After a few rocky years, IBEW Local 98 has more campaign cash than ever

Convictions of union chief John Dougherty and Councilmember Bobby Henon haven't impeded fundraising power. Local 98 has $13.3 million on hand.

File photo: IBEW Local 98 headquarters at 17th and Spring Garden streets. (Erin Reynolds/WHYY)

File photo: IBEW Local 98 headquarters at 17th and Spring Garden streets. (Erin Reynolds/WHYY)

It’s been a tumultuous few years for IBEW Local 98, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the union’s campaign finance reports.

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 has long been one of the biggest fundraisers in Pennsylvania politics. But since 2016, money from the union has been — at least in some parts of the political ecosystem — subject to extra scrutiny thanks to a federal investigation into the union’s business manager, John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty.

That investigation into Dougherty’s political work and relationships culminated in November with his conviction, along with close City Council ally Bobby Henon, on charges of conspiracy and fraud, among other offenses.

Both men are appealing the convictions, but in the meantime they’ve stepped down from their respective positions. The shift has sent shock waves through Pennsylvania Democratic politics. But what it hasn’t done is impede Local 98’s fundraising power.

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“Their fundraising ability has not slowed down or diminished in any way,” said Mustafa Rashed, a Philadelphia political consultant. “Local 98 still has as much, if not more, revenue to give to elected officials than they had in prior years.”

By this time in 2016, IBEW Local 98 had reported a little more than $606,000 in its political action committee bank account. By early 2018, there was $5.5 million. There was $9.4 million around this time in 2020, and this year, in the wake of Dougherty’s high-profile conviction, there’s more money than ever: $13.3 million on hand.

It’s one of the best funded, biggest spending PACs in Pennsylvania. And in contrast with lots of major PACs, its money comes from individual union members’ paychecks. For instance, among the other biggest spenders in the commonwealth is a PAC called Students First, which doles out donations primarily to two other conservative PACs. Students First is entirely funded by one person: Wall Street billionaire Jeff Yass.

Rashed thinks the fact that Local 98 gets its money from small, individual donations is a political boon — and one that has largely insulated its donations from the Dougherty trial.

“Elected officials recognize that the money given by Local 98 is from its rank-and-file members, and those are rank-and-file members that they believe in, and rank-and-file members who support them,” Rashed said. “So they see no issue, no shadow, no darkness at all with taking money from Local 98.”

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One of the possible reasons why there’s so much cash stockpiled is that Local 98, for now, doesn’t have many places to put it.

Frank Keel, the communications director for the union, said it isn’t making an endorsement in the tight Democratic U.S. Senate primary.

“We’ll be active in the general election and will support those candidates who support the priorities of the labor movement,” Keel said.

In the gubernatorial race, the question of which candidate to fund is, seemingly, less complicated: Attorney General Josh Shapiro is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination.

But Shapiro has also taken a harder line on Local 98 than most people in Pennsylvania politics.

Since 2016, Shapiro has declined donations from the union. Ahead of his first attorney general election, his campaign declined to cash a $10,000 check Local 98 sent him and explained, in a letter, that “the Office of the Attorney General may be currently conducting a grand jury investigation that involves IBEW 98. While Josh is unabashed in his support for labor, the possibility of an investigation we are not privy to and the fact that accepting this donation could create the appearance of a conflict of interest — or an actual conflict of interest” — made it “not possible” to cash the check.

Will Simons, a spokesman for his gubernatorial campaign, said Shapiro “has not accepted any contributions from John Dougherty or Local 98 since the federal investigation was made public.”

That’s a notable difference from, for instance, this time in 2018, when Local 98 had already given $255,000 to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf ahead of his reelection campaign. Around this time in 2020, Local 98 had given $50,000 to former Treasurer Joe Torsella for his reelection bid, one of the biggest state-level races happening that year. It had also given another $150,000 to Wolf’s campaign PAC — which he, like many politicians, uses for his own giving.

Rashed expects Local 98’s giving to pick up to normal levels in the coming months. He noted that this is an especially chaotic election year. Along with crowded primaries, the commonwealth still doesn’t have a final congressional map, and newly drawn House and Senate maps are getting appealed in court.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty right now,” he said. “I think people are waiting to give when they have the most impact, which is the sound strategy.”

Disclosure: The Electricians Union Local 98 represents engineers, camera personnel, editors, audio and maintenance techs at WHYY.

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