Anthony Williams Wants to Be Mayor

“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.

Williams was a bona fide player.

The Susquehanna money wasn’t enough, of course. Williams placed a distant third. But that’s not where his story ends. If you ask Tony, he’s just getting started.

AT 54, WILLIAMS is restive. He’s spent 22 years in the General Assembly, the last dozen in the Senate — in January, Democrats elected him minority whip, their number-two guy — but he wants more. Before the dust settled on the governor’s race last spring, he announced a bid for auditor general in 2012. Then he wasn’t so sure. He teased a run against Mayor Nutter this year, and then decided against it. He says now he’ll run either for governor in 2014 or mayor in 2015, though he hasn’t decided which.

Ask around about Williams, and you’ll hear the same adjectives. Passionate. Smart. Just like Hardy was. The pair looked alike, too — the same smiles, the same soft eyes, the same arching eyebrows, the same thin mustaches, the same light complexions. But Hardy was a political street brawler, the kind of guy who cut deals in the Capitol’s backrooms and whose sharp tongue establishment pols sought to avoid. Tony, meanwhile, fancies himself an intellectual who burrows into the nuances of legislation and proffers big ideas.

The inverse of his father, in other words.

Even those who detest his vouchers advocacy don’t question Williams’s smarts or sincerity. But there’s also a widely held view that Williams’s bombast overshadows his intellect, that he tries too hard to be noticed. Further, he doesn’t seem committed to the coalition-forging and elbow-greasing that Philly politics requires. “I don’t see him building any effort to do much of anything,” one local politico says. “The idea that he would run for governor, or run for mayor, and be any good at that stuff is kind of silly.”

If Williams wants to be an A-lister, he’ll have to do more than talk about how serious he is. Or, as that insider puts it, “He’s still got to figure out who he is and what he wants.”

TONY NEVER WANTED to follow in Hardy’s footsteps. He wanted to make money. After earning his economics degree at Franklin & Marshall, that’s just what he set out to do: first as an analyst for a Washington, D.C.-area firm and an executive for PepsiCo in New York City, then later running his own vending business. Growing up, he says, he watched his parents struggle. His mother was a schoolteacher, his father a criminal-defense attorney whose clients didn’t always pay, then a politician whose 24/7 job strained the family. (Tony’s parents separated when he was in high school and divorced several years later.) His parents had idolized Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., and exalted public service. He wanted none of it.

Even watching his dad mount a campaign for mayor in 1971 — rallying the black wards with chants of “Power to the People!” and finishing third behind Frank Rizzo and Bill Green — didn’t spark an interest in politics.

“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.

WILLIAMS’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.

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.

“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?”

The Fox Guarding the Henhouse

As if the budget wasn’t bad enough—slicing $2 billion out of basic and higher education funding, which is precisely the last thing this state needs to do to shake its reliance on the blue-collar jobs that aren’t coming back, while declining to impose the same tax on his natural-gas-drilling patrons that every other state imposes—check this out: Per ProPublica, Corbett wants to hand over control of environmental permitting to none other than C. Alan Walker, a big-time Corbett benefactor ($184k in donations) who owns Bradford Energy and Bradford Coal, and who also holds interests in a central Pennsylvania oil and gas company and a trucking company. Read more »

I Fought The Water Department And …

Problem 1: Getting the water department to open my account.

This would, you’d assume (at least I did, because I’m hopelessly naive), be a simple matter. I would show up at the PWD’s office, write them a check, set up some sort of automatic withdrawal from my checking account (I am, admittedly, horrible at remembering to pay bills on time), and we’d be all set. Easy enough, right?

Hahaha. Right. Read more »

Tom Corbett’s Moral Decision

Governing, at its core, is about making moral decisions.

It’s easy to lose sight of that, in all the talk of budget deficits and spending cuts and entitlements and unemployment and all the rest. When the House Republicans cut $1.5 billion in global AIDS programs that might save hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives, while insisting that millionaires can’t afford to pay the same marginal tax rates they paid in the 1990s, that’s a moral decision. When the Nutter administration defers $235 million in payments to the city’s woefully underfunded pension program over two years, thus nudging us ever closer to fiscal crisis, that too is a moral decision. And when the Corbett administration, along with the Republican legislature, eliminates Pennsylvania’s adultBasic health care program for low-income adults, thus leaving as many as 41,000 people without access to affordable coverage, while at the same time insisting that the megabillion-dollar energy companies who are mining the Marcellus Shale and even state forests for natural gas should not be asked to pay a tax on those extractions—those same companies that funneled millions of dollars into the campaign coffers of the governor and his pro-drilling allies last year—just like they do in every other natural gas state, even as hydraulic fracturing, the process by which gas is extracted from the ground, is shown to present a larger environmental risk than originally thought, this is a moral decision as well. Read more »

Why It’s Time to Shake Up How Philadelphia Elects Its Leaders

By rights, Michael Nutter should be on the ropes.


In 2007, after all, he won just 37 percent of the Democratic primary — not a majority, not even close, but enough to secure his mayoralty — and since then, he’s hardly been what you’d call effective: The city revolted at many of his budget-cutting ideas; City Council laughed off his soda-tax proposal; and he couldn’t even force a vote on that lowest hanging of populist fruit, the city’s DROP program.

But he’s not in any real danger; indeed, his reelection is almost a foregone conclusion. That’s less a testament to his political skill than an indictment of a system in desperate need of fundamental reform — change that would not only make our elections more competitive and intellectually rigorous, but also kneecap our self-serving (Democratic) and comically incompetent (Republican) political parties, and maybe eradicate the last vestiges of patronage in the process.

Let’s make this a nonpartisan city.

It’s a simple proposal: The May primaries for mayor, council and other city positions would be free-for-alls, all comers welcome, after which each race’s top two finishers — if no one secures an outright majority — would move on to the November election. Had this been the case in 2007, Nutter would have faced Tom Knox in the general election, instead of whatever sacrificial lamb the Republicans had offered up. This year, Knox is set to run as an independent, which means we might get an actual battle of ideas in November, rather than a noisy primary followed by a coronation. But shouldn’t we be able to count on such an election every year?

It works elsewhere: Seventy-seven percent of this country’s municipalities, including seven of the 10 biggest — Los Angeles, Houston and Phoenix among them — have nonpartisan elections. And with good reason: Local governments need innovation and dynamism, not leaders beholden to party kingmakers. Besides, when just 13 percent of registered voters are Republicans, party labels don’t help voters make decisions — the question isn’t whether a Democrat will win, but which one will. All our current regime does is reduce the Republican hacks to protecting their patronage jobs at the parking authority, while bestowing inordinate power upon Democratic hacks to muscle out anyone who poses a threat to the status quo (while securing their own patronage gigs, of course).

Meanwhile, no Philadelphia mayor has lost a second-term bid since 1952, and our current council members have served an average of nearly 16 years — that’s four full terms — the longest of any legislative body in a major city. This isn’t a democracy of which Ben Franklin would be proud.

Sadly, this discussion is probably academic. Amending the city charter — which turns 60 this spring — is a Sisyphean task: Two-thirds of City Council (or a majority, if someone rounded up about 43,000 signatures first) has to agree to put it to a citywide referendum, and since they all benefit from the present state of affairs, that doesn’t seem likely.

But given the city’s seemingly intractable problems and the inability of our leaders to solve them, perhaps it’s time we think about trying something new.

Known Unknowns (And the Lying Liars Who Lied Us Into War)

Seeing as how former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld will be at the Constitution Center tonight hocking his memoir, Known and Unknown, I figured it’s as good a time as any to direct your attention to this September 2002 memo from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Rumsfeld, declassified last month, on Iraq’s WMD program (h/t The Monkey Cage). You know, thing that ran the absolutely certain risk of utter calamity and maybe nuclear war if we didn’t invade a sovereign country and start a war that would last seven years, cost thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of lives and trillions of dollars? Let’s give it a quick read, from page 1: Read more »

Just Die Already

A couple weeks back, I told you about New Jersey Republican Chris Smith’s plan to redefine rape in service of his anti-abortion agenda. The idea, you’ll recall, was to only allow the victims of certain “forcible” rapes—statutory and date rapes don’t count, ladies—access to abortion (which is, I should note, an entirely legal medical procedure) under Medicaid. That plan died a quick death, thankfully.

But! This being the U.S. House of Representatives, which is now dominated by anti-choice (male, of course) Republicans, you’ll no doubt be shocked to learn that the right wing is taking another bite at the anti-choice apple, this time via a proposal from Chester County Congressman Joe Pitts—a first-class theocrat who chairs the Values Action Team, a subset of the far-right Republican Study Group that takes its marching orders from homophobe/dog abuser James Dobson—that would allow hospitals that receive federal funds to refuse to perform abortions in any and all circumstances, even when the mother’s life is in danger.

A bit of backstory: currently, all hospitals in America that receive Medicare or Medicaid funding are bound by a 1986 law known as EMTALA to provide emergency care to all comers, regardless of their ability to pay or other factors. Hospitals do not have to provide free care to everyone that arrives at their doorstep under EMTALA—but they do have to stabilize them and provide them with emergency care without factoring in their ability to pay for it or not. If a hospital can’t provide the care a patient needs, it is required to transfer that patient to a hospital that can, and the receiving hospital is required to accept that patient.

In the case of an anti-abortion hospital with a patient requiring an emergency abortion, ETMALA would require that hospital to perform it or transfer the patient to someone who can. … Pitts’ new bill would free hospitals from any abortion requirement under EMTALA, meaning that medical providers who aren’t willing to terminate pregnancies wouldn’t have to—nor would they have to facilitate a transfer.

The hospital could literally do nothing at all, pro-choice critics of Pitts’ bill say.

Pitts, of course, doesn’t see what the big damn deal is.“NARAL and other abortion rights groups have vigorously opposed any conscience protection legislation, it is no surprise that they would attack the Protect Life Act with the same old talking points,” a Pitts spokesperson told Talking Points Memo.

He’s pro-life, you see. For fetuses. Less so for endangered pregnant women who want access to a perfectly legal, lifesaving medical procedure.

A Nation of (Fundamentalist) Idiots

For all 13 years of my elementary and secondary education, I attended a religious school. And not just a religious school, but an ardent, protestant, southern, fundamentalist-aligned religious school, wherein not just drinking and drugging could get you suspended or expelled (although, of course, everyone did that anyway), but also dancing, listening to secular music and (for girls) having your skirt fall more than two inches above the knee. Read more »

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