“Why don’t you run?”
It was two Januaries ago, at one of their regular Friday afternoon meetings. For weeks, political operative Josh Morrow had been soliciting state Senator Anthony Hardy Williams to support his boss, Tom Knox, for governor. But now Knox had dropped out, and they both knew Williams wasn’t thrilled with the remaining Democrats, especially on education and urban issues. And without Knox, there’d be no one representing Philly on the May ballot.
“We were talking about how there was a void,” Morrow says. “From there, it just snowballed.” Until, finally, he popped the question.
On its face, it was a preposterous proposition. Williams had no money, no staff, no statewide base or name recognition outside the city, and the election was just four months away. But he mulled it over anyway. He’d never been coy about his ambitions, and after all, none of the other Democrats had caught fire. Maybe this was his chance.
So he thought about it—and then thought about why he was thinking about it. Is this your ego? he asked himself. The moment? Your dad? What is it?
Dad, of course, was Hardy Williams, the legendary former state senator who’d passed away from complications of Alzheimer’s a few weeks earlier, on January 7, 2010, at age 78. Hardy’s ghost loomed large. He’d been an icon, Penn State’s first black basketball player, Philly’s first credible black mayoral candidate, a trailblazer who paved the way for the next generation of this city’s black leaders, an outspoken champion of the forgotten and dispossessed. Two days of memorial services and thousands of words of glowing obituaries followed his death. But Tony didn’t seem to want to talk about that. “My father was the author of a phase of political empowerment,” he eulogized, “but we’ve got to stop talking about his legacy and start building one ourselves.”
The torch had been passed, and on some level, Williams felt compelled to be its bearer. His father’s death, he told me recently, “made me think of mortality, of how he lived his life.” In other words: Hardy had carved his name into this city’s foundation. It was time for Tony to step up.
Williams had never been a shrinking violet. He’s a giant of a man—broad-shouldered and thick-framed, with bulbous cheeks and a belly laugh that sends ripples of joviality cascading up and down his torso—with the bravado to match. For years, he’d been biding his time, waiting for the stars to align, trying to figure out what came next.
A trio of vouchers-and-charter-school-obsessed multimillionaires from Bala Cynwyd’s Susquehanna Investment Group pumped more than $5 million into Williams’s coffers, thanks to Pennsylvania’s anything-goes campaign-finance laws. Their unprecedented largesse—it was the first time a Pennsylvania candidate received north of $1 million from not one, but three different individuals—made Williams viable. (Williams says there’s nothing insidious about taking the cash; he’d gotten religion on school choice long before they decided to fund a black vouchers-evangelist.) Williams leveled the campaign’s first television attack ad against frontrunner Dan Onorato; Onorato returned fire.