Dougherty a force in the Philly DA’s race?

     Labor leader John Dougherty may be quiet but powerful backer of Jack O'Neill for Philadelphia district attorney. (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

    Labor leader John Dougherty may be quiet but powerful backer of Jack O'Neill for Philadelphia district attorney. (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

    Is political powerhouse electricians’ union leader John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty quietly helping candidate Jack O’Neill in the Philadelphia district attorney’s race? You could make a case.

    For more than 20 years, Dougherty and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 have been powerful forces in local and state elections.

    Media consultant Daniel F. McElhatton said aspiring politicians have known for years, it’s hard to find a better friend than Local 98.

    “When you have the support of 98, you have an army behind you, and John has been exceptional at mobilizing folks,” McElhatton said. “In addition, he’s great at making sure that he supports his candidates financially.”

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    In 2015, the union put $450,000 into a super PAC called Build a Better Pa Fund, which spent more than $1.6 million for successful mayoral candidate Jim Kenney.

    The union’s coffers are still well-stocked, but it’s been more low profile lately. One reason may be the fact that FBI agents raided Dougherty’s home and the union hall last summer as part of an investigation that has so far yielded no charges.

    McElhatton said, in any case, candidates in the DA’s race seem to have a different attitude toward Dougherty’s support.

    “At this stage, I think a candidate probably doesn’t want it publicly, but will certainly accept it privately,” he said.

    But is Dougherty playing a role behind the scenes?

    Last week, eight construction unions backed O’Neill, an unknown until he entered the race in February.

    Union leaders told me they were impressed with O’Neill’s ideas and experience, but several sources said they think Dougherty’s influence had a lot to do with the union’s interest in O’Neill.

    And now, that super PAC from the mayor’s race — Building a Better Pa — is back, spending $123,000 so far on broadcast ads to help O’Neill.

    I asked Pat Gillespie, the super PAC’s new chairman, if Dougherty were pushing the committee to support O’Neill.

    “No, he’s not, not that I’m aware of,” Gillespie said. “I know everyone likes to try to find who’s the most influential, and where does the influence come from.”

    But, Gillespie said, decisions are made by “those participating” in the PAC.

    He declined to say just who that is for now.

    The committee’s treasurer is Tara Chupka, Dougherty’s daughter and a staff attorney at Local 98.

    Dougherty was unavailable to talk to me, and there’s a good reason for that.

    He’s occupied with what spokesman Frank Keel called a “very serious and ongoing family medical crisis.”

    Friends say he’s spent weeks with his wife, Cecelia, at the hospital and a rehab center, though he has been making calls and involved in decisions concerning the union and the Building Trades Council, which he heads.

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