member distributing ballots on Election Day, pointing to Kenney’s name and saying, “We’re not helping him. Don’t take it for granted that people already know that. You have to tell them. Got it?”

But in the same day, Dougherty apparently said: “Jim Kenney is not only a close personal friend of mine, he is basically family… Most people tell you, I was as staunch for Jim Kenney as anyone. I don’t believe, to this day, that Jim Kenney is a bad guy. He is a very good councilman.”

How did they mend their relationship?

Probably because Kenney knew that he’d need Johnny Doc’s resources and influence if he wanted to win a seat in the mayor’s office. In a Philly Mag profile of Doc written last fall, a political insider said Doc was “laughing his ass off” because Kenney was kissing up so hard to him.

And it’s possible Doc just picked Kenney to solidify his hold on City Hall. He said in January that the union (AKA he) wasn’t excited by the mayoral field at the time — Lynne Abraham, Tony Williams and Nelson Diaz — and called Kenney a “dark horse” candidate that could come in and win.

After Kenney declared he was running and asked about connections to Johnny Doc and Fumo, he responded to Philly Mag: “John is John. John cares about people too, and I’ve seen him be emotionally involved in people’ lives and things, and I don’t believe that he and Vince are comparable… First of all, Vince was convicted of federal felonies, and John is still the leader of his union and a leader in the city.”

What other candidates have been backed by Doc?

The union’s political action committee has donated to the vast majority of people who currently hold council seats, and Johnny Doc backed Darrell Clarke for council president over Marian Tasco. And now Clarke is the czar of City Council.

The union also helped get two of its own members elected to Council in Bobby Henon, D-6th; its political director, and Ed Neilson, D-at-large; who was just unseated Tuesday. It also supported Kevin Dougherty, Johnny Doc’s brother, for state Supreme Court. Kevin won a spot on the November ballot last night.

And what happens when they’re not backed by him?

As important as Johnny Doc’s influence can be, some have learned that it can be taken away.

Dougherty got pissed in 2011 when City Commissioner Marge Tartaglione supported the candidate who was running against Henon for a Council seat — so Doc publicly withdrew his support of her. She ended up losing, but that wasn’t enough. Doc went on to back a candidate who was running against Tartaglione’s daughter for a state Senate seat, even though she was friendly to the unions.

But the withdrawing of support gets darker. When former Councilman Rick Mariano was indicted on bribery charges more than a decade ago, he trekked up to the top of the City Hall observation deck and joked to a security guard that he was going to jump. Except no one took it as a joke.

Philly Mag reported that in that moment, Bob Brady, John Street and Johnny Doc started to run up the stairs toward the area. When Darrell Clarke was heading up, too, he ran into Dougherty and said, “He’s fucking up there because of you!” Of course, no one will confirm that conversation happened.

So why such a bad reputation for the union’s influence?

Well, first off, they’ve used some not-so-friendly tactics in the past to get their points across. Not like typical picket lines you might envision.

Dozens of complaints have been filed against members for harassing and heckling developers who don’t contract union members for major jobs. The Inquirer reported in 2002 that an organizer once told a Fishtown company that voted not to join the union that he “knew where they lived, knew who their wives were . . . knew how their wives dressed, knew how their kids dressed.” The union denied these claims.

There was also a 2006 FBI investigation into Dougherty and Local 98, and an affidavit was unsealed last year that showed an FBI agent had probable cause to believe Doc received hundreds of thousands in free renovations to his house, evaded taxes and didn’t report his income correctly.

Dougherty was never charged with a crime.

So did he ever try to get Fumo’s seat in the Senate?

Yep. Dougherty ran to snatch up Fumo’s seat in 2008 after the senator was indicted, but he lost to Larry Farnese in the primary, and Farnese still holds the seat. Apparently Farnese wasn’t all that well known at the time, and it’s been reported that Fumo and then-First District Councilman Frank DiCicco led a chant of “Doc is dead!” at the victory party.

But some insiders have speculated to various news organizations over the years that Johnny Doc — who’s the leader in the First Ward — has set himself up to take over as chairman of the Democratic Party in Philly once Rep. Bob Brady gives it up.

Will we be seeing his face in City Hall on Kenney’s staff?

Kenney swears he won’t hire Johnny Doc to his staff just because the guy bankrolled his campaign. But only time will tell if that holds up.

Still, another union leader probably said it best to the Inquirer last year when discussing Johnny Doc’s influence on city politics: “Money alone won’t do the job. You have to have the vision and the skill. I think Johnny Doc is a pragmatic politician. . . . He has an agenda.

“The mayor has eight years at best. Johnny Doc’s years are unlimited.”

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