In 2015, State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams ran for mayor with a war chest full of money and support from a who’s who of Philadelphia politics. A group of millionaire backers of school choice funded television commercials in his favor.
Still, Williams finished the Democratic primary a distant second to now-Mayor Jim Kenney.
Four years later, Williams, 62, is back at it, hoping to dethrone Kenney. This time, however, he has little money, and most of the political players are with the incumbent. And no mayor who has run for reelection has lost since the city’s two-term limit took effect in 1952.
Williams admits his first citywide campaign wasn’t the best. This time, he says, it’s a grassroots effort, and he’s more in touch with regular Philadelphians. He is banking on people being disappointed with Kenney’s first term, in particular the mayor’s signature sweetened beverage tax, his supervised injection site plans, and the city’s high poverty and crime rates.
“I do think there’s some level of frustration. … I don’t know if that translates to turnout or not,” Williams said as he drove between campaign stops on a recent Saturday. “I guess we’ll find out.”
It’s that seemingly lukewarm attitude that has some perplexed. Political fundraisers who previously helped Williams say they haven’t heard from him this time. Democratic City Committee Chairman Bob Brady said that it was only in mid-April that Williams asked him to grab coffee and talk, something that perhaps should have happened months ago.
“I didn’t approach it in the traditional way,” Williams said of his campaign.
After all, he was not planning to run and said he did not want to, but people at community meetings kept urging him to get in. Meanwhile, Williams said, he was upset at the level of violence in the city and what he says has been an inadequate response from the Kenney administration.
He started thinking of his legacy and the legacy of his father, the late State Sen. Hardy Williams, a pioneering figure in the city’s African American political arena, who ran for mayor twice.
“There’s a responsibility to fight for people who feel they are not being listened to. I’m running to win, but the reality is that somebody has to stand up and say, ‘These issues are real issues for everyday Philadelphians,’” Williams said. “So at a certain point in time I said, ‘I’ll roll the dice, see what happens.’”
Williams announced his candidacy at a West Philadelphia arts center just two months before the primary election. (Former City Controller Alan Butkovitz also is challenging Kenney.)
Williams didn’t have the City Council members or the black ward leaders or the many other politicians who endorsed him the first time. He didn’t hire big names to run his campaign. The Main Line millionaires of 2015 have kept their checkbooks closed.
Instead, neighborhood activists carry his message with bullhorns and caravans. Former Mayor John F. Street also endorsed Williams in a news conference that seemed more focused on bashing Kenney.
As of early April, Williams had raised $58,500 this year and had $49,078 in the bank. About 20 percent of his contributions came from the Make a Difference PAC, which has collected money from opponents of Kenney’s sweetened beverage tax.
Street, along with one-time Democratic candidate for Controller Brett Mandel, accompanied Williams to a recent City Council budget hearing, where the senator offered seven recommendations for better fiscal accountability. He drew no questions or comments.
Williams promises to fix crumbling roads, start citywide street-sweeping, invest in crime-fighting and violence prevention — all while reducing wage and business taxes and giving people refunds for what he calls unfair property taxes.
He also wants to pay for universal pre-K without the sweetened beverage tax. Williams said he’d take the city’s $300 million rainy-day surplus to pay for it and violence prevention. He promises to cut Philadelphia’s poverty rate in half.
But at the same time, he has criticized the mayor for increasing spending by $800 million. Williams’ goals also could cost hundred of millions, and spending down the rainy-day fund goes against best-practice recommendations for cities.
“That’s sort of like saying, well, we only have a certain amount of water and we have two fires, so we have to save for the next fire,” Williams said during an interview. “If you have a fire, you have to put it out. … And then we got to figure out where we find more water to put out the next fire. But right now, we’re on fire here.”
Williams grew up and lives in Cobbs Creek. As a child, he received a scholarship to attend the Westtown School, a Quaker boarding school in Chester County, an experience that made him a backer of school choice.
After graduating from Franklin and Marshall College, Williams worked for PepsiCo and later started his own vending company. In 1988, he ran for his father’s old state House seat and, 10 years later, succeeded the elder Williams in the Senate.
Emmanuel Bussie said Williams’ independence drew him to his campaign. Bussie is a Democratic committee person in the 61st Ward in Olney and East Oak Lane, where support for Kenney is strong.
“We need a different kind of Democrat,” Bussie said. “The incrementalism is killing us. We need someone who is bold and has vision, not these little baby steps.”
Dressed in black jeans and a black T-shirt that read, “Make America Respect Again,” Williams shook hands in a Shop-Rite grocery on Island Avenue on a recent Saturday. People nodded in agreement about the violence in the city, the abundance of potholes, and Williams’ pitch to repeal the sweetened beverage tax.
After taking Williams’ literature, Kenya Holmes said her top issue is violence.
“It’s so brazen,” the 46-year-old mother said. “I have a teenage son, and I worry about him every day. He can’t even go to the rec center to play because when they are letting out, there is some kind of violence in that area.”
Holmes isn’t alone. A recent Inquirer poll showed that the top issue Philadelphians are concerned about is crime.
Another woman told Williams that trash and dirty streets were huge problems.
Outside of the store, one of his campaign coordinators, Manuel Glenn, was on the bullhorn: “May 21st is Election Day! You’ve got to get to the polls! Anthony Hardy Williams needs your vote Mayyyy 21st!”
There was a caravan later that day going up Broad Street. Williams recently started running radio ads, saying in part: “From poverty to potholes, we can do better.”
Back in Center City, J. Nathan Bazzell, a longtime Kenney supporter in Society Hill, said he has been disappointed with the mayor and has turned to Williams.
“I don’t think we are better off than we were four years ago, and if we’re not, then we have to look elsewhere,” Bazzell said, noting the pitted roads he travels on his Vespa. “Watching our infrastructure crumble, I feel like he is the absent mayor. Where has he been?”
Bazzell said he sees the senator as “more in touch” with the “real hardworking people in the city.”
Williams is relying on a small team of advisers, including Street, Glenn, and longtime local political operative Joe Certaine. For the first time, he is putting his own money into his campaign.
“This is truly not ego-driven. And it’s not going to be perfect,” he said. “But it’s not scripted like it was before.”