ROOTS AND FLOWERING
Anthony Williams’ Quirky Growth Forged A Complex Leader
BY TONY WEST/ One thing Tony Williams was quite sure of: He was never going into politics. He’d already seen enough of that.
The young Franklin & Marshall College graduate had majored in economics and made a beeline for the private sector as soon as he untied his diploma. Now in his late 20s, he was rapidly climbing the corporate ladder at PepsiCo, making good money and enjoying life.
It was a far-better life than the one he had watched his father Hardy Williams lead – scuffling in the trenches of city politics, at times on quixotic causes, clawing for small gains in the civil-rights era. The elder Williams had ascended to a State Senate seat in West Philadelphia, where he had a throng of admirers. But he was never home and the pay wasn’t great, compared to what a hustling sales manager in the beverage industry could expect.
No one was volunteering to join a Williams political dynasty. Politics had little appeal for the children who had watched their father launch the first serious mayoral campaign by a Black Philadelphian, in 1971. “None of my brothers and sisters entered public life,” Tony Williams noted. “We are a very independent-minded family.”
Then something happened. The younger Williams started to look around the Cobbs Creek community where he had been born. And he didn’t like what he saw. The crack epidemic of the 1980s was building a head of steam. Drugs were disrupting the solid middle-class neighborhood he had grown up in.
And then, the second MOVE house attack took place. He, like many other West Philadelphians, watched a helicopter bomb a rowhouse block of Osage Avenue, over and over on TV, and lived alongside the result.
He had come back to town from PepsiCo’s New York headquarters to take a job at a bank. He had just started a vending company on the side. He could have gone somewhere else. He would have to move to a new house just to run in that district.
“But I am competitive by nature,” Williams explained. He chose to stay and fight for his community.
He founded Neighbors United Against Drugs, a citizens’ group that hounded drug-dealers and called in police action upon them. In the process, young Tony rediscovered his father Hardy’s path to grassroots politics.
In 1989, Tony Williams the son waged a campaign to take the 191st State House Dist. in West Philadelphia, which his father had once held before him. In that campaign, a public servant was born.
It didn’t come without a struggle. The seat was no longer the father’s to give away. Hardy Williams had spent his life battering against the machine, and in that era, Congressman Bill Gray was the machine that dominated Philadelphia’s African American communities. Hardy Williams wasn’t Gray’s man.
Tony took the 191st regardless. In the process, he literally became a new man – as far as street names went.
“It was an interesting moment when ‘Anthony Hardy Williams’ was created. All the people who’ve known me all my life still call me Tony,” he said. “But as I geared up for that race, my father sat me down and said, ‘How many people do you think have heard of Tony Williams? Now, how many people have heard of Hardy Williams’?”
The young candidate did the math and launched his campaign using his middle name in public, for the first time ever.
Tackling Bill Gray and his allies meant Williams had to reach out. The 3rd Ward, 40th Ward and 60th Ward were not controlled by friends. He worked them anyway.
“One day, I ran into an old Polish lady on the street in the 4th Ward,” Williams related. That ward was controlled by Tom Garrett. “She was bemoaning that she and her friends couldn’t afford the $5 fee to attend a senior program.” He had a couple of $20 bills on him, handed them over, wished her well and thought no more of it.
Turned out the old lady was a 4th Ward committeewoman. She went behind her ward leader’s back and swung several divisions for Williams. Williams took every ward in the district and went on to Harrisburg, where he’s worked ever since.
Today, he goes by “State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams.”
All the main themes of his productive legislative career, however – education, economics, arts and science – were formative to his life when he was just Tony.
* * *
His grandmother Frances “Mom” Williams was an unofficial leader in the middle-class Black community of West Philadelphia during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. “She was the original activist,” he recalled. “A working mom, the power-to-the-people movement – she captured all that. She never held a position, attended college or held a formal degree.” But she raised five sons to be disciplined and driven.
The family’s neighborhood was the Woodland Avenue spine of Southwest Philadelphia. Its spiritual home was and still is Mount Zion Baptist Church at 51st & Woodland, where his uncle Oliver “Ali” Robinson, a canny political tactician who also served in the State House, was celebrated after his death from cancer earlier this month.
Hardy Williams was a turbulent kind of guy. Politics was his mistress. He butted heads with his family as freely as with the high and mighty. But he took as good as he gave. “He and I would battle … but he would allow it,” Tony said. “He was a straight talker who wouldn’t negotiate away an important point. He said the right decision isn’t always popular.”
The elder Williams had clawed his way up from the working class, taking advantage of the GI Bill to get a degree. He had served in the Army and was the first Black athlete to play basketball for Penn State University. But the struggles of the poor hung over his family like an angel of the Lord, armed with a sword. “My dad knew what would drive a man to steal a loaf of bread,” said Tony. “He was complex in understanding nuances like these.
“And he held that with our good fortune came responsibility to others.”
The Senator’s mother Carole Williams-Green (she later remarried the late Judge Clifford Scott Green) was about one thing above all else: education. She had grown up in an African American community in Haverford, the daughter of a postal worker who had gotten her into a Quaker school. She had been to Stanford and Yale. She was a career science teacher who required all her children to be good students.
This was a problem for one of her sons. Tony was a slow learner.
At least he tested that way once. He grew up bouncing through Lea, Anderson and Mitchell Schools, never doing well. His mother bumped him into Conwell Middle Magnet School in Port Richmond, hoping a change of neighborhood would help. It didn’t.
“I didn’t feel like I fit into my family,” explained Williams. “I was not hanging with the right kids. I was too scared to be in a gang myself, but I hung around with gang members anyway.
“I thought I felt great, but I was miserable.”
Now 56, Williams sees his teenage self through another lens. “I learned differently from my brothers and sisters,” he said. He enjoys theater, music, painting, literature. He catches onto things in an artistic way, which didn’t necessarily mean filling out Teacher’s tests the way Teacher was looking for. He prefers to assemble the test himself instead.
In frustration, his mother went to his grandfather asking for another round of help from the Quakers. The family got Tony into Westtown School, with a history dating back to 1799, the oldest continuously operating coeducational boarding school in the country. It changed his life.
“The Quakers had a different way of thinking. They looked through a different perspective,” Williams noted. Although he remains true to his family’s Baptist faith, the Senator acknowledges a Quaker shaping that many other prominent non-Quaker Philadelphians are familiar with.
It was the school year 1971-2. Hairstyles were long, behavior unruly. Tony tried his old tricks at Westtown – till he ran into a brick wall of a teacher, Agnes Hayes. She held him back after class one day and conducted an inquisition into why he had gotten a B on a test.
The kid was baffled. What’s wrong with a B? he wanted to know. Nobody in Philadelphia complains about a B. They just leave you alone. Why aren’t you leaving me alone?
“You’re not a B student,” Agnes told him. (In many Quaker schools, everyone from the principal to the kindergartner uses a first name only.)
No teacher had ever told Tony he was smart. He decided he liked it.
That was the story of his academic career from then on. He muscled up at Westtown and got into Franklin & Marshall College, where he majored in economics and left for the private sector – until he woke up one morning putting on his dad’s shoes.
* * *
Inheriting a Philadelphia political dynasty isn’t as easy as it sounds. Work is involved, especially if you’re a State Rep.
There are lots of rival dynasties around, for one thing, constantly bumping into your claim. One false step and you’ll be invaded. State Rep districts are cheap to invade.
But Williams found he liked being a State Rep. He is naturally active and prefers being on the move. That’s an asset if your job requires you to spend half your time lawmaking in Harrisburg and half your time connecting in Philadelphia.
And he liked having an impact. “The first year I was elected, I got bills passed,” Williams bragged. That’s a pretty-obscure brag unless you’ve worked in the General Assembly. Freshman State Reps are usually entrusted with tasks like cleaning out the stalls in the House restrooms.
But Williams was chosen as Freshman Deputy Whip in the House that year. It foreshadowed his current role as Democratic Whip in the Senate today, the second-highest role in his caucus. Williams is good at pulling people together to push pressing governmental tasks across the goal line.
By 1998, Williams was leading the 3rd Ward as well. There was indeed a Williams family organization at that point. That year, his father was up for reelection. Hardy was 66 by then, and age was starting to take its toll on him.
He wasn’t getting his election machine together for the primary that winter. He wouldn’t talk about it to his son. Anthony figured other staffers were working on it. But when he began making inquiries, he found they assumed he was working on it. One night he confronted his father and asked him what his plans were.
Words came slowly to the older man. Finding words had never been a problem for him before.
“Well, do you want us to circulate petitions in your name?” asked Anthony. His father nodded vaguely.
“Do you want us to circulate petitions in my name?” Another vague nod.
Anthony took the nods as two yeses and his team circulated both sets of petitions. When the day came to file, Anthony brought them to his father and said it was time for a decision.
There was a pause. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” Hardy said.
“Then I’ll run,” Anthony replied. He filed just his own papers.
Hardy Williams’ stealthy withdrawal caught many by surprise. Political observers took it as another cagey ruse by a sly political pro. But it was a surprise to his own team as well.
“In retrospect, I see he was sick. That episode was an early sign of dementia,” Anthony mused later. His father died 12 years later in that condition.
Another State Representative had been eyeing the incumbent Senator’s weakening powers in 1998. He too filed primary petitions for the 8th Senatorial Dist. But Anthony Williams challenged those petitions and invalidated them; his own petitions, meanwhile, held up. The younger Williams passed the primary unopposed, sailed through the November general and moved to the upper chamber in New Year’s Day 1999, where he has worked ever since.
The 8th Senatorial Dist. is one of the most diverse in the Commonwealth – in terms of geography, race, ethnicity and class. It ranges from South Street in the sizzling Graduate Hospital area and the elite academic and research facilities of University City, through the struggling working-class Black neighborhoods of Point Breeze in South Philadelphia and Kingsessing in Southwest Philadelphia. It takes in the crucial economic hub of Philadelphia International Airport.
Further down the Delaware River, 40% of the district is in Delaware Co., quiet centers of modest middle-class housing and largely white: the suburbs of Collingdale, Colwyn, Darby, Darby Township, Folcroft, Glenolden, Lansdowne, Norwood, Prospect Park, Ridley Park, Sharon Hill and Yeadon.
“So I get along with Tommy Judge (longstanding leader of the Delaware Co. Republican Party) and also with Bob Brady (formidable chairman of the Philadelphia Democratic Party),” said Williams with an amiable grin. He finds his Quaker high-school training still influences him, by giving him strong comfort in listening to different voices and respecting divergent points of view.
Several of the Senator’s public-outreach programs have sought to emphasize the cultural richness of his district. He staged a series of chat-and-chews in small restaurants, each in a different neighborhood or suburb. He dedicated a few months in a row to getting his hair cut in a rolling series of barbershops across the district – evoking the African American tradition of haircutting establishments as casual forums for information and gossip on topics of the day.
Williams’ ability to reach across the aisle and connect with Republicans on policy matters is a strength in the Senate, where Democrats have been in the minority throughout his career. In a recent bipartisan gesture which drew attention, Williams was invited by Republican US Senator from Pennsylvania Pat Toomey to listen to the State of the Union address as his guest.
Bipartisanship comes to the fore in one subject which has become Williams’ signature issue: education. He has emerged as a leading advocate of the growing school-choice movement – for decades a landscape dominated by conservative Republicans.
* * *
Despite his own independent-school background, and his mother’s lifelong dedication to quality schooling, Williams did not begin as an educational activist. But he had a transformative meeting at a charter school in Chicago with Dr. Howard Fuller, a passionate advocate of the view that inner-city public schools have disastrously failed to serve poor African American children. Dr. Fuller, who once was Superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools, founded Black Alliance for Educational Options, which lobbies for school choice as a tool to boost African American school success.
The experience struck a nerve with Williams. Urban public schools had not worked for him when he was young, and they weren’t working for too many of his constituents’ children now. He began to listen to other Black advocates for school choice, among them State Rep. Dwight Evans (D-N. Phila.). When the first school-voucher bill was introduced in Pennsylvania, Williams voted for it and was a driving force in establishing the first charter schools in Philadelphia.
In 2010, Williams himself introduced SB 1405, the Opportunity Scholarship Act, which mandated vouchers specifically for low-income children in failing schools, with three Republicans as cosponsors. He reprised the idea the next year the following year as SB 1.
Williams drew heavy fire from teachers unions, which are big supporters of Democratic politicians in Philadelphia. But he attracted statewide backing from major backers of school choice who normally have no truck with Philadelphia Democrats.
In 2010, he ran for Governor in the Democratic field, fueled in part by donations from school-choice partisans, coming in third of four candidates with 18% of the vote. Theirs is a well he may go back to in future contests.
Many school-choice advocates are ideologs who reject all government-run education on principle. That is not Williams’ route. He is a pragmatist whose focus is on schools that by fair measures turn out badly educated graduates. And these include many Philadelphia public schools.
“They have gone from 200,000 to 140,000 students,” he noted. People with the means to leave them have been leaving them, he pointed out calmly, leaving stranded those without the means to leave. Yet they are the families who need good schooling the most.
“I voted for new taxes for schools three times,” he insisted. “But I’m not always satisfied with the results of more money. If you have a safe, academically successful public school, I’m for it. If it is unsafe, then close it. Parents should have other options.
“It will help us as a city, to have better schools for more of our children,” he went on. “They will become more-productive workers.”
Williams is wedded to no one approach. He will try anything that offers promise. He was instrumental in founding Hardy Williams Academy Charter School in Kingsessing, one of the city’s pioneer charter schools, which is now part of the Mastery Charter School network.
He is a strong supporter of the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program, which offers businesses a tax credit for businesses that provide scholarships to good schools for students who are trapped in low-performing schools. The Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit program which he wrote will add to their numbers. Williams is content to see these students attend high-performing public schools in other districts, not just independent schools.
The Senator remains firmly opposed to a recent trend of defunding education. “Fixing and funding public education is a top priority,” he has said.
Williams now sits on the Senate Education Committee as well as the Early Childhood Education caucus. He is a member of BAEO’s national board. He has served on Temple University’s Board of Directors.
Williams’ educational activism continues in other areas. So far this year he has introduced SB 46 called “Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Molestation & Exploitation (Passing the Trash)”. It seeks to curb the practice of quietly removing teachers suspected of sexual abuse of their charges by getting them to look for a job at another school while covering up their history.
SB 47, “Holocaust & Genocide Education”, would ensure students in grades 6-12 receive instruction in Nazi atrocities and other historical acts intended to wipe out whole peoples. The Senator is an honorary advisory member of the board of the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation.
* * *
Williams is as pro-business as any Rotarian. The city’s engine of economic growth must be the private sector, he affirmed.
The Senator introduced an amendment to equalize Delaware and Pennsylvania taxation on corporate net income and gross receipts (the notorious “Delaware Loophole”, which allows large interstate chains to compete tax-free against locally owned businesses in Pennsylvania).
Williams helped craft the incentive package that led to the Comcast headquarters’ locating in Philadelphia – the first high-ranked growth-industry national corporation in a generation to call this city home. He worked with Gov. Tom Corbett’s task force to keep the Sunoco refinery in Philadelphia. He was involved in the historic partnership with the Building Trades Council to open the doors for minorities to good-paying jobs in that field.
His mother’s career disposes him to take science seriously. Her passion was science education and she later became an administrator in the district. She’s been an active proponent for the George Washington Carver Science Fair & Awards program. Upon her retirement, she poured herself into seeking ways for children of color, especially, to achieve equitable science training – before STEM was all the rage.
“I really morphed into my mom by creating an environmental center for children in a historic old stable in Cobbs Creek Park,” Williams said. “I started off with a $15,000 grant; $2.7 million later … Evans, (Sen. Bob) Casey and (Gov. Tom) Ridge finished it.”
The Cobbs Creek Community Environmental Education Center now offers a host of environmental-science programs for youths, teachers and seniors – a facility rare in inner-city communities anywhere. They do real work. “Students tested a site in the park, discovered the water was contaminated and referred it for remediation,” Williams said with pride.
Environmental concerns impact business concerns. Early in his Senate career, Williams became engaged with residential neighbors of the refinery who had complaints about pollution. “I became involved because I saw real environmental-justice issues there,” he explained. The neighbors, mostly low-income African Americans, had no voice and little power in dealing with a giant corporation. He helped them organize a community political-action committee.
That Williams can work effectively with a large company like Sunoco, to resolve public problems while at the same time respecting its business priorities, is an important talent for an urban area that wants to grow. Public and private sectors must be brought together if both want a hometown win.
“The ‘Commonwealth’ requires pursuit of the common good at times,” said Williams.
The Senator sits on the Banking & Insurance Committee. He is a member of the Committee on Ethics & Official Conduct along with the Life Sciences and Women’s Health caucuses.
“Health” struck home to Williams in his middle years, as it does to so many, when he was diagnosed with diabetes. He has become something of a health nut since, in a low-key but determined manner.
Each October, he organizes a series of physical-fitness events across his district, relying as much as possible on existing small-business providers in the community. And he’s out there on the 5k Cobbs Creek Walk, still fleshy, but chuffing along with the rest of middle-aged America, trying to stay alive. He has sat on the Board of Directors of the West Philadelphia YMCA.
In his own words, Williams “led the fight, during the Rendell Administration, to restore funding to the Arts.” He makes no bones about his support for the city’s artistic community. Connie Williams (no relation), who chairs the Philadelphia Museum of Arts’ Board of Trustees, is a culture hero to him: “She brought a whole generation along with her.”
The Senator belongs to the Arts & Culture Caucus in his body. He is a member of the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts and an emeritus member of the board of the African American Museum in Philadelphia.
Violence is a big worry in West and South Philadelphia that cannot be painted over. Williams has been a leader in this area. He is now organizing a Violence Reduction Initiative which hopes to create a web of problem-solving agents on an urban beat.
“Violence is a complex epidemic that requires many solutions. We can’t just focus on getting guns off the streets — although that’s a crucial element. We need to help foster better family and community dynamics. We need to present educational and career placement opportunities. We need to offer a helping hand to those who truly need it,” said Williams.
The Senator was a driver behind Philadelphia’s interagency illegal-gun task force. He secured funding for a witness-protection program. He hammered through a law to close notorious “stop-n-go” beer-takeout dives. He secured funding for police cars and bullet-proof vests for local law enforcement.
* * *
“I am a punk at home. I’m not the Senator,” Williams confessed.
He lives in the home he grew up in, with his wife Shari, a lifelong communications specialist who has spent most of her career in the energy industry. His two adult daughters, Autumn and Asia, are on their own now. But he still has neighbors who watched him grow up and whom he addresses as “Ma’am.”
Williams has always been into science fiction. He’s seen Star Wars six times. Growing up, he collected comic books, amassing a huge collection which his mother threw away one year while he was out of town. Sold on eBay today, he could probably balance the City’s pension fund with it.
The Senator has a sports problem.
“I live and die sports,” he confessed. “I could tell you every player on the Eagles team. I go into depression after the football season ends.” Williams is a Play-Station junkie and a mad Madden addict.
At work, Williams runs his shop with the relaxed energy he is known for. “Politicians who run their own office are poor managers,” he noted. His aim is to inspire his staff and hold them to standards, not to tell them what answers to come up with.
The Senator has a penchant for programming, though. He doesn’t like gestures or stabs in the dark. He likes to craft comprehensive policies which combine different people’s wisdom in coordinated, many-pronged approaches that keep coming back, year after year.
Any attempt to boil Anthony Hardy Williams down to one issue or one constituency is bound to miss the point. He’s a political juggler whose temperament and experience suit him for broad-spectrum problem-solving as the day’s events fly into our faces. He’s on top of every crisis, involved in every case.
In addition to what we’ve already discussed, Williams also serves on the Senate Law & Justice, Rules & Executive Nominations, and State Government Committees, as well as the Democratic Policy and Legislative Data Processing Committees. He is a member of the Committee on Ethics & Official Conduct, and the Pennsylvania LGBT Equality caucuses. He serves on the Joint State Government Commission.
Whither Philadelphia? Williams has an opinion.
“What may be missing in city leadership is there is no presence of the bully pulpit,” he commented.
“We Philadelphians expect our politicians to be earthy, not erudite. We expect them to connect with our feelings.
“I am not detail-oriented but I have a vision and can translate it. We have the bones to do it, be a great city. But with 30% in poverty, the population is not aligned. We must turn that ship around.”