Interview: Anthony Williams Aims Higher

Is he Philadelphia's next mayor? If so, what does that mean for the city?

anthony-williams-pa-gay-conversion-therapyOne surefire way to make Philly Mag’s list of the 75 most powerful people in the city? Be mayor. (Check out Philly Mag’s list on newsstands now: The mayor is on it.)  As an alternative, you might try to be a frontrunner to be the next mayor. State Sen. Anthony Williams is in the latter category: He’s not formally announced his candidacy yet for the 2015 race, but the longtime politico has already lined up support and is seen as the man to beat.

“I want you to know that I’m a passionate Philadelphian, who loves the Flyers, the Eagles, the Sixers — all Philadelphia stuff I love,” he says.

Philly Mag spoke to Williams recently about power, popularity, and what losing the 2010 Democratic primary for governor taught him.

You are on our power list even though currently you’re a Democrat in a branch of government that is dominated by Republicans. How is it possible to be effective, much less powerful, in such circumstances?

That’s a funny question, ’cause you guys picked me (laughs). I didn’t pick myself. I would assume that those who make the decisions factor in the ability to work with people across the aisle. And since I’ve been known for a number of years being able to access both parties either locally or in Harrisburg. That, I guess, would enhance my ability to get stuff done, so I would assume that has something to do with it.

You’re also a leading voice for charter schools in a Democratic party that historically sides with public schools and teachers unions. It seems like there’s a trend of you kind of being in a tough spot.

Well, I guess people would call it unconventional. But I tend to — ever since I’ve been in office — look at issues and listen to solutions and listen to constituents. I come from a family where education was extremely important — my mother was a public school teacher and my dad was a lawyer. Education was an essential part of our household. We had a hybrid in my family — my older sister went to public school her entire existence, my younger brother primarily went to private school, and I went to public school until the ninth grade. It was sort of tailored around what worked for each child. And the consequences are all of us ended up with degrees and advanced degrees because of the education that was given to us.

And so fundamentally I believe that yeah, public education is extremely important. And we should fund it and support it, which I do and I have — I’ve raised taxes for it. But it should also have the ability to be flexible and nimble. So charter schools are no different than magnets or special mission schools or any other vehicle that the public supports that works. And hopefully it works — if it doesn’t you shouldn’t support it.

I noticed too that you and Bill Green have something in common. He is now of course the SRC chairman here in town. You’re both movers and shakers on the topic of school reform. You are also both sons of some luminaries of Philadelphia’s political establishment. Do you think there’s any connection between those two facts?

I don’t know. I don’t exactly know all of Bill’s background. I know he’s a pretty bright guy, and I’m sure that part of that has to do with his educational experience. Both of our households were sort of steeped in progressive politics. I clearly remember when his father and my father were around and they were both advancing their political careers there was a political opportunity which embraced both of them. And so we have progressive values about empowering people. It just happens in this area that education is very pronounced and prominent, so I guess you can attribute some of that to how we were brought up.

You talked about having an unconventional approach to politics. It sometimes seems that those who have unconventional approaches to politics don’t find it easy to gather the support they need to make the next step. Yet there’s a lot of talk that you’ll be running for mayor next year. How has being unconventional enhanced or detracted from your career?

Well, as to the mayor possibility, it is only going to enhance my career. I didn’t get into this endeavor to hold on to it for any particular length of time. And so I never take positions on issues ‚ you know, sort of waving my finger in the air — to make sure that I’m safe. I’ve weighed in on a number of issues that sometimes people don’t necessarily see it the way I see it. But the public is evolving in that direction. It can be from same-sex marriage to schools to democratic beliefs that the business community should redevelop from a recession, not the government. And so I actually feel that through my case it’s liberating to me to feel like I can express myself politically at all times.

You did run for governor in 2010. What did you learn from that race that you think will help you prepare to move forward in your career?

A lot. One — it requires personally from you to stay true to your values, lay out a leadership and vision perspective, to understand that you can’t always be all things to all people, and be comfortable with that. Because people are constantly tracking — I mean you’re constantly tracking a poll, constantly tracking the temporary short-term perspective of people who may or may not know you, and they only know you from a 30- or 60-second commercial. You have to do this for yourself and be authentic for you to be noticed, otherwise you’re just a backdrop. So that was one thing. And then the other thing was what is required to advance beyond a legislative agenda to an executive agenda.

Let’s talk a little bit about city governance. The current mayor has been criticized for maybe not working harder or working better to make allies on the council. Given some of the support that you have, that doesn’t seem to me that that’s a problem you would have.

Well, I would hope that whoever I’m working with, even if I’m having a difference of opinion with them, that they know that I honestly believe what I believe and I’m not just going to broker them or leverage them for gamesmanship. So we may have an authentic argument or a case, but it’s going to come to a resolution because it’s not about “I had the best idea” or that I feel that I’m always right, it really is about owning that we all love Philadelphia, owning that we all have an ability to contribute to that — to what we believe Philadelphia can be.

So, I’ve always approached that even when I have a difference of opinion with a peer, that I genuinely want them to understand that I respect them. I might not like what they say, I may not agree with their point of view at the time, but I genuinely respect that if they’re at the table and they’re working like I’m working, I’m going to respect their work ethic and hopefully we’ll come out with a productive work product for all of Philadelphia.

From a city perspective, what do you think is the biggest challenge facing Philadelphia these days and how would you meet it?

There’s one basic problem: That the economy has not grown significantly enough and rapidly enough in Philadelphia. That means not just having a job, but job creation. We have a significant problem with poverty in Philadelphia, which is a drag on our economy, it’s a drag on the cost of government, and it’s a drag on us marketing Philadelphia for not just those who are staying and moving into Center City, but beyond Center City. So we have not felt the benefit, West Philadelphia has not felt the benefit of this new economy. In other sections where people are challenged economically, they haven’t felt the benefit of this economy.

To answer that is very basic. The most immediate one is two parts. One, education. We have to deliver to the workplace a much more highly educated person who is prepared to go to work. Period. And the second part is, we have to create an environment where businesses can operate in Philadelphia. And some of that is around tax structure, some of that is about L&I, and other agencies which are responsible for not only regulating but overseeing and attracting business in Philadelphia. Those two areas are specifically areas that we have to reform and change. Drastically.

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