The elephant in Philly’s political room.

The elephant in Philly’s political room.

by Jay A McCalla

A lot of our metaphors involve creatures, for some reason. I’d like to be a “fly on the wall.” It’s a “dog eat dog” world. I’m “bullish” on the economy.

Metaphors and clichés are the shortcuts we embrace that allow us to “cut to the chase” and take the “bull by the horns.” One metaphor came to mind as I read yet another report of Union Boss John Dougherty’s mini-fleet of drones — “the elephant in the room.”

The phrase “elephant in the room” refers to an aberration that is apparent to all but goes uncommented upon. More than a level of willful blindness, it suggests a troubling dysfunction where something enormously inappropriate actually has to be pointed out and commented upon lest it continue to go unnoticed.

In my opinion, Johnny Doc is an “elephant” and he’s very much in our “room.” It’s not just that he’s “drone prone,” though his fleet is a unique ostentation. Doc’s personality, tactics and power have moved center stage in a way powerful Philadelphians tend to avoid. By my every observation, he’s a double-jointed octopus in a $1,000 suit. Power personified and then squared.

In Philadelphia, union activism is expected. Unions endorse candidates, phone bank, give a few bucks. It’s all pretty benign stuff. Doc, on the other hand, has taken labor politics to a dizzying altitude, where he controls more votes on City Council then President Darrell Clarke, has positioned his people in key posts in the Kenney Administration, elects Supreme Court justices (his brother Kevin) and roams the streets punching whomever he chooses.

Just two months ago, City Council was to vote on a new majority leader. That’s the No.2 post, and President Darrell Clarke wanted colleague Bill Greenlee to fill it. Doc wanted his former staffer, Councilman Bobby Henon, to get the job. Doc won.

We recently were treated to the charming story of Mayor Kenney appointing Doc’s chiropractor as chair of the Zoning Board of Adjustment. Allow me to skip past the embarrassing FACT of the appointment and focus on the possible pernicious EFFECT. Doc is now perfectly poised, using his “doc” to hassle, frustrate and deny nonunion builders who come before the board.

Doc goes out of his way to intimidate nonunion builders and we have only to look at the renovation of the Parker Hotel at 13th and Spruce streets to get the picture. Doc brought three giant inflatable rats, an automobile re–styled to look like a rat, 70 to 100 union protesters and at least one drone. He blocked traffic for as long as he wanted.

About two months ago, Doc visited a nonunion construction site in South Philly. Accompanied by a small gang of union members, Doc throws a punch or two. Self-defense, he says. The FBI is investigating to determine if the incident fits a pattern of intimidation. An indisputable measure of Doc’s raw political power is that no law enforcement entity in Pennsylvania dares to investigate this incident of public violence.

A transparent accounting of his power and privileges can never occur because much of it flows from private deals. But, we know the Kenney plan to spend $600 million on rec centers and libraries will mightily benefit Doc’s constituents: the building trades. Also, during the mayoral campaign, Kenney eagerly endorsed the longtime Doc objective of extending the Broad Street Line to the Navy Yard. It may be a good investment, but the project will be another mega-boost to the virtually all-white, all-male building trades.

It’s vexing that a man who retains the ongoing attention of the FBI should be so close to our Mayor. In fact, “close” may not be an adequate term. When attorney Ken Trujillo dropped out of the mayoral primary, Doc was without a candidate and turned to Kenney, who had no campaign positions, cash, staff or pivotal relationships. Doc provided it all. As with the mythical, woodcarving Mr. Geppetto, a “puppet” was born.

Much of Doc’s political charisma is derived from his seemingly unrestrained access to tons of cash. (In his failed bid for the State Senate, he easily collected $500,000 from his own union PAC.) Lacking personal wealth, he has secured broad, deep access to union PACs throughout the tri-state region, making him much sought after by political aspirants.

I hope I’ve made my case that Doc is the “elephant in the room” and his waistline is expanding. As it does, there’s less room for honest debate, independent politics and the fair allocation of public resources. He bears very close observation, but while we’re watching him, he’ll be watching us. Remember, the guy’s got a fleet of drones.

  • Conall O’Brien

    You are an elitist prick with no clue the man that John Dougherty is. Without him there would barely be a middle class left in the city of Philadelphia. Stay in Chestnut Hill and continue to write articles on things you know nothing about.