Mayoral Front-Runner Anthony Williams: “I’m Not Machiavellian”
State Sen. Anthony Williams is the consensus front-runner and the top fundraiser in the Philadelphia mayor’s race. But what does he stand for?
Citified sat down with him for a 35-minute interview to find out. This is the second part of the Q&A; the first half ran Sunday. Our questions have been paraphrased and Williams’s responses have been edited lightly for clarity.
Citified: You said you would change the city’s tax structure as mayor. How? Are you a Paul Levy guy? The Center City District CEO’s proposal is to shift Philadelphia’s tax burden away from business and wage taxes and onto property taxes.
Williams: I’m a Tony Williams guy who is going to steal a lot of ideas from Paul Levy, starting with the whole uniformity clause change. We’re going to introduce legislation at some point in the not-too-distant future to begin the debate about what this means for Philadelphia specifically and how to change how we collect revenue, and frankly drive more folks back into the city because of this relief on [the] wage tax as well as the business occupancy tax.
Citified: So you support his proposal to shift the tax burden away from wage and business taxes and onto property taxes?
Williams: We do.
Citified: And you want to change the state constitution’s uniformity clause, which says that all taxes must be levied uniformly, in order to do that?
Williams: Exactly right.
Citified: City Council is expected to vote on a bill this month that would require businesses with at least 10 workers to offer paid sick leave. Do you support that policy?
Williams: I would prefer that we have a tax credit for families that would allow for a single mom or a single dad to pay for day care. … I recognize that there are hard-working people going to work every day that need relief. They need a minimum raise increase. … I think mandating sick leave for barber shop owners, for small mom-and-pop owners is a challenge to their bottom line. And I recognize that people work hard in those industries every day, and it’s challenging for them not to be compensated when they don’t come to work.
That said, I don’t think that this approach necessarily reflects the need for that person who’s in that job. I think that if you ask them, “Give me a day of sick leave versus paying for my daycare,” I think they would take the daycare. If you ask the business owner … “Mandated sick leave versus the tax credit,” they would take the tax credit. … That said, if Council moves [mandatory paid sick leave] forward and it’s there, of course I’ll sign it.
Citified: Day care in Philadelphia can be expensive. Could a tax credit actually cover the full cost?
Williams: I can’t tell you it would be 100 percent. But 70 percent on that bill would make a big difference, and there’s some ideas we have about how to do that.
Citified: The city’s pension system is less than 50 percent funded. How would you plug that gap? Would you reduce retirement benefits, raise revenues or do a mix of the two?
Williams: To plug the gap, I want to see revenues [raised] that we actually have available through assets.
Citified: Does that mean selling Philadelphia Gas Works?
Williams: PGW is an opportunity for us to plug that gap significantly, if not permanently.
Citified: So do you support the sale of PGW?
Williams: I support using the asset in whatever format Council and the mayor agree to.
Citified: But as a hypothetical, what would you do?
Williams: At a minimum, we’d be leasing the property to a private entity … have an agreement to protect the small union that’s out there, but draw down the money that we need to significantly plug the … pension.
We can’t tax our way out of that. We don’t have enough money. But we have enough assets. … That would also free up about a third of the the general fund that would allow us to spend more money on public education without raising taxes.
Citified: So instead of selling PGW like Mayor Nutter proposed, you’d prefer to lease it?
Williams: Well, I don’t have a preference … because I’m not close enough to the negotiations. … I have a view that there’s a way to do it and people have presented different ideas to do it, and I think that Council, along with the mayor, should organize the process so that the public can be aware of what those options can look like.
Citified: So you don’t have a preference as to whether you want to sell it, lease it, or keep it under the city’s control?
Williams: Well, I’m clear that the city cannot do it themselves. We don’t have the revenue to invest. We don’t have any of the seed money or the technology to improve it significantly. So I’m clear that we have to move to the private sector to do that … [and] we can be creative about that.
Citified: How much money do you believe selling or leasing PGW would yield the city?
Williams: I don’t want to give a projection. … I mean there was a number.
Citified: Mayor Nutter wanted to sell PGW for almost $2 billion and use the proceeds to shore up the pension system. But that still wouldn’t have been enough money to make the pension system fully funded. So what else would you do to address that problem?
Williams: … I think at that point in time, it is manageable to take a portion out of our revenue to contribute [to shoring up the pension system], as well as look at other assets that we have across the city of Philadelphia. … The issue of changing the retirement structure doesn’t have anything to do with the current pension obligation. Certainly, as any new mayor coming in, you’re going to look at what you’re paying for pensions … but it has nothing to do with paying off the current obligation. … If we change the structure tomorrow, it will not help us solve our pension problem. We have to do something now.
Citified: Are you saying you would not consider reducing retirement benefits in order to shore up the pension system?
Williams: You can’t cut pensions to existing pensioneers. … It’s a contract you sign, you’re obligated to it. New employees coming in … who are not here yet, we can talk about different formats and things like that.
Citified: So changing retirement benefits for future workers is on the table?
Williams: Yeah, all that stuff’s on the table.
Citified: Let’s talk about schools. The School Reform Commission is currently considering 39 applications for new charter schools. Mike Turzai, the Republican Speaker of the House, says the SRC should approve a lot of those. But the school district says that it loses money for every student that it loses to a charter, perhaps as much as $7,000 for each.
How many applications should the SRC should approve? And more generally, can you talk about the number of charters versus the number of traditional public schools that you’d like to see in the district?
Williams: I don’t have a number about how many they should approve. I think that we should be looking at high-performing seats. We’ve lost some charters and we have obviously some seats in Philadelphia in traditional public schools that are not working. … Anybody who performs well … we should be looking at them to [fill] those holes. … The district can do that as well. … So I don’t think there should be this push for a whole host of 40 new charters just because they’re charters. I mean I support charters, but I’m not supporting charters just because they’re charters. I’m supporting charters because they provide good, public education in communities that don’t have that. So that should be the measurement of what the SRC considers.
I also think that we have to be responsible fiscally, and that is the charter school reimbursement. … If someone in Harrisburg is going to talk about it, then they have to be committed to the charter school reimbursement for Philadelphia county so that we’re not pushed further into the financial hole, and keep pitting traditional neighborhood schools against charter schools. We need to remove that as a tension.
Citified: I think there’s a suspicion among some people that you want to turn the entire school district over charter schools. Can you set the record straight?
Williams: Well, I don’t know where they got that. … If they looked at my record … walking in the door in 1991, [Gov. Robert] Casey asked for a significant increase in revenues for schools. As a sophomore, I voted for it. And from then on, every time there’s been an iteration of public school funding, I’ve been in the forefront of that. [The] $45 million, one-time grant [that went to the school district] … it was me walking into the governor’s office … to get that $45 million released. [The state legislation that allowed Philadelphia to create a cigarette tax to fund the school district] … it was my bill. … I have been there when it comes to funding, so I think it’s more … an urban legend than it is a truth about my performance relative to what I believe about public school education.
But it also is a fact that the city of Philadelphia has a crisis when I comes to public schools. And I don’t care where you live, people are concerned about what happens to their child and they’re going to make decisions that they can either financially move or they’re going to be trapped and want a charter school in their community. That’s not a recipe for success for our public school system. … We have to be customer-driven … people wanting to come to our schools, and there’s a way we can do it. That certainly involves sufficient funding, but also it requires change in how we’re delivering the education to the schools.
Citified: I’ve heard people describe your leadership style in Harrisburg in a couple different ways. Some people say you’re good at cutting a deal. But I’ve also heard people say that you are too “transactional.” How would you describe your leadership style?
Williams: Well, I think those people who call me transactional probably aren’t getting from me what they want until they get me to be transactional, and then I become a deal maker for them. So it’s always from the eye of the beholder.
But look, the way I am in politics is sort of the way I am in life. I get along with people. I like people. That’s why I like politics, right? … I’m a Baptist, a lifelong Baptist with a significant increase in the Muslim population that I work with. I have a ton of friends from a variety of ethnic backgrounds: Jews, Polish, Irish, Italians. Gay, straight. It’s my nature to engage with people of all different stripes. I take that into politics, and so I don’t like being stuck on an ideology. … It doesn’t help the public. And so I may have a preference, but if I can’t get through a Republican-controlled legislature, then I have to adjust my way that I approach these ideas. And so some people misunderstand that for, I guess, some limited version of “transactional.” … I embrace the idea of being able to walk in and work and compromise to an end. I embrace moving past an ideology to a practical consideration.
… I open my door to anybody who really wants to do something that’s positive for children in schools, a person who needs a job or a career or a business, or wants to be protected, whether they’re a cop or somebody who lives in a community or loves the arts or, you know, cheers for the pathetic Sixers. … People need to understand that there’s nothing hidden. … I’m not Machiavellian. I’m just me who likes people, and so I use that to my advantage in my politics.