Anthony Williams Wants to Be Mayor

Or maybe the state's first black governor. He also wants to radically reform the state's school system. But is the bombastic politician someone to be reckoned with, or just a son trying to escape his father's considerable shadow?

“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?”