Let Freedom Ring

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Let Wednesday mark our city’s own Emancipation Proclamation

The FBI indictment of labor leader John Dougherty might be small potatoes to you, or you might be a bit young and/or naîve to realize it; but one of the last political shackles that has kept our city tied in bondage is about to be unchained. We are now in a nascent transformation of our city’s politics.

The wheels of Philadelphia’s political machine have slowly been coming apart. Vince Fumo. Chakka Fattah. John Street. Corey Kemp. Bob Brady. DA Seth Williams. A long list of judges that can fill up several phone screens. The entire traffic court. All left in disgrace, all gone.

Wednesday morning we will wake up and learn that the most powerful political figure in Philadelphia, a white man that literally “owns” half of City Council and our mayor will be incapacitated with a Federal indictment, along with one of Local 98’s lackeys, Councilman Bobby Henon who represents half of the Northeast.

Indictments of individual pols is one thing. Indictments of donors are a different story. In this case, the city’s largest donor.

Unlike the litany of that mountain of indictments and convictions that have wiped out local politicians over the last five years, this indictment will sting. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 has been one of the largest sources of local election campaign cash spanning over a decade. Local 98’s business manager Johnny Doc has the ear of every local pol and has made political careers and destroyed them.

Local 98’s power doesn’t simply come from access to large amounts of money from all the contracted work its members perform. If you want to move up in Local 98 you need to also “work” for the local, and that includes making yourself available to “volunteer” for the union during critical periods—namely the City’s Democratic primary process.

Incidentally we are one month into a Democratic primary right now in a cycle where we choose our City Council members, our mayor and our sheriff. Most Democrats who exist at the lowest end of the political rung–that of the ward leader and committeepeople who run the local city party electioneering efforts are directly plugged into Local 98. Both coordinate and cooperate on electioneering efforts and deliver votes from critical wards in the Northeast and South Philadelphia, where Local 98’s influence is strongest.

That’s not to say Local 98 has a perfect track record. While Doc put on a brave face during the 2016 Democratic National Convention he endorsed Hillary Clinton, while nearly all of its membership endorsed (and then voted for) Donald Trump. Doc tried to evict Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez, a critic of the building trades unions over their lackluster performance in securing work for minorities, who opposed Doc on several issues including her stance against the city’s soda tax–an effort that Doc personally lobbied for. During the last city council election cycle he had dropped over $20K trying to get rid of the councilwoman, ending in failure.

With Dougherty incapacitated while he fights off a criminal indictment the union could find itself rudderless, in a vacuum, unable to continue its political largesse. It can lose its weighty influence in local election cycles, stranding incumbents who depended on Doc’s support who must scramble to seeek out new suitors–if they can find any. The next largest source of campaign cash in Philadelphia mostly comes from individual members of the Greater Philadelphia Association of Realtors, or GPAR as it’s known. The people who own and sell buildings are just as interested in who is running this city as the buildings trade union is.

Where does that leave us

It’s way too early to predict what will become of Philadelphia without Local 98’s constant pulling and prodding of local officials, or the members who hold city jobs, but I can make some prognostications since that’s fun to do…

Philadelphia could find itself looking politically more like San Francisco, with traditional liberals who find themselves at-odds against anti-business progressives. In this case it would be members of the City’s real estate industry who become directly involved in politics rather than quietly send donation checks pitted against activists who seek to up-end the City’s priorities on spending.

We could also see Political Machine 3.0, where the current generation who kept the machine running give out early and yield to the office staffers of many of these disgraced politicians. Plenty of no-names pop-up out of the woodwork and seek to recreate the networks and patronage regimes that Philadelphians are accustomed to. If you’re looking for an example of that in progress you can look at the Boyle brothers; State Representative Kevin Boyle and his brother Congressman Brendan Boyle who have sent staffers to run for various competitive seats across the Northeast, seeking to carve out a political patronage regime of their own.

Another possibility is that the Democratic City Committee coalesces around a new figure. Ward leaders as well as many committee-people gravitate to a new larger-than-life political leader to replace Doc. A political machine would form around that individual fairly quickly and we’re back at square one—which is what happened when the Philadelphia Republican party was voted out of office in the early 1950s and replaced with a few short years of Democratic progressivism that rapidly deteriorated back into rampant corruption, graft and ineptitude.

There’s also one more possibility–however remote–that the city’s political infrastructure destabilizes to the point where it doesn’t coalesce around a single person or a small group of people for a long time. That’s hard to imagine in a one-party town, but given the super-high rate of political corruption Philadelphia has and that the FBI is still very interested in the personal business our local pols conduct, it could be difficult for any one interest group to gain all the access to power that Local 98 accumulated.

Historically it has been super-rare for Philadelphia voters to reject corruption at the ballot box. The FBI and the IRS usually take care of that dirty work for us.

With this indictment they just may have crippled the political machine that has strangled all of us, and our futures, once and for all.

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