Urban Democratic politics have for the past several decades often been a tug of war between black politicians and organized-labor interests. This spring’s Democratic mayoral primary in heavily black Philadelphia saw a decisive victory for one side, with James Kenney, a white union-allied candidate, taking 55.8 percent of the vote over five other contenders.
What pushed Kenney to his easy win? In part, thank the clout of big-time Philadelphia labor boss and small-time politician John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, who along with his union allies seem to have played a big role in Kenney’s victory. It wouldn’t be the only feather in Johnny Doc’s cap this year, either: His political organization also spent heavily to secure a victory for his own brother in May’s state supreme-court primary.
Kenney’s margin of victory in the mayoral primary, which essentially guarantees a general-election win, would have been difficult, if not impossible, to achieve without the support of Johnny Doc, whose power extends well beyond his own International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98. In particular, unions linked to Johnny Doc, plus his own organizations, provided big financial backing for key black politicians who endorsed Kenney — a crucial boost for a white candidate.
In February, 2015, Dougherty told the Philadelphia Inquirer that a group of union labor representatives had been meeting monthly for almost three years at the headquarters of IBEW Local 98 headquarters, the union he runs personally. They discussed union-related issues, he said, but their ultimate goal was to ally to back a candidate in 2015. “It’s a think tank that turns into a ‘do tank,’” Dougherty said. “It’s not a matter of if we’re going to be all together, it’s a matter of who we’re going to be all together behind.”
The Kenney’ campaign’s financial disclosures show that between 2013 and early 2015 he got approximately $507,700 from labor unions, union associations, and related PACs whose representatives and affiliates attended the monthly meetings with Dougherty.
IBEW Local 98 itself gave $11,500, the maximum allowed for direct campaign donations from a union, to Kenney’s campaign in 2014.
And in March of 2015, Local 98 gave $200,000 to “Building a Better Pennsylvania,” a political action committee that ran independent campaign ads for Kenney. The two groups are closely connected: Chris Rupe, Local 98’s director of legislative affairs, is listed as the treasurer for Building a Better Pennsylvania, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“John Dougherty is taking it to the next level,” says Kevin Gillen, a senior research fellow for the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation, a research group at Philadelphia’s Drexel University, noting his triumph in the Philadelphia mayoral race and the supreme-court contest.
“John Dougherty is taking it to the next level,” says Kevin Gillen, a senior research fellow for the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation.
Many unions in Philadelphia don’t provide many votes directly, since a lot of union workers are hired from outside the Philadelphia area, Gillen explains. Unions, in fact, “are not the most critical factor,” he says. But they do offer candidates manpower and financial support — big time.
Private-sector unions don’t have quite the stake in elections that public-sector organizations do, but politics are still important. Elected officials approve construction projects in the city, Gillen says, which can mean more work for union members. It also gives them connections to help directly influence regulations and other legislation that affects their work. Further, Johnny Doc’s coordination of the Local 98 meetings, including private- and public-sector unions, suggest he’s trying to exert political power over the whole labor landscape.
Philadelphia is a “union town,” Gillen says. And union clout seems to help explain how Kenney, a white candidate in a city that’s more than 40 percent black, managed such a big win. He scored crucial endorsements from minority leaders who, it just so happens, are allies of Johnny Doc and unions crucial to his campaign. Three black leaders who backed Kenney — Philadelphia councilwoman Marian Tasco; the city-council president, Darrell Clarke; and state representative Dwight Evans — together represent approximately 1.5 million Philadelphians, according to 2011 census data.
Campaign-finance disclosure reports show that from 2007 to 2015, labor unions, union PACs, and union district councils whose representatives and affiliates were allied with Dougherty and Local 98 contributed approximately $129,950 to the “Friends of Darrell Clarke” campaign fund, including donations from five separate labor unions on April 21, 2015, totaling $5,000, and a donation of $11,500 from Local 98 on May 6, 2015, a week before Clarke’s endorsement of Kenney.
Friends of Marian Tasco received approximately $95,085 between 2006 and 2014 from these Local 98–allied union groups and their affiliates. Similarly, Dwight Evans’s campaigns received approximately $453,500 between 2006 and 2011, according to the reports.
Kenney’s supporters say it wasn’t about the money. “I chose to endorse Kenney because I looked at all of the candidates and he was the most experienced as it pertained to city government,” Tasco tells National Review. “His work on City Council and the fact that he voted on 27 city budgets was a major factor. He has been and I think will continue to be highly engaged and involved in community activities.”
Many argue Philadelphia’s labor unions have been indifferent, or worse, when it comes to black interests.
Yet many argue that Philadelphia’s labor unions have been indifferent, or worse, when it comes to black interests. Unions have repeatedly ignored the underrepresentation of black workers in business trade unions despite 40 years of court orders demanding more diverse hiring practices, and they ave a long history of alleged racist behavior, to boot.
Kenney’s top Democratic opponent, state senator Anthony Williams, has long pushed for more black representation in Philadelphia’s unions, serving on a 2009 advisory commission to increase their diversity. Other top politicians have pressed the issue, too: In 2007, when the building-trades unions were 99 percent male and 74 percent white, then–mayor Michael Nutter and the city council passed resolutions requiring that 50 percent of the workers on a local $760 million project be non-whites and women, calling the lack of diversity in Philadelphia labor unions “economic apartheid.”
Philadelphia’s unions have long been accused of racism and racial discrimination, remaining whiter than the industries they represent as a whole, Greer says. “It’s been recognized for a long time, for decades and decades, that union leaders who wield monopoly power do not necessarily act in the interest of minorities,” he says.
Sometimes they’ve practiced more explicit discrimination: For example, in 1972, white members of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 542 physically attacked two black members in the union hiring-hall office, while others stood by. The attack was retaliation for filing a lawsuit against the union over a number of discriminatory practices, according to testimony from one of the victims. A Philadelphia court ordered that Local 542 increase minority representation and ensure equal work and pay across racial groups. In 1985, the court determined Local 542 had not met these standards, and it ordered further oversight of their hiring practices.
Whether or not various efforts to cajole unions into having stronger minority representation make for wise policy, they’re presumably popular with the city’s black voters, and the interests that helped lift Kenney to victory adamantly oppose them. Kenney’s all-important primary victory (he should cruise to victory in the general) certainly looks to be another victory, in a heavily black city, for a narrow slice of union political interests epitomized by wealthy, powerful figures such as Johnny Doc. James Kenney might be Philly’s next mayor, but Johnny Doc is still its boss.
— Brooke Rogers is an intern at National Review.