Former Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr. recalls a curious child with a seat at the table as the grown-ups in West Philadelphia plotted campaigns for political office independent of the Democratic machine.

Anthony H. Williams was there in the late 1960s and early 1970s because his father, Hardy Williams, was a chief plotter.

"He always appeared more mature than his age," Goode said of the younger Williams. "Little Tony, as we called him, was always around and always interested in what we were doing."

Now a state senator and candidate for mayor in the May 19 Democratic primary, Williams, 58, learned those lessons well.

A political trifecta - a well-known name, diligent constituent service, deft political gamesmanship - has made him unbeatable in West Philadelphia. Now he'll learn whether those strengths play citywide and in a rare contest for Williams: one in which he has a true electoral fight on his hands.

Smooth and polished on the stump, Williams has an affable wit and keen political instincts. He appears to bristle, however, when his career is described in ways that don't fit his campaign narrative.

It is in those moments that he looks like the underachieving son turned political powerhouse, still trying to emerge from the long shadow of his barrier-busting father.

Did his dad gift-wrap Williams' Senate seat? Did his wife's job with the natural gas lobby raise issues for him? Is his mayoral run focused mostly on rallying black voters?

Not if you ask Williams.

He says he's not just a "guy [who] is only going to win because he's an African American."

Political pioneer's son

In 1971, Hardy Williams was the city's first major black candidate for mayor. His son was not always on track to join him in the family business of politics.

An apathetic public school student, Tony Williams remembers being "rudderless in terms of my character" in junior high.

"I wasn't a dangerous kid," he said. "But I was around some dangerous people."

Both his grandfathers were mailmen; his mother's father worked a route with Quaker families. Williams' mother, a public schoolteacher, asked for help.

That led to a scholarship at Westtown, a Quaker boarding school 18 miles due west of his home on Cobbs Creek Parkway - and a world away.

He recalls telling a teacher who gave him a B that it was a good grade. The teacher said he should be an A student.

When Williams explains his ardent support for school choice - improving public schools, expanding charter schools, and using tax dollars to pay private tuition - he often mentions his scholarship.

Franklin and Marshall College came next, then stints at PepsiCo Inc. and his own vending company - before his father persuaded him in 1988 to run for Hardy Williams' old state House seat. The party had other ideas.

The talk was that "Hardy put his son on the ballot and it was over," Williams said. "But the truth is, Hardy put his son on the ballot and everybody lined up to beat Hardy."

Still, Williams prevailed in a three-way race; the party's pick came in third.

In Harrisburg, father and son were a team, though they didn't always use the same playbook.

"He would say do one thing and I would do another," Williams said. "I'd say, 'There's a door, let's open it.' He'd say, 'Shut the door, let's knock it down.' "

Williams contends making the jump to the Senate was tougher than most people knew.

Here's how it played out in the newspapers: Hardy Williams decided to retire in 1998 - but kept it quiet as his son gathered signatures on nominating petitions, then won his father's seat easily.

Here's how Williams remembers it: His father told him he "didn't feel right" about running one more time. The son now sees it as the onset of dementia.

"My dad was sick," Williams said. "I don't think he thought it was cunning."

Williams' website credits him as "an original architect" of "landmark public charter school legislation," and, indeed, he was a strong Democratic supporter of the Republican-backed 1997 law expanding charters.

The practice of education proved more complicated. In 1999, he founded a charter school in the city's Kingsessing section that became Hardy Williams Academy. A dozen years later, the school - run by Williams' current campaign manager - changed hands after years of missing academic benchmarks.

In Philadelphia and Harrisburg, Williams was known to have an agenda that didn't always fit other Democrats'.

With four other lawmakers, he pushed changes in the Police Department. The bipartisan "Gang of Five" took credit for the hiring of Police Commissioner John Timoney.

Then-Mayor Ed Rendell, later governor, says Williams wasn't always a team player and held fast to his own ideas.

"It was sometimes frustrating to me," said Rendell. "But when he was on your side, he was a fierce and effective ally."

Rendell recalls Williams and another city Democrat taking time "every single day" of the Senate session to hammer Republicans for blocking a vote on raising the minimum wage: "No matter what the issue was, they managed to pontificate about it and how cruel the Republicans were being."

Rendell calls Williams exceptionally bright - and "a little more cautious than Hardy was . . . a little more moderate."

'You lost but you won'

Hardy Williams, 78, died in 2010 of complications from Alzheimer's disease. His son announced a run for governor 18 days later.

He entered the four-way Democratic primary late. "I said, 'I'm not going to be an asterisk, the African American guy who runs for governor out of protest,' " he says now.

Even so, he ran on issues important to minorities that he said his rivals were ignoring. Education topped his list.

Williams had met Joel Greenberg of the Susquehanna International Group, a Main Line stock-trading firm. They bonded on the issue of school choice.

"I didn't know those guys were going to contribute at the level that they did because I didn't know they had that much to contribute," Williams said of Greenberg and his Susquehanna cofounders.

They put in $5 million.

Williams won 51 percent of the city's vote - but just 18 percent statewide.

Even so, he had shown he could muster resources. People told him, "You lost but you won."

Absences and illness

Williams stayed out of the spotlight for much of 2011. He dropped 60 pounds after surgery for a medical condition.

He has declined to detail the illness, but said in a 2013 Inquirer article it explained some of his absences from Harrisburg. Records showed he was among Senate leaders marked "present" in missed votes.

Williams says he is "a medical miracle" thanks to his doctors. "I am also a man of strong faith and know it was God who guided me to a full recovery."

He declared his mayoral candidacy after breezing, unopposed, to a fifth Senate term last fall. Unlike city officials, state lawmakers need not resign to run for another office.

The Susquehanna trio is back, putting more than $6 million so far this year into American Cities, a group supporting Williams for mayor. The group has already spent $3.4 million to air pro-Williams TV ads - starting in March, ahead of the pack. The ads have helped make Williams a front-runner, along with former City Councilman James F. Kenney, in the six-way race.

Williams' wife, Shari, has drawn attention for her $112,700-a-year job with the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a natural gas industry lobbying group.

Williams said environmentalists - he cites Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania, the state's Sierra Club chapter, and PennEnvironment - consistently give him good grades.

Still, those groups have endorsed Kenney, citing Williams' vote for a GOP-backed impact fee on gas drillers that was easier on the industry than the tax Democrats are pushing.

Williams defends the fee, saying it sent money to Philadelphia, where there is no drilling.

He says the media overlooks his larger family - a college-graduate daughter; another who sometimes struggles as a single mother; LGBT relatives who push him to do more for their community - all emblems of a changing city.

"I live in a rowhouse I grew up in . . . in a neighborhood that doesn't look like it did when I was a kid," he said. "My family is testimony to that."

Anthony H. Williams

Party: Democrat.

Age: 58.

Residence: Cobbs Creek.

Family: Wife, Shari; two grown daughters.

Education: Westtown School; B.A. in economics, Franklin and Marshall College.

Occupation: State senator for Eighth District, which includes parts of West Philadelphia, Southwest Philadelphia, South Philadelphia, and Delaware County.

Campaign website:

Career: State senator since 1999, state representative 1989-99. Previously district manager and sales director for PepsiCo Inc. and owner of a private vending company, ATV Inc.


215-854-5973 @byChrisBrennan