Dougherty — quiet kingmaker in mayor’s race?

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     Labor leader John Dougherty speaks at a community meeting in South Philadelphia in Novembber. (Brad Larrison/for NewsWorks)

    Labor leader John Dougherty speaks at a community meeting in South Philadelphia in Novembber. (Brad Larrison/for NewsWorks)

    There’s a strange thing about this Philadelphia mayor’s race: One of the most influential players is hardly ever mentioned in connection with the contest.

    John Dougherty, business manager of Electricians Local 98, may be the single largest supporter of former City Councilman Jim Kenney, but the size of his contributions remain a secret, and you never see Kenney and “Johnny Doc” together.

     If this were a telenovela, we’d call it “Donde esta Johnny Doc?”

    Dougherty isn’t doing public appearances with Kenney. He declined to talk to me about his support, and when Kenney went to the union hall for an endorsement event last week, it was closed to the media.

    On reflection, this isn’t exactly mysterious. While Local 98 raises and spends more money every year (about $2 million) than any political committee in the state, its support comes with some baggage from the days when it practiced what Dougherty called “in your face politics.”

    Local 98 hecklers of Republican mayoral candidate Sam Katz were vividly depicted in the Tigre Hill documentary “The Shame of a City.”

    That was 12 years ago, of course, but the union also made news in the 2007 mayoral primary, when a city Ethics Board investigation found Local 98 hired consultants who produced anonymous attack fliers, one with a racially targeted message.

    The union paid a $10,000 fine, and has since been less confrontational in political campaigns, though some still accuse its members of bullying in labor disputes.

    I caught up with Kenney recently at a campaign stop, and he said we weren’t seeing Dougherty in Philadelphia more mostly because Dougherty’s priority this year is getting his brother Kevin elected to the state Supreme Court.

    And there’s no doubt about that. A huge Kevin Dougherty banner has been on the Local 98 headquarters on Spring Garden Street for weeks, and the union has contributed more than $300,000 to his campaign.

    Kenney’s known Dougherty since they were kids; they’ve been both allies and enemies over the years.When I spoke to him, Kenney acknowledged that the Dougherty of a few years ago might not have been the most appealing ally for a candidate determined to win over progressive, good government voters.

    “I think at the time he was somewhat of a different person in that maybe his maturity level wasn’t what it is now, and he reacted to things in ways that we wouldn’t appreciate now,” Kenney said. “But I think that’s not the same type of person that we’re dealing with.”

    Kenney praised Dougherty’s work on development projects and said a mayor can benefit from a good working relationship with the building trades. He insists nobody will own him, and he won’t “give the store” to any labor unions.

    How deep is your love?

    But how much help is Dougherty giving Kenney’s mayoral effort?

    Nobody knows, because the union’s donations are apparently being routed through a super PAC that isn’t easy to get answers from.

    I left five un-returned messages last week for Sprinkler Fitters union leader Wayne Miller, identified last year as chairman of Building a Better Pa, the super PAC that’s running ads promoting Kenney.Local 98 gave that group 65 percent of the money it raised in 2014, but neither the PAC nor Dougherty’s union will say whether Local 98 has given a little, or a lot, or even all of the more than $600,000 the committee has spent on pro-Kenney ads this year.

    So we don’t see Doc much, or his money. But if he is funding an independent expenditure effort for Kenney, they can’t legally coordinate spending. I asked Kenney if that makes it a little weird when he goes to the union hall.

    “No, because we don’t talk about that,” he said. “He doesn’t talk about it, and I certainly don’t bring it up, and I don’t know whether he is or he isn’t [funding the super PAC].”

    In case you’re wondering, I checked and there’s no prohibition on a union endorsing a candidate it’s supporting with an independent expenditure, nor is contact between the candidate  and union leaders barred. What they can’t do is coordinate spending.

    We’ll know when campaign finance reports are filed May 8 just how much Dougherty is putting into the Kenney campaign.

    Meanwhile there are critics who say it’s unsettling to think that Dougherty, who already has a lot of influence on City Council, could get his brother on the state Supreme Court and his ally in the mayor’s office.

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