Those iconic images Friday are going to stick around for a while in the minds of those who work in and observe Philadelphia and Pennsylvania politics: A bevy of federal agents raiding the home and places of business of John Dougherty.
Now, because of the assertion of an anonymous source in the middle of a story in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Mayor Jim Kenney is tied to those images. Could that be a blow to the freshman mayor from South Philly after, by most accounts, a successful first seven months in office?
Kenney took office as the approachable guy from the block who rides the El and swears on Twitter to defend the Eagles. He emphasized neighborhoods and re-building the city’s most broken communities. He passed the first soda tax in a major city in the nation in order to fund programs like pre-K and community schools and parks and recreation. And he did it while having a real, working relationship with City Council — something the previous mayor can’t claim.
Those accomplishments in Kenney’s first 215 days in office further burnished his image as a progressive, compared to Bill de Blasio in glowing national media reports after the election last year. Friday’s news bring the skeletons in Kenney’s closet rattling to life: The guy entrenched in South Philly’s bloodsport politics. Past ties to Vince Fumo and his current relationship with Doc were always concerns, and they’re out in the open now.
So which way will Philadelphia see Kenney, and does the microscope on Dougherty mean anything for the mayor as he governs the city of Philadelphia going forward?
- Johnny Doc FBI raids tied to Mayor Jim Kenney, Judge Kevin Dougherty
- Johnny Doc’s death grip on politics, from Philly to the White House
- What’s up, Johnny Doc? Meet Jim Kenney’s not-so-secret weapon
The raid and its fallout
Let’s be clear: We don’t know exactly why federal agents raided at least seven locations across Philadelphia Friday, just a week after the Democratic National Convention packed up and left town. In addition to Dougherty’s home and the IBEW Local 98 headquarters, the feds also searched the office and home of City Council majority leader Bobby Henon, a member of Local 98 who’s still paid more than $70,000 a year by the union.
Some reports have suggested the feds are interested in the finances of Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, a 5,000-member union headed up by Dougherty and one of the most powerful political entities in the state.
The Inquirer reported late Friday the feds are looking into contributions made related to the 2015 campaigns of Kenney and Kevin Dougherty, John’s brother who made a successful run for state Supreme Court. Both had the help of several hundred thousand dollars spent by the union in independent expenditures.
Then, Sunday, another Inquirer bombshell: the paper also reports Doc’s union is the target of an “aggressive” grand jury probe headed up by the Office of the Attorney General which is investigating intimidation tactics used by members of the union. That was set off in February after Dougherty allegedly popped a nonunion contractor in the face. Both Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams and state Attorney General Kathleen Kane have recused themselves from the case; both have received campaign contributions from Local 98.
Raids and requests for information are meaningless without charges, though. Dougherty was investigated by the feds a decade ago for his personal finances and dealings with the IRS, and he was ultimately cleared in that investigation.
But that was Doc, and no one else. Things are different now with Kenney and Kevin Dougherty’s names in the mix. For his part, Kenney has declined to comment. At an unrelated event Friday, after being mobbed by reporters seeking comment, he maintained he knew nothing of the raids. While FBI agents rifled through papers in Henon’s City Hall office, Kenney’s City Hall Mayor’s suite two floors down was devoid of agents. His spokeswoman said no one from the administration has been contacted by federal officials about an investigation, and no place directly related to Kenney has been raided.
But is it already a stain on the first-year mayor who came in after Michael Nutter, the guy who campaigned on, among other things, rooting out corruption in City Hall? Kenney has said before that “patronage has its place,” and was criticized for saying he wanted to help Ed Neilson, a Local 98 member, and Wilson Goode Jr. get jobs with the city after they lost re-election to City Council.
Kenney also had a different message than Nutter, one that was community-focused and resonated during his campaign with coalitions across the city from young people to union members to African Americans to LGBT voters. And Kenney still has major challenges ahead to focus on. His administration is still working to actually implement the plans for pre-K and community schools, and a legal challenge against the soda tax — that interestingly enough has another union on the opposing side — could be looming.
Terry Madonna, a statewide political watcher and a pollster at Franklin and Marshall, said “we just have to wait and be careful and not be too premature in our speculation about who could be involved.” But, he added: “This is a big story. There’s no doubt about it. And who knows where it could lead?”
This isn’t the first time a mayor has been tied to a federal investigation. In 2003, Mayor John Street’s administration found a bug planted in his office, presumably by the FBI. Street in turn spun the investigation in his favor, described himself as the target of federal overreach under President George W. Bush, and managed to win a tight race for re-election. Street was never charged with a crime, and his popularity increased after the bug was found, lifting him over Republican candidate Sam Katz in that November’s election.
Katz said he doesn’t see the raids of places connected to Johnny Doc as ones that could hurt Kenney politically — “unless he becomes entangled in a way that’s hard to imagine.”
“Does it affect Jim Kenney’s ability to govern? No, I don’t think so,” Katz said. “Will it affect re-election? It’s hard to argue Jim Kenney hasn’t been a good mayor so far. He certainly seems well-positioned to handle whatever is coming down the road.”
Who is Johnny Doc?
Johnny Doc doesn’t answer questions very often. He doesn’t have press conferences. He wasn’t elected.
The 56-year-old from Pennsport is the longtime business manager of Local 98, the union he’s turned into one of the most powerful political entities in the region. Its influence stretches from City Hall to Harrisburg to the White House, and the union’s political action committee routinely pours millions of dollars a year into political campaigns.
He grew up in South Philly, went to St. Joe’s Prep and became an electrician, slowly making his way up the ladder of influence. By 1993, he became the head of the group and made changes so the union — and he, by extension — could wield significant power in the city.
At the time, there was another political boss in South Philly. His name is Vince Fumo, and he was a state senator who naturally didn’t get along with Doc. Call it a political turf war, but Fumo — who had younger proteges, including one named Jim Kenney — represented his district in Harrisburg since 1978. He was the Democratic chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee from 1984 through 2007. And he wasn’t going to be overshadowed by a politically savvy electrician.
The feud changed in 2009. Fumo was convicted on 157 counts of federal corruption charges and was sentenced to spend 55 months in prison. Dougherty ran for his state senate seat, losing to Larry Farnese, who was endorsed by Fumo. Farnese, who still holds the seat, now faces corruption charges of his own.
Today, there is no duel over political power in South Philly. With Fumo taken down by the feds, politicians in the city can either work with Johnny Doc or fear losing their spot on Council or in Harrisburg or in the mayor’s office. He successfully placed two of his own union members in City Council, one of whom is Henon.
Doc doesn’t always win. For example, his union poured millions of dollars into the campaign of western Pennsylvania attorney general candidate Stephen Zappala — in an act of political payback — only to watch him lose in the primary. It’s happened before. It’ll happen again.
Still, Dougherty has a death grip on politics by donating to both Democrats and Republicans he thinks will win and whom he can influence. That grip and the loyalty that sometimes comes with it intensifies when it comes to those close to the union. After a Council session, Dougherty reportedly stood up for Henon, who is still an employee with IBEW, saying to opponents of the soda tax, “If you fuck with my boy, I’ll fuck with you.” (Dougherty later denied using that language.)
Dougherty and the union are now one of the most feared political entities in the region. Maybe it’s because he’s buried his enemies politically, or maybe it’s because he was caught on tape earlier this year punching a nonunion contractor in the face — but he’s not exactly known for taking it easy on those he doesn’t get along with.
His power was consolidated even further last fall when he became head of all the building trades in Philadelphia. And his power was described best by another union leader in a 2014 Inquirer investigation: “The mayor has eight years at best. Johnny Doc’s years are unlimited.”
Doc, Kenney and the mayoral campaign
Jim Kenney’s ties to both Fumo and Dougherty were a big reason why journalists and observers closely tracked his campaign for mayor. It was often brought up when he sat for interviews during the campaign process. Would he be beholden to the special interests helping him get elected, specifically Dougherty who has long been one of the most influential bosses in the city?
“It’s not beholden,” Kenney told Billy Penn in October. “I have the ability to say no when it’s not in the best interest of the city or the citizens. And I also have the ability to work with those unions and when I don’t necessarily agree with their tactics, have the ability to talk to them in person and privately and try to reason.”
But during that same interview, Kenney admitted the two weren’t always political allies. In fact, he said, they were once enemies.
Both Kenney and Dougherty grew up in South Philadelphia, and they had close family ties. Their parents were friends for decades. It was Kenney’s eventual alignment with Fumo that crumbled their relationship. In 2003, it was reported by the now-defunct City Paper that on Election Day, Dougherty was circulating sample ballots, pointing to Kenney’s name as he was running for Council 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?”
That changed in 2015. Dougherty and Local 98 had donated to and endorsed Council President Darrell Clarke for a run for mayor before Clarke had even announced a run. Clarke ended up not running, leaving a space for Kenney to slide into. Dougherty was already on record saying he wasn’t excited about supporting the other candidates. So Kenney it was.
“We realized you’re alive only so long in life and the older you get the more tiring it is to have those fights,” Kenney said in October, “so just try to harness each other’s resources and intellect and move things forward.”
Pundits say that at this point in the game, it’s too early to pontificate on what the political implications could be for Kenney and for the dozens of other politicians who have accepted help from Local 98 before.
The state and federal probes does make some wonder: Could Local 98 be out of the game, at least while its figurehead and his closest allies are under a microscope? Dougherty said in January: “I’m getting out of politics a little bit.” And if that ends up being true for both Doc and the powerful, deep-pocketed union he controls, it could have serious implications not just for people like Kenney, but for the entire city Democratic party.
“If you look at the way the Comcast tower is being built,” Katz explained, “up in the middle is this huge concrete thing. It’s the elevator shaft, and everything is built around it. You can’t get to the top without the elevator shaft.
“In a lot of ways, Dougherty is the elevator shaft to the Democratic party. If you remove it, the structure completely crumbles.”