Pa. Sen. candidate Nikil Saval

The pandemic has put Philly politics to sleep this year. But the city’s powerful electricians’ union is not sitting this one out.

On Friday, the Local 98 International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ union cut a $25,000 check for Nikil Saval, the Bernie Sanders-endorsed community organizer running against state Sen. Larry Farnese. The district in question encompasses a vast swath of the city from north to south, and has historically wielded punching power in Harrisburg.

Reached by phone Friday night, Saval, a writer and community organizer, said he sat down with union leaders in early March to seek their endorsement, but did not get word of their backing until this week.

“I come from the labor movement,” Saval said, staying on message. “That’s my background. We’re running to support workers.”

The contribution is no drop in the bucket.

Campaign finance reports show Saval has brought in over $300,000 in contributions to date. His campaign says it has nearly 4,000 individual contributors, with the average giving $58.

Local 98’s endorsements these days do not come without a caveat. Longtime leader John J. “Johnny Doc” Dougherty Jr. and other officials remain under federal indictment, with a trial looming in 2020. Of note: Dougherty ran for this very senate seat back in 2008 — and lost to Farnese.

Attempts to reach the union’s political arm were unsuccessful on Friday night. Dougherty has claimed he hasn’t been involved with endorsements since his legal issues began.

Prosecutors in the U.S. Eastern District of Pennsylvania leveled corruption charges against Dougherty and his colleagues in early 2019, alleging a laundry list of offenses from bribery to bilking union dues for personal gain.

Federal charges have not weakened the union’s ever-active hand in city politics. A year ago around this time, the organization handed hefty checks to a trio of Democratic City Council-at-large candidates, all of whom swung to victory.

The difference here is that Saval is running against a 12-year incumbent who was considered a favorite of the city’s Democratic party — and numerous labor unions. Farnese, a Center City attorney, also has considerable largesse: He came into the race this year with nearly $500,000 on hand.

Saval has racked up endorsements from other city unions in recent days, including the 1199C healthcare workers and local Laborers’ District Council unions. His campaign also won the blessing of the U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders last week, which delivered a sudden windfall to the campaign, the Inquirer reported Friday.

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...