“These schools are separate and unequal!” he roared, to some applause.
His argument is powerful because it’s so raw, so fundamentally emotional. This issue is personal. He went to an elite Quaker school—Westtown School, in West Chester—on a scholarship afforded by his family’s connections. Before that, he’d been a mediocre student who hung out with the wrong crowd. At Westtown, the Friends drilled into him that getting by wasn’t good enough. They changed his life. In his view, it’s criminal that hundreds of thousands of kids don’t get the same chance simply because they didn’t win the socioeconomic lottery.
That fundamental emotion can come off as shooting from the hip. He’ll brush aside questions about the propriety of sending tax dollars to religious schools or the equivocal data on vouchers’ efficacy or the legislation’s myriad logistical problems with an almost guttural response: “Until you guys figure this out,” he rebutted when I dug into the nitty-gritty of his legislation, “I’ve got to find a way to educate my children.”
IF TONY WILLIAMS runs for something big again—when he runs—he wants to do it right, not last minute, not helter-skelter, like last year’s governor’s race. And he wants to win. He wants to be an executive, the guy in charge—mayor in 2015 or governor in 2014.
“I’m clearly developing a specific focus,” he told me. “I’m not going to tell you which one.”
It’s a steep climb either way. But if I were to guess, I’d say mayor. It’s a more feasible option. It’s here in Philly that he has a base and name recognition. And being mayor still gives Williams the chance to be the guy out front—to prove that his ideas will work, to forge his own legacy. Besides, he thinks he’d be good at it.
I have a theory about Nutter’s lackluster support, I told Williams one day a few months back. Philadelphia is drawn to leaders with big personalities—ass-kickers who bulldoze their way through opposition by sheer force of will, men like Frank Rizzo and Ed Rendell. Michael Nutter is many things, I said. An ass-kicker is not one of them.
Williams nodded. “You gotta get the populace to move with you. In Philadelphia, you gotta be prepared to punch them in the mouth to get them to change. That’s the art of big-city politics.”
He sat back on his white linen sofa, contemplative. And then, like someone had switched on a light, Williams leaned forward and broke into a wide smile. His eyes flashed a hint of mischievousness, as if he was bemused by his own thoughts.
The Real Tony has a question:
“Am I a big personality?”