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Election 2011: The Curious Case of Karen Brown

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By Tom Ferrick Jr.

There was a point during my interview with Karen Brown, the Republican candidate for mayor, when the conversation turned from the mundane to the strange so quickly I had to stop -- to make sure I heard what I thought I just heard.

"Wait a minute," I asked her, as she munched on a sandwich and fries at Darling's Diner. "Are you telling me your car has been vandalized eight times?

She nodded.

"Eight times," she replied, looking over at her driver and campaign aide Rich Modglin for confirmation.  He nodded, too.

According to Brown, since before the primary her Cadillac CTS has been keyed, had acid poured on it, had a side mirror sheared off, had its tires slashed not once, but three times.

Brown said she filed reports about each incident with the police, She sent Modglin out to her car to fetch a copy of the most recent report. It indicated her right front tire had been slashed the previous Monday, five days before our interview at the diner in Northern Liberties. 

Tell him about the bug, Modglin said.

And Brown told that story: about being run off the road before the primary, with her car ending up being stuck on a median strip.  In the repair shop, when they put the car up on jacks, they found a GPS transmitter.

"It was a quarter-sized bug," Modglin explained, holding his finger and thumb in a circle.  "It was a tracking device."

I took them at their word.  Both Brown and Modglin didn't show signs of being even slightly whacky. She had police district incident reports on the incidents. Two thoughts ran through my brain.

The first, which I kept to myself, was: Why bother?

Brown Canvassing use this.jpgWhy bother to harass Brown for running for mayor? She has no money; no name ID, no real political support, no chance of beating Michael Nutter.  She is probably the weakest Republican candidate to top the  ticket in 50 years -- though that is less a reflection on her than on the sad wreckage that is the local Republican party.

My second thought I did say out loud:

"When you told me what they did to you, I thought of Johnny Doc."

Brown smiled. "Yea, well..., she said.

As if on cue, Modglin said: "Everybody does."

For those who are not familiar, John Dougherty is the head of the local electrician's union, Democratic leader of South Philly's First Ward and a power in city politics, based mostly on the millions his union (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98) contributes to political candidates.

He has also known to be a practitioner of thug politics, petty intimidation of opponents, mostly through antics along the lines that Brown described.

These pranks are done anonymously, under cover of night, so it's impossible to prove.  Doc always denies it (neither he nor Frank Keel, his PR man, returned calls for comment for this article). None of Doc's minions have ever been arrested or charged with this politically-inspired vandalism.

Still, it is part of political lore, part of the union in-your-fucking-face brand of politics. It's also part of the Dougherty persona --often a charmer in person, but not to be crossed because he also has this semi-crazed- hot-Irish-mean side.

Brown said she goes way back with Dougherty.

"Johnny and I have a long history," Brown said. "My aunt babysat him, Kevin and Maureen. His brother-in-law basically taught my kids sports.  My mother and his father like each other.  I taught his daughters [Brown taught Catholic school].  My son [an electrician] works for him. We got along until I became the anti-Christ for running for office..."

This may be the place to mention that before she decided to run for the Republican nomination for mayor, Brown, 52, was a life-long Democrat. She was a committee woman in the First Ward for years and served on the ward's executive committee under Dougherty and his predecessors.

What made her switch to run as a Republican for mayor?

In a way, she was acting out a revenge fantasy against Marge Tartaglione, who is chair of the city commissioners, the body that oversees election operations.

Brown was a patronage employee in the Elections Bureau, fired while she was on medical leave for a work-related injury because -- Brown avers -- she blew the whistle on inappropriate political activity in the office by Marge's daughter and chief aide, Renee.

If this sounds confusing, it is because it is. Suffice it to say that Renee later did retire after the Board of Ethics cited her for engaging in inappropriate political activity while working as a (supposedly) non-partisan election official.  As to Marge, she was defeated in the May primary and will depart in January, after four decades on the job. 

Brown told me she was not recruited by the Republican leadership but once she filed she was encouraged to run by Michael Meehan, who carries the title of counsel to the local Republican party, but is, in reality, its leader. (Meehan's father, Billy, and his grandfather, Austin, also served as party bosses.)

Some background: Republicans in town are engaged in an internecine struggle. State party chairman Rob Gleason and GOP bigwig Bob Asher are trying to oust Meehan and what are called the Old Guard because, they argue, they are ineffective -- an assertion that appears demonstrably true. 

Al Schmidt, the Republican candidate for city commissioner, is a leader of this state-backed insurgent wing of the party.  John Featherman, who also ran for the Republican nomination for mayor, is also a member. This wing is known as the Loyal Opposition.

Brown said that Meehan encouraged her candidacy as a gambit to defeat Featherman (she succeeded, though only by a margin of 65 votes).

In retrospect, Brown said, she was being used by the Old Guard, who never intended her to be more than a placeholder  -- "a shadow candidate," is how she put it -- who they would get to step down after the primary in favor of a more formidable candidate.

If they thought it would be easy to get Brown to yield, they picked the wrong person.  Brown felt she had earned her candidacy, wanted to run, and refused to step aside.

"They offered me a job," she said, referring to conversations she had with Old Guard leaders post-primary. "They didn't even say where -- just that it would be a job in five figures and it would make me comfortable.  I said: 'If I needed a job I could get one teaching.  Do I really need for you to get me a job?' "Karen Brown meets and greets.jpg

Brown is a straight talker (South Philly division). She felt she had won the nomination fair and square. She was angered when they tried to push her aside. She refused. Actually, she said, she told them she would step aside for $25 million -- $20 million for herself and $5 million for her staff.

"I knew they didn't have it," she said. "I know it was an impossible figure. I was making a mockery of them." (I was unable to reach Meehan for this article.)
So what's this got to do with John Dougherty?  Brown's belief is that she incurred his wrath because Dougherty wanted to Republicans to fill the vacancy at their top spot with Councilman Bill Green, an ally whom Doc supports.

I had my doubts about that theory. I knew that Green thought about running in the Democratic primary and rejected the idea, and I never heard his name mentioned as a possible fill-in mayoral candidate for the Republicans. (I did hear other names, including Dennis O'Brien and  Joseph McGolgan, both Republican candidates for City Council.)

 I called Green and asked him. His response: He did think of running in the primary "for about a minute."  He decided not to. He said he was not approached directly or indirectly by the Republicans to fill the top spot on their ticket. "It did not happen," he said.

So, while it is clear than the Republican leaders wanted to ditch Brown, it is not clear who they wanted to ditch her for.  Green's denial lessens the possibility that it was Dougherty or his minions who did the deeds of vandalism, unless -- as someone I talked to put it -- it was the result of some unrelated "First Ward bullshit." 

Another person speculated that Brown did these acts of vandalism herself as an attempt to get attention for her campaign -- a political version of the Munchausen Syndrome.  I don't find that credible either.

Brown responded to my questions, but didn't try to make the incidents a central part of our discussion. Besides, the mainstream media has been resolute in ignoring Brown, other than the mandatory pre-election profile or TV interview.  Mere vandalism wouldn't do it.  She'd have to set fire to herself to get any coverage.

She did have one face-to-face debate with Mayor Nutter on Fox. If you missed it, you can be forgiven,  It aired on the night of Yom Kippur at the same time the Phillies were playing the Cardinals in the final game of the division playoffs.  After Brown complained, Fox29 re-aired the debate -- at 1 p.m. on a Saturday.

Overall, running for mayor has turned out to be a miserable experience for Brown -- not to mention her Cadillac. She began being disgusted with the Democrats and is ending up being disgusted with the Republicans.

The rap against Billy Meehan when he was party leader was that he never really wanted to win. He just wanted to maintain his slice of the pie of patronage, regular and pin-striped. Now, Brown said, the Republican share has diminished even more.

She laughed over the notion of the fight between the Old Guard and the Loyal Opposition. "It's funny," she said. "They are fighting over something that doesn't exist. They are fighting over crumbs.  If you win, what do you get? You get more crumbs."

 

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