Meet Mayoral Front-Runner Anthony Williams

The longtime state senator says "I have never been bought, never been rented" and promises policy proposals soon.

State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams.

State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams.

In the Philadelphia mayor’s race, everything’s coming up Anthony Williams.

When past city solicitor Ken Trujillo dropped out of the race, it was good news for Williams. When former City Councilman Jim Kenney got in, it was good news for Williams. When Council President Darrell Clarke decided not to enter it at all, it was good news for Williams.

Williams, a state senator for the past 16 years, has the backing of U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, the boss of the city’s Democratic Party. He’s the only viable black mayoral candidate in a city that tends to vote along racial lines. He had the most cash on hand of anyone in the race at the end of 2014. He’s been christened the front-runner by countless political insiders and journalists.

The man clearly has a good shot at winning. But who is Williams and what does he stand for? His campaign has been relatively quiet, and his positions on issues not involving education are something of mystery.

Citified sat down with Williams on a recent morning at the Corner Bakery Café in Center City for a 35-minute interview. We asked him about everything from his deep-pocketed supporters to charter schools to stop-and-frisk. This is the first part of the Q&A; the second half will run Monday. Our questions have been paraphrased and Williams’s responses have been edited lightly for clarity.

Citified: You’re the consensus front-runner in the race and the top fundraiser. Other than the fact that you can win, why do you want to be mayor?

Williams: Let’s disparage the thought of any front-runners, because I’ve been around this long enough to know [there are] mayor’s races where people are positioned well and they lose. So as far as the campaign is concerned, I wake up every day assuming that I’m competing against a standard that I’ve established for me and I run to that standard, which will hopefully help me win the campaign.

As far as running is concerned and why I want to run, it comes from being around this a long time as a child. I chose this, despite what people think. There’s three of us in the family and I’m the only child who’s involved. I had a good, solid career before this in the private sector and then in a certain point in my life, certain things changed in my community and I got involved. My dad [late state Sen. Hardy Williams] obviously helped a lot. I had advantages because of that. I don’t deny that. But at this moment, I’ve had a lot of experiences in public service from a legislative standpoint. I’m the Democratic whip. But I want to be a chief executive.

I want to have the opportunity to use what I entered politics for — and that’s a legacy from my family — to help those who need help and put those who may be least served at the forefront of the conversation. … I really believe that, I’m not saying it to be hokey. It’s just what I believe: that we’re going to do much better as a city once we get past these limitations of ethnicity, race, gender, religion, faith, income. … We all sort of have some things in common: Philadelphia, the passion for the city, that we love to be here. And if we fix things …  schools, create jobs that actually grow, make the city safe …  all of us working together, one city working together, makes it a much more productive place, but much more importantly, a destination that everybody wants to be involved in.

Citified: What made you want to go from being a legislator to a chief executive?

Williams: … I want to actually provide a perspective that’s unconventional on a variety of issues that have been around for a long time, and show people change. Now that may be uncomfortable. It may be even unpopular, but if it’s based on … best practices … that actually lead us to a destination … either growth in the economy, better schools, safer communities … then I’m willing to take that risk. And frankly, my best friends who have been in some of this stuff don’t want to do it. So I think from a democratic perspective, we have to strike a different chord. We have to get into the center of the ring, even with sometimes our friends … in order to go forward. We have to make these changes. … And you can only do that as a chief executive.

Citified: So if you’re running for mayor because you want to bring change to the city, what is that change? What transformational thing are you going to do?

Williams: The first thing is how we do business, and that is from a standpoint of rather than winning and then figuring out how to remain popular and get re-elected, move past that.

The second part is rather than divide on issues or people, there has to be commonality and common ground that we achieve. Compromise is not a bad word and politics is not a bad word, so relationships are very important to get there. But schools are a very significant part of that compromise. I mean there’s this notion that … you’re either for public schools or you’re against public schools … that’s not true, not only for me but for others.

… On the issue of public safety, the backdrop is Ferguson. But unfortunately, we’ve had our own incidents, most recently I guess revealed in the public a few days ago. So there’s this view that you’re either for cops or against cops or for the community or against the community. That’s not true. Everybody who lives in my neighborhood — and I live in one of those neighborhoods — needs a police officer. They respect them and then we respect them, and there’s things we can do to provide that.

And the economy, there’s this view that you cannot be supportive of organized labor and be for business. I’m a former business guy who has a 100 percent AFL-CIO rating in the last couple years, who gets business and knows that we have to change the tax policy. The main part is how we do the city’s business, the public’s business.

Citified: I want to talk about schools and business and tax policy. But first I want to ask a couple questions about your campaign.

When you ran for governor in 2010, you received the biggest PAC donation at the time in any Pennsylvania gubernatorial race from a group of investors from Bala Cynwyd who supported vouchers. Now those same people have contributed $250,000 to another PAC, and they are planning on supporting you in the mayor’s race, apparently through independent expenditures. What would you say to voters who are concerned that you’re not your own man, that you’ve been bought?

Williams: I’m glad you asked me that specific question. … They’re friends of mine, but I really don’t know … there’s a lot of conversations about [independent expenditures], pro and con, and I really … on purpose … don’t know what they’re doing or [what] anybody else affiliated with them are doing. Partly to protect me and partly to protect them, and I think they are following the same script. There’s never been any wink or nod or anything like that.

… I read an article the other day and it told me more … than I actually know, relative to one of the groups supporting me. But as far as the whole notion of me being bought, I mean I do smile, I am smiling now for a reason, because … I met them just before the governor’s race. There was a whole body of legislation [in my record on school] choice well before they ever entered. The charter school legislation was voted on before I met them. The issues of vouchers were discussed under [former Gov.] Tom Ridge, before I met them. I got funding from the [Philadelphia Federation of Teachers] during the course of all of those evolutions of choice in the Commonwealth. I think even under [the Educational Improvement Tax Credit], I got support.

So I know people don’t talk about it a lot, but the truth is those who represent the interest of teachers have come to me and asked me to support them on legislation, and I have. There’ll be a whole litany of budgets that have rolled out that show that I supported public education … not only talked about it, but actually had bills that supported funding, increased funding and frankly was singular in terms of negotiating with Republicans to help public schools in Philadelphia.

So while I understand how people have that concern, the one thing they should understand is I have always been independent and I have never been bought, never been rented by anybody, and there’s never been any inference of that relative to the facts. Now, I understand how the rhetoric can sort of run around, but the facts just don’t speak to any of that.

Citified: What are your feelings on independent expenditures? Do they undermine or violate the spirit of the city’s campaign finance contribution limits?

Williams: I think they draw attention to the fact that as much as people try to change policies for how you raise money,  there’s always going to be some aberration that pops up, and I’m not the first who’s been falling into that category possibly … Bill Clinton, Barack Obama … I mean there’s a whole list.

Now, it was at the federal level, state level, now it’s rolled down to the local level. I will not be the only person, I would assume, potentially affected by independent expenditures in a mayoral race in America anymore. Big cities will have them … matter of fact, I think they had them in New York City … so it’s just where I have to live. I mean I understand what people want to do to make sure that money doesn’t corrupt the system and I think that that’s an appropriate conversation to have … I don’t think we’ve ever found the right mix and I think people are going to continue to try. But money does have a factor and I think that it has unfortunately influenced some legislators, but I just don’t think I fall into that category.

Citified: At your campaign launch a few months ago, you spoke in generalities. WHYY reporter Dave Davies said you gave a “passionate speech about … nothing.”

Williams: [laughs] I think he was asleep, but …

Citified: … When you were asked by reporters afterward why you didn’t lay out more specific policy proposals, you said that you were going to go into the neighborhoods and talk to people and use that to develop your platform.

Have you done that? It’s been a couple months. Why haven’t we seen more specifics? I looked at your website this morning and I don’t see specific platforms and I haven’t really heard them on the campaign trail yet.

Williams: The way campaigns are run today, you open up with data. And I’m opening up with conversations with people and data to support my positions. I obviously have a history of positions I’ve taken, right? So I combine those with data, focus groups, people I’ve met in neighborhoods, civic leaders, business leaders I’ve met across Philadelphia. Compare my ideas to theirs and we take a position.

There’ll be a significant ramp-up relative to policy positions across the board. January, with all due respect, was dedicated to sitting in a room and raising money to limits, right? And that’s what you do nowadays. There have been some community activities and things like that, but we are taking our time to be thoughtful, as opposed to just throwing out a bunch of ideas and [saying], “Hey, don’t these sound great?” Yeah, they sound great, but can you execute them? Is there a thirst for them? Are they achievable? And do they have move-the-needle results?

So we plan to have policies for the most part that hopefully reflect that kind of substantive behavior, but you will look at my policy, and I think today we are probably rolling out some relative to education, then economic, then all the other things. But you’ll see a minimum of, I think, it’s 15 ideas … that’s a theme that the campaign has. So, you’ll have it.

Citified: Well I’m going to try and pin you down on some of them now. At your campaign launch, you said, “One Philadelphia means a city that stops the practice of pitting cops against citizens and citizens against cops.” Was that a reference to stop-and-frisk?

Williams: It is.

Citified: So do you oppose the policy?

Williams: I think that it’s an outdated policy that has to change. I recognize that the city, the police department and the mayor … they have done a tremendous job in terms of reducing crime in the city of Philadelphia. I respect them for that and I think that some of those policies obviously had a positive effect to do that.

Unfortunately, the level of lawsuits and the consequence of too many innocent people being stopped and frisked has resulted in … a distancing from the ability to effectively community police … so I think we can be as effective using technology and other policies that are being developed on a national level. … Rather than sort of look and then guess, we will actually move to a standard of using technology to protect the citizen and protect the police. The most obvious one is cameras on officers, but also mobile cameras in communities that are on, that are being reviewed live across the city.

Citified: Do you mean cameras on businesses?

Williams: On businesses and, frankly, in hot spots. Reading has actually done something to this effect and has reduced their crime something like 45 percent in a short period of time. … I mean the point is, yes, you want to make sure people are arrested properly, but you also want to make sure an officer doesn’t have to walk into a dark space and fear for his or her life, and possibly something happens to an innocent citizen. So why aren’t we doing that proactively? Mobile cameras in high-crime activities would also help us in that area.

Citified: So as mayor, would you eliminate stop-and-frisk?

Williams: Well, I think that the city has entered into an agreement with … [the ACLU] … which basically allowed them to continue stop-and-frisk under [certain conditions]. … I think the ACLU is not necessarily satisfied with what’s occurring. So I think that one of the few times you will hear me saying, “I’m listening to the ACLU effectively on an issue,” this would be one. And I think that we are probably going to have to move past stop-and-frisk, and look for some other kind of mechanism … that allows them to identify people that really are a part of a crime and approach them in a similar way.

Citified: So to be clear, do you want to eliminate stop-and-frisk? Or are you saying you want to phase it out slowly?

Williams: No, no, no. We will eliminate stop-and-frisk. I apologize if I wasn’t clear, but I also want to be … I mean, you’ll get this from me … I don’t jump into the pool just to get a splash. I want to be responsible for everybody. I mean, the police officers today, the commissioner’s serving today, the mayor’s here today. My brownie points are not going to be against them. It’s going to be about moving forward and building upon some solid work that they’ve done.

Citified: You also said at your campaign launch that, “In Philadelphia, for too long, many of our leaders have been stuck working in the same old political ways” and “we don’t need to accept the old ways of doing deals in Philadelphia.” That seems to be a reference to ethics.

Would you keep Mayor Nutter’s ethics reforms in place? Specifically, would you try to make the Office of Inspector General and the Chief Integrity Officer permanent?

Williams: We will keep what the mayor currently has, and then we will work with Council to see how and what they want to do relative to making them permanent.

Citified? How do you feel about it though? Do you want to make them permanent? As a hypothetical.

Williams: As a hypothetical … I would, yeah. But I think that that’s a starting point. There’s other things that we have to do. That reference, in part, was about ethics. It was also, in part, about the approach that I mentioned earlier in my conversation … [at] my announcement, there were people in that room who hadn’t spoken to people [in that room] … for years. There were labor leaders in the same room with some business folks that people didn’t expect. There were people from the LGBT community and the faith-based community in the same room who have different views about sexual orientation.

That is the main portion of that reference — that is, how do we move the city forward? And you’re not going to move it by moving Rittenhouse Square forward and not thinking about Southwest Philadelphia, and you’re not going to move it forward by simply pitting Southwest Philadelphia against people who live in Center City. Those are the two reference points for that.

(Read part two of the Citified Q&A with Anthony Williams here.)