Dougherty attack – a new era in Philadelphia politics?

    The swarming attack on Republican City Council candidate David Oh by a political committee associated with electricians’ union chief John Dougherty now includes the hard-hitting mailer pictured above (see the whole thing here), and a radio ad you can hear above.

    (UPDATE: Another attack mailer arrived at voters’ homes Friday, with what appears to be a dummied up mug shot of David Oh.)

    We won’t know until after the election how much the citywide mailings and media buy on KYW costs. Dougherty and his spokesman aren’t talking, and the PAC, Philadelphia Phuture, doesn’t have to provide details on last-week campaign spending until December 8th.

    But unless my memory fails, this is the first time anyone’s driven a truck through a loophole in the city’s campaign finance law that was apparent when it was passed in 2003.

    When City Council enacted campaign finance reform, it set limits on contributions, and ordained that candidates may have only one campaign committee, so a candidate couldn’t evade limits by having big donors max out to several committees.

    But the law didn’t prevent any non-candidate committee with money and an opinion from weighing in on a race with ads or mailings.

    And many who looked at the law kind of expected it would happen, that we’d see a power broker like Vince Fumo carpet bomb a candidate he didn’t like with ads and mailers.

    It didn’t happen in any big way in the hotly-contested 2007 mayoral primary, in which candidates raised and spent millions.

    My guess is that candidates didn’t believe the law would survive a court challenge, or just hadn’t really gotten their heads around how different fundraising would be, and thus hadn’t started thinking about how to get around its restrictions.

    But time has passed, and the Philadelphia Phuture media campaign represents a real effort by a non-candidate committee to influence a city election. And it is of course perfectly legal.

    Oh says the ads and mailer distort his statements about his military record and an incident in which he carried a licensed weapon while dealing with neighborhood crime issues. If you’re interested in the merits of the debate, check out my last post with links to relevant news stories.

    What’s Dougherty up to?

    Again, Doc isn’t talking, but the buzz among political junkies is that he wants Councilman Darrell Clarke to win the Council presidency in January over Councilwoman Marian Tasco, and Oh is perceived as a likely Tasco vote.

    The contest for Council president is seen as very close, and in a 17-member body, whether David Oh gets elected or not could make the difference. The Council presidency is a race that matters for a lot of players, including Mayor Nutter, who’s backing Tasco.

    Oh is a candidate who’s built a base among progressive Democrats, many Democrats reported getting the Philadelphia Phuture mailing this week.

    There’s no evidence that anybody who might be helped by the Oh attack, such as Republican Council candidates Al Taubenberger or Joe McColgan knew Dougherty’s attack was coming.

    But the media blitz by Philadelphia Phuture may be opening a new era in Philadelphia campaigns – one in which the campaign finance laws function more like the federal laws – which is to say hardly at all.

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