In a New York Times op-ed from 2014, Terry Golway, author of a book on the subject, asked readers not to forget the virtues of Tammany Hall, the Irish-Democratic ward political machine that ran Manhattan for more than 150 years. Golway didn’t debate the corruption of Tammany leaders, from Boss Tweed on down, but argued they did an awful lot of good that earned them the support of voters for generations.
“Tammany Hall’s leaders delivered social services at a time when City Hall and Albany did not,” Golway wrote. “They massaged justice at a time when the poor did not have access to public defenders. And they found jobs for the unemployed when the alternative was hunger and illness.”
I’ve been thinking about these takes since news broke last week that Local 98 boss John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty had been indicted. He, his council protégé Bobby Henon and six other associates earned a 116-count federal indictment for corruption. The indictment claims that Dougherty illegally used his influence on all aspects of government, and also skimmed approximately $600,000 in union dues as a slush fund for his own personal use.
I will pause here to note that Henon and Dougherty say they are innocent.
That said, it’s hard to imagine that anyone will be able to make the case that the sort of corruption Dougherty is charged with had any positive benefit. His support of the soda tax, feds allege, was entirely due to his own petty desire to hurt The Teamsters Union, which had portrayed him poorly in a political ad. It had little to do with helping taxpayers or union members.
And much of the money he allegedly swindled from the Union was spent on everything from family dinners to paying a set of flunkies to perform menial tasks such as power washing his sidewalks and picking up relatives’ mail.
There are hints that Dougherty, who has run Local 98 since 1993, may have rationalized his actions as being in line with the interests of his union’s members. Without Dougherty’s pressure, or the infamous inflatable rat he’d have wheeled out to picket lines, would they all have well-paying union jobs? In a statement recorded by federal investigators and reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Dougherty noted his role as patron.
“I got a different world than most people ever exist in,” he said. “I am able to take care of a lot of people all the time.”
In the end, however, Dougherty will have done his union and the city no favors. His indictment will simply reinforce his union’s corrupt reputation. And the influence he wielded, including $450,000 in PAC donations to the campaign of Mayor Jim Kenney, will further erode confidence in city government, if there is any left at all.
Government and unions can do good, and they often do. But the tactics of Tammany Hall are not a means to justify the ends. They’re not much more than an illegal and selfish way to grab and abuse power.