“I wasn’t, frankly, that responsible,” he said recently over lunch in his generously adorned living room, in the same two-story rowhome on Cobbs Creek Parkway where he grew up. (He bought it after his parents split.) “I was more self-focused, more selfish.”
Then MOVE happened. That he was in town—just a few blocks away—was an unlikely coincidence. Pepsi had just transferred him from New York City to Philadelphia to manage a plant. He was in a West Philly hotel room that day in 1985 when the police dropped four pounds of plastic explosives on the black revolutionary group.
Williams started paying attention—to the drugs, the gangs and the poverty that were ravaging the streets he’d roamed as a boy. He began organizing the community under the banner Neighbors United Against Drugs, an activist group that protested outside drug dealers’ homes.
In 1986, he says, his father asked him to run for state representative. Tony passed; the gig didn’t pay well enough. But the problems persisted. Children were being shot in the streets. Gangs were taking over. And so, in 1988, when his father broached the subject again, he agreed: Maybe in Harrisburg, he could do something about it.
WILLIAM’S 10 YEARS in the House were largely unremarkable. He was a backbencher from a safe district in West Philly, eclipsed by his senator-father’s prestige and the clout of his colleagues from Philadelphia—Dwight Evans, Chaka Fattah, John Perzel, Vince Fumo. He did, however, stand out in one respect.
In May 1992, an 11-page, single-spaced letter appeared in the mailboxes of all 203 state representatives. Written by Williams’s then-wife, Cathy, for their pending divorce case, it recounted, in lurid detail, the couple’s marital problems and Tony’s infidelity. Cathy wrote that she’d caught him in the sack with his mistress of two years, that his mistress harassed her, and that Cathy was treated for possible venereal disease and had an abortion.
While not everything in that letter was true, Williams told me, enough of it was. He was screwing around. But the marriage, he says, was over before that. Cathy had no affinity for politics. She’d wanted Tony to stay in business.
Still, the letter was mortifying. It was his wake-up call, he says. If he wanted to be seen as more than a playboy riding on his daddy’s coattails, he’d have to grow up. He had to focus—a realization that came at age 35.
“Maturing as a man makes me a better politician—more confident in the positions I take, not just steeped in me being noticed,” he says, though the telling part of that is “being noticed,” something Tony lets slip again and again.
But he paid his dues. In 1995, he married his current wife, Shari, who came with her two daughters, who are now grown. In Harrisburg, he bore into the nuts and bolts of legislation. He took on Evans, a consummate insider, as something of a mentor, to learn how to finagle his proposals through. He partnered with Perzel on SEPTA funding and became a forthright proponent of gun regulation. With other Philly legislators, he formed the Gang of Five, which held hearings that forced the resignation of Police Commissioner Richard Neal, whom the Gang criticized for failing to bring down the city’s violent-crime rates. Most important for his future endeavors, he co-sponsored the Ridge administration’s vouchers proposal—despite, he says, the heated objections of his father, who didn’t want to piss off his teachers-union supporters.