Tony Williams’ Fragile Juggernaut of a Campaign

The veteran state senator enters the race with a lot of support, and a lot of vulnerabilities.

anthony williams

State Senator Anthony H. Williams launched what looked like a juggernaut of a mayoral campaign last night in a large hall at the visitor’s center on Independence Mall packed with elected officials, fundraisers, lobbyists, operatives and other assorted power players.

With Alan Butkovitz bailing, and City Council President Darrell Clarke still on the sidelines, Williams has become the mayoral front-runner almost by default (though Lynne Abraham’s strong opening yesterday bears watching). When political insiders talk about Williams, they talk about tactical advantages like establishment support, a credible base in West Philly, the prospect of big outside money and, as Dave Davies just put it, “very favorable racial math” as the only high-profile black candidate in the race (so far).

Williams tried yesterday to broaden the case for his candidacy beyond such insidery electoral considerations, pitching himself as a pragmatic problem solver who could shake up the city’s leadership culture and bring opportunity and growth to neighborhoods neglected while Center City has boomed. He also might have mentioned this notion of “one Philadelphia” one or 1,000 times.

“I don’t want to be the mayor for just one part of town. I want to lift up every part of my great city,” Williams said. “I know that we are strongest as a city when every neighborhood is strong, when we truly are one Philadelphia. Say it with me … one Philadelphia. One Philadelphia.”

It felt like a 2014 version of John Street’s pivot to the neighborhoods after the Center City focus of the Rendell years, albeit coated in the language of unity. There’s no doubt that the last seven years have been better for downtown and the neighborhoods that ring it than for lower-income communities. There are real and valid concerns that Philadelphia is headed in two opposing trajectories at the same time; that low-income Philly isn’t sharing much in the prosperity and optimism so evident in Center City. Setting aside the question for now of whether or not Williams is the guy to bridge that gap, it’s a solid campaign theme.

But Williams strained credulity past the breaking point when he attempted to position himself as a change agent.  “In Philadelphia, for too long many of our leaders have been stuck working in the same old political ways,” and “we have an opportunity to change things in Philadelphia” and “we don’t need to accept the old ways of doing deals in Philadelphia.”

This is rich stuff coming from Williams who 1) has represented the city in Harrisburg for a quarter century, 2) is a ward leader, 3) is the scion of a West Philly political dynasty, 4) is supported by city Democratic boss Bob Brady, and 5) is the favored candidate of a good chunk of the political establishment he says has been “stuck working in the same old political ways.”

Convincing the electorate that a resume like that represents a challenge to the “old political ways” would be a neat trick.

Another central challenge for Williams’ candidacy is education. Williams may be the most prominent Democratic education reform champion in the state. His failed 2010 gubernatorial bid was centered on his charter-friendly reform agenda, and bankrolled to the amazing tune of $3.65 million by an education reform PAC known as Students First.

Which direction to take Philadelphia’s public schools is an explosive and divisive question, with many passionate adherents on either side of the debate. My sense, though, is that education reform advocates have lost a bit of momentum in Philadelphia over the past 18 months or so, as the financial struggles of district-run schools have received extensive attention, and many Philadelphians have concluded (for good reason) that the rapid expansion of charter schools has played a critical role in those struggles. To be clear: That’s just my read on the city’s mood. I’ve seen no polling data either way on this question. But if Williams is on the wrong side of public sentiment now on the schools question, he could be in for a long race. At minimum, he’ll have to contend with a fired-up Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which sees him as a poster child for education reform.

Williams addressed this only glancingly in his remarks last night, saying he has “no use for the tired old practice of pitting some parents in some schools against other parents in other schools.” Afterward, when taking a few questions from the press, Williams said he’d gone to bat for the district in Harrisburg repeatedly. “It’s never been a question about do I believe in funding public education. I’ve always done it. I’ve done everything and more.”

If there’d been a chance for additional questions, I’d have asked Williams if he expected deep-pocketed ed reform advocates — like the principals at the Bala Cynwyd-based investment firm the Susquehanna International Group, who gave so generously to his gubernatorial campaign — to be major supporters this time around as well. City campaign contribution limits prohibit the massive checks Williams could freely cash running for governor, but there’s nothing to prevent Susquehanna’s principals or other ed reform advocates from independently spending heavily to promote a pro ed-reform agenda during the race. Indeed, big outside money is the hot new trend in local races around the country. If that kind of cash flows into the city, there’s a good chance the American Federation of Teachers would respond in kind, and suddenly the Philly mayor’s race could turn into a proxy fight in the national ed reform debate, with Williams at the uncomfortable center.

None of which is to suggest that Williams isn’t the frontrunner. He clearly is. He’ll be well resourced, he has potent allies, and the racial dynamics should not be underestimated (Mayor Nutter defied those dynamics, but that may have said more about his appeal as a candidate than about the withering away of racial identity in city elections).

But the mayor’s race is long and unpredictable. Anything can happen. After all, at this point in the 2007 race, Nutter was widely considered a non-factor.

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