State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams says this time will be different. That starts at the beginning.
Williams launched his 2015 bid for mayor six months before the Democratic primary with a speech decrying the city’s political establishment, delivered at a Center City event packed with a crowd of about 200, thick with the kind of people he was complaining about. He was seen as the early front-runner for a race in which he would finish a distant second.
Williams on Monday evening is to formally announce his candidacy for mayor at a West Philly art center that offers free programs for neighborhood children, with fewer than 50 people expected.
“We’ve intentionally selected and invited opinion shapers from around the city, most of whom are supportive but some of whom are just wondering what it means,” Williams said. “We think it’s very important for people to think this is a very unconventional movement, not just politics.”
Williams, 62, said he stumbled four years ago, finishing nearly 30 percentage points behind Kenney in that primary, because he “didn’t define who I was. I let other people define me.”
Kenney painted Williams then as a shill of the charter-school movement because three Main Line investment-firm owners with an interest in education policy invested $7.5 million in an independent expenditure political action committee to support his campaign.
Kenney is back at it. His campaign last week called Williams and former City Controller Alan Butkovitz, who entered the Democratic primary in November, “corporate shills for the multibillion-dollar beverage industry.”
Williams and Butkovitz oppose Kenney’s signature achievement as mayor, a tax on sweetened beverages to pay for pre-K and other city programs. The tax is expected to be a flash point in several local elections this year.
Williams still bristles, recalling “Kenney sneering at me” in 2015 debates about his support from the investment-firm billionaires, The owners of that firm, Susquehanna International Group, are still friends but won’t be backing his run for mayor this year, he said.
Kenney also had support from an independent PAC in 2015. Building a Better Pennsylvania Fund, funded by building trade unions, spent $1.8 million on the race. More than $500,000 of that came from Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
“He’s going to have to carry the responsibility of his closest political adviser being scrutinized by the federal government,” Williams said of Kenney. “He is a subsidiary of John Dougherty’s political enterprise. He should just own it."
An Inquirer analysis of Local 98′s political spending found that Williams has accepted $447,000 in contributions and other support from the union since 2000. Williams says the difference is Kenney plans to keep accepting Local 98 support, while he will no longer do so.
Williams is trying to define Kenney early this time around, repeatedly noting he lives in the same rowhouse near Cobbs Creek Park he grew up in while the mayor, who grew up in South Philly, now lives in an Old City condo. “I still live in my rowhouse,” Williams said. “He moved out of his.”
He knocks Kenney for making “an art form of being invisible in neighborhoods, unless it’s an election year, when he wants to fix everything.”
Williams was first elected to the state House in 1988, taking over a seat that had been held by his father, Hardy Williams. He did the same thing 10 years later, taking a state Senate seat as his father retired.
He won his sixth Senate term last year with no competition in the primary or general elections. His last Senate challenger, in 2010, was a Republican who won just 5 percent of the vote in his West Philadelphia district.
That gives rise to the notion that Williams wins easy elections but can’t be competitive. He also faltered in a 2010 Democratic primary bid for governor, taking just 18 percent of the vote statewide.
Here, again, Williams looks to be different.
“In this case, I’m starting from a humble campaign where I’m going to be talking to people,” Williams said. “I’m going to be forced to talk to people and want to talk to people every day. That will germinate a conversation that we have not had in Philadelphia for a long time.”
No incumbent Philadelphia mayor has lost an election since the city’s Home Rule Charter was enacted seven decades ago, instituting a two-term limit.
The last competitive Democratic primary for mayor occurred 32 years ago, when former District Attorney Ed Rendell challenged Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr. and lost by nearly 15 percentage points. Rendell went on to serve later as mayor and then governor.
Williams could wait four years to run for mayor, as Rendell did. But he says the city needs change now.