By 1998, he was eyeing a run for his party’s leadership. But Hardy had other plans. A week before the state senator had to file his petitions before reelection, he told his son that he didn’t want to do it anymore.
“Should I circulate my own petitions?” Tony asked him.
“What else do you think I’m saying?” Hardy replied.
Williams won his father’s seat unopposed.
IN PERSON, WILLIAMS is standoffish at first, almost like he’s trying to figure out what you want from him and how much of himself he should reveal. But eventually his guard comes down, and the gregarious, sarcastic, loud, unselfconsciously honest, immensely likeable personality comes to the fore. His speeches follow a similar trajectory: a matter-of-factness that becomes an emotive rising action, then gives way to a thundering crescendo in which his stout baritone reverberates off the walls; his voice takes on the cadence of a Southern black preacher’s, then backs down—a denouement of a knowing chuckle, alit eyes and a broad smile.
This is the Real Tony, if you will, stripped of his inhibitions, comfortable in his own skin, saying whatever’s on his mind.
Sometimes, these detours into grandiosity take a turn for the absurd. Take, for instance, his concession speech the night he lost the Democratic gubernatorial primary: Before a mostly black audience at Temple, Williams declared that his campaign had sparked “a new civil-rights movement.… For the first time in the state of Pennsylvania, they heard your voice. We all won here tonight. This is the first time someone has run for governor who’s talked about the importance of life—your life. In three months, we’ve done more about the agenda related to this auditorium, to rural Pennsylvania, to urban Pennsylvania, to where the poor people are, working people are, true Democrats are, than anybody in this race.”
It was an ostentatious statement for someone who’d taken 18 percent of the vote—Onorato won with 45 percent—and foundered outside his hometown. But Williams isn’t one to exude humility, especially on a public stage. This is when his mouth outpaces his brain and his populism seems a little too contrived, undercutting Tony’s cultivated image as a Big Thinker.
Other times, however, the Real Tony’s authenticity and conviction can steal the show. Speaking at an education forum for the Philadelphia Anti-Defamation League in mid-March, Tony was subdued at first, but it wasn’t long before his arms gestured wildly and his voice boomed: “I’m going to talk not as I like things to be, but as they are.” Despite increased funding during the Rendell years—for which, incidentally, he took credit: “Seventeen thousand [dollars] per child! I did that! I did that!”—there are schools still plagued by violence, where kids are warehoused rather than taught. Parents who can’t afford to move or send their kids to private schools are stuck.