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Discussing politics with the FOP

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series about the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5. Part 2 examines the labor union’s fundraising, its escalating political program and its development of a multimillion-dollar headquarters in the Northeast.

The nadir for Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 arrived on the night of Feb. 13, 2009.

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Hundreds of Philadelphia police, their families and their friends were attending a fundraiser for the family of slain Officer Tim Simpson at the National Guard Armory in the Far Northeast when the news crashed upon them like a tidal wave. Officer John Pawlowski had been critically wounded in yet another police shooting in Olney.

Attendees streamed from the banquet hall to be close to Pawlowski’s bedside at Albert Einstein Medical Center, where the officer perished later that night. It was an all-too-familiar routine for Lodge 5’s 14,000-plus active and retired members, 68 percent of whom live in the Greater Northeast.

Pawlowski’s murder was the department’s sixth line-of-duty slaying in less than 16 months. The torrent began on Oct. 31, 2007, when a robber gunned down Chuck Cassidy at a doughnut shop at Broad Street and 66th Avenue, just one mile from the street corner where Pawlowski would be killed. John McNesby became Lodge 5 president mere weeks before the Cassidy shooting. About a year later, on Nov. 17, 2008, he lost his former partner when a drunken driver struck Simpson’s patrol car at Allegheny and Aramingo avenues.

“I can’t remember any president in FOP history who was plagued with more hits at one time,” said former Lodge 5 boss Bob Hurst during a recent interview.

“When we started out, two weeks into it, we started losing officers at a record rate,” McNesby added. “I lost my partner and on the night of the fundraiser, we heard about John Pawlowski and the whole place drained. Then getting [to the hospital] and seeing [Pawlowski’s wife] Kim, who was five or six months pregnant, it was like, ‘Enough’s enough.’ ”

Last month, the sitting FOP leader, Hurst and another former lodge president, Rich Costello, granted an exclusive interview to the Northeast Times, when they discussed many of the high-profile union’s key, often-overlooked activities. For one, the lodge has escalated fundraising to unprecedented levels for the families of slain officers.

“I always thought that was John’s forte,” said Hurst, who was president from 1982 to ’88 and now oversees the union’s retiree trust. “He came up [in the union] with his dad [George] when we had a circus here and there. But nothing compares to the Survivors Fund once he got that rolling.”

They had to do something. The fund had been depleted completely by the expenses associated with so many deaths. The union had begun to dip into its general operating funds to pay certain funeral expenses, transportation costs, luncheons, meals and extra police protection for victims’ families.

For example, when Officer Isabel Nazario was killed and her funeral held in her ancestral home of Puerto Rico, Lodge 5 helped her squad attend the ceremony.

“When I left office, we had one fundraiser a year. It was just enough to hold a luncheon [for slain officers’ families] the following year and to send a cookie tray for the holidays,” said Costello, who was president from 1988 to ’90 and again from 1994 to 2002 and now serves as the union’s political coordinator.

“Now it’s reversed. We have a reserve,” McNesby said.

The money comes directly from the generous pockets of members, their friends and the large segment of the public who appreciates the sacrifices that officers make each day to protect the city.

But Lodge 5 also has become adept at tapping into different funding sources for other purposes. Just last week, the union won the latest and perhaps last round in a series of federal court battles with the Nutter administration over the union’s ability to collect automatic deductions from members’ paychecks to build up its political action committee fund. In recent years, the PAC has grown from virtually nothing to between $20,000 and $25,000, even without the optional auto deductions, according to McNesby.

As officers of the law, police must tread a fine line to maintain professional neutrality in political matters while advocating for their own interests like any other labor group, particularly because they are prevented by law from engaging in work stoppages.

“Police were never big placard carriers. We’re always on the other line,” Hurst said. “But they do want somebody who’s going to represent them.”

“Politics can be a touchy subject, but a lot of our battles aren’t fought just in City Hall anymore. They’re also fought in Harrisburg and Washington,” McNesby said. “[Pennsylvania’s contract arbitration law] is constantly under assault. In order to protect that, you have to have people in office who support police officers and law enforcement.”

On primary election night last May, the Lodge 5 hall on Caroline Road hosted official parties for three candidates, including congressional hopeful Brendan Boyle, state House hopeful Mike Driscoll and City Council hopeful Ed Neilson. All three won their contests.

The lodge already has endorsed Democrat Tom Wolf in his bid to unseat Gov. Tom Corbett in November. Several hundred union reps chose Wolf by a unanimous vote last month, which was a departure from the police union’s traditional support for “law-and-order” Republicans, according to Hurst.

“When I was in office, they called the FOP the GOP,” the former president said.

“But you’re not a law-and-order candidate if you’re against the officers, the ones who enforce law and order,” Costello added.

McNesby is eyeing his own possible run for public office. If Wolf wins in November, state Sen. Mike Stack will join him in Harrisburg as lieutenant governor. McNesby says he is seriously considering a run for the vacated Senate seat.

Lodge 5’s stake in politics pales in comparison to its investment in the aforementioned brick-and-mortar union facility on Caroline Road, just south of Comly Road. The lodge spent $2 million in April 2012 to buy 3.5 acres of a former Internal Revenue Service processing center. Then it spent another $7.5 million to build a 5,000-square-foot headquarters with offices, a members-only bar/restaurant, a grand catering hall and a smaller hall suitable for smaller parties, business meetings or training seminars. For decades, Lodge 5 had been downtown at 13th and Spring Garden streets.

“We had a decrepit building and a lounge that was only open a couple days a week. And our insurance was going through the roof,” McNesby said. “The fact of the matter is the building became too small and we had to make the decision.”

Some members may have criticized the steep cost or the idea that the police union could somehow run a successful catering business. But the hall has been booked fully since its February 2013 opening, while the lounge has been a popular gathering spot for officers and their guests. Income is more than paying the mortgage, while additional proceeds support other union programs, McNesby said.

“The money into our general fund and home association enables us to put on first-class presentations for our contracts. We sponsor outings for officers and sponsor sports teams to give back to the community,” he said. “If there’s a problem in one of the [city-owned] police buildings, we can send someone to fix it and then send the bill to the city.

“I think we’ve given our members a facility for their families, and it’s going to generate income for years to come.” ••

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