Electricians union Local 98, the most influential of a group of unions backing a South Philadelphia Democrat for a mostly Delaware County congressional seat, turns out to have an interesting history in that county’s politics.
Though the union is backing candidate Rich Lazer in the Democratic primary, a review of campaign finance reports shows Local 98 has contributed more than $500,000 in the past four years to Republican candidates and committees in Delaware County.
That’s a history that doesn’t sit well with Delaware County Democrats who’ve made progress in recent years in challenging Republican dominance in the county.
“I think it’s tremendously troubling,” said Christine Reuther, chair of the Nether Providence Democratic Committee.
“I am not going to support a candidate whose primary source of backing is from an organization, in this case a labor union, who has poured over $500,000 into local Republican races,” Reuther said in telephone interview.
The new 5th Congressional District was created by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court when it redrew all of the state’s congressional boundaries after finding the previous districts unconstitutionally gerrymandered.
The district is mostly Delaware County, along with much smaller areas of Philadelphia and Montgomery County.
Most of the 14 candidates who’ve emerged for the seat so far are from Delaware County, and county Democratic leaders believe the congressional representative should come from the county.
Local 98 and other building trades unions are expected to back Lazer — until a month ago a deputy mayor for labor in Philadelphia — with an independent expenditure campaign in the Democratic primary. They will be taking advantage of court decisions that permit unlimited spending in campaigns by groups that don’t coordinate with candidates they support.
Local 98 business manager John Dougherty, known widely as “Johnny Doc,” acknowledged in a telephone interview that his and other unions will likely contribute to an independent campaign to support Lazer.
“You know, I always wanted to make sure that the working community had the same tools available as, you know, the rich people out there,” he said.
Building trades unions raised and spent more than $1.6 million on an independent expenditure effort supporting Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney is his successful 2015 campaign. That money went to a super PAC called Building a Better Pa.
Local 98 contributed $450,000 toward that effort.
Local 98’s contributions to Republicans in Delaware County over the past four years include tens of thousands of dollars to Republican committees in Upper Darby, Ridley Township, Tinicum Township, and Ridley Park, as well as $35,000 to the campaign of former county Councilman Dave White; $20,000 to Paul Mullen, the Republican candidate who lost to progressive Democratic state Rep. Leanne Krueger-Braneky in 2015; and $36,500 to state Rep. Nick Miccarelli, who’s now battling sexual assault allegations.
Local 98’s political committee is by far the biggest spending PAC in Pennsylvania, and its contributions to Republicans in Delaware County are a small fraction of the $16 million it spent over the past four years.
And while the union contributes to Republicans in places other than Delaware County, it contributes far more to Democrats overall. In fact, the union contributed $16,000 to the Delaware County Democratic Committee over the past four years.
And there’s other important context here.
For years, Republicans held unquestioned dominance over Delaware County. Pat Eiding, president of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO Council, told me union leaders have to be pragmatic and make friends with those that can help them.
“One thing people have to understand — labor is not a party,” Eiding said. “And if we feel there’s a Republican that’s going to work for us, or a Democrat, that’s where we’re going to put our support. And, obviously here in Southeastern Pennsylvania, we have some very good Republicans.”
Dougherty said the union’s contributions to Republicans over the years are related to specific positions candidates took on issues critical to the union, efforts to create jobs, and — in some cases — relationships with candidates who are themselves union officials or union contractors.
In many places in Delaware County, Dougherty said he’s had to work hard to get developers to hire union labor.
“Nobody ever gives you work. But they’ll give you a meeting or two and give you access, and if someone’s good to you, you know, in return you’re good to them,” Dougherty said, adding that being “good to them” sometimes means making political contributions.
“Some of them are connected to these committees, and when they ask for money, and they ask for things to get done, it’s about jobs for us. It means nothing other than jobs,” he said.
(The union’s contributions to Miccarelli long preceded the accusations of sexual misconduct against him. Dougherty said he abhors the alleged conduct and that if the accusations are true, Miccarelli should resign. He said the union’s support of Miccarelli’s campaigns were based on his positions on issues critical to the union, and other Democrats had sought to build alliances with him.)
Dougherty also said Delaware County Democrats haven’t asked his union for financial help as Republicans have.
The battle ahead
Reuther said Delaware County Democrats are finally beginning to win local elections, and she wants someone in Congress who will work hard and help candidates raise money to build on that momentum.
“I’m really concerned that putting a de facto leader in our party who’s got those kinds of ties is going to be better for the Republicans than the Democratic candidates who are working hard to flip towns and flip state House seats and flip state Senate seats,” Reuther said.
Lazer says he thinks working people in Delaware County and Philadelphia want the same things, and he hopes to find support throughout the district.
He said he’s participating in the Delaware County Democratic Committee’s review of candidates.
Party leaders would like to arrive at an endorsement in early April.
The Democratic primary is May 15.