John Baer: Tony Williams for guv? He's ready to go

State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, seen speaking at his late father's funeral, says he's running for governor. (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)

MY FIRST REACTION to Tony Williams running for governor was one of profound skepticism.

I mean, he's a Philadelphia Democratic ward leader and longtime member of our lackluster Legislature, terrible labels to wear in a statewide race.

But I never avert my eyes from potential political train wrecks, and I'm more than willing to offer contrary views. So, here goes.

Williams, 52, is blessed with steel-strong political genes. He's the son of former state Sen. Hardy Williams, the progenitor of Philly's independent African-American politics who died last month at age 78.

This lineage alone is an asset in a city with more Democrats than anywhere else in the state; he could, at a minimum, impact the May 18 primary.

Anthony Hardy Williams (his Web site says his initials also stand for "Always Hard Working") was elected to the House in 1988. Ten years later, he won the Senate seat held by his father, has been re-elected since, mostly with no opposition, and faces re-election this year.

He intends to file nominating papers for governor and Senate because "my first job is as state Senator and I hadn't planned on running for governor."

It's a risky strategy. Pols are suspect. Pols hedging bets are super-suspect. But it worked for him before. He filed for and won both a House and a Senate seat in 1998, then left the former to serve in the latter.

Williams says he's serious about the governor's race because Philly's Tom Knox got out and other candidates - Allegheny County exec Dan Onorato, state Auditor General Jack Wagner, Montco Commissioner Joe Hoeffel and (at least for now) Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty - aren't really talking about issues Williams wants his party to push.

"We've got to talk about chronic unemployment, poverty becoming part of Pennsylvania, about education being done in more competitive ways, about job training being done differently and about cutting taxes," Williams says.

This, if you notice, goes beyond normal Democratic spiels. He's talking about school choice, cutting taxes and bypassing government job training in favor of subsidizing businesses to train workers themselves.

When I ask if this stance is in any way tied to the passing of his father, who was known for speaking past party lines, he says, "no doubt that's part of it . . . I think he's someplace laughing about it . . . [but] speaking the truth about issues, yeah, that's his voice."

He says he has $500,000 in the bank and has pledges for another $500,000. He says the money isn't from his Senate campaign committee (which shows about $80,000 on hand) or the top sources that traditionally fund it - trial lawyers and unions.

"It's from people interested in school choice," he tells me. When I note that that usually means Republicans, he says, "exactly right." He adds, "If I can raise $4 million, I'm in. And I have a few weeks to figure it out."

The deadline for circulating and filing nominating petitions is March 9.

Williams' targets are young voters, people of color and moderate suburbanites: "You hear we need government reforms and that's fine, let's do all that, but the last time I checked, people are worried about how to live . . . Philadelphia was the third-largest city in America when I was a kid, now it's sixth . . . 23 percent of its people on food stamps, AFDC [Aid to Families with Dependent Children], the third poorest city in the nation."

AFDC ended during the Clinton administration. It became TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). But you get the idea. And, according to the most recent U.S. Census data, 25 percent of Philadelphians live below the poverty level but several cities have worse numbers, including Detroit, Buffalo, Cleveland, Miami and Cincinnati.

Still, Williams wants to be heard on issues impacting the city and the state, and his Senate district suggests familiarity with both. It has severe poverty pockets in west and southwest Philly, as well as Delaware County suburbs including Ridley Park, where median income ($65,000) and home values ($243,000) are well above state averages.

"I span the globe in terms of demographics," Williams says.

He is smart and passionate about issues, but despite two decades-plus in the Legislature is not easily identified with standout achievements.

He's proudest of a trades-apprentice program for minorities as part of building tax-supported sports stadiums in Philly in the '90s; legislation tightening control of sheriffs' sales to prevent buyers from allowing properties to deteriorate; and efforts, along with a handful of other city lawmakers, to create the School Reform Commission in 2001.

If Williams is in - and raising $3 million quickly in this economy is no cakewalk - he shakes things up. He hurts Hoeffel, the only other southeastern candidate, and adds a new element to a contest in which no candidate is known statewide and, according to a recent Franklin & Marshall Poll, 72 percent of voters are undecided.

A multicandidate primary can produce surprises. Ask Dwight Evans, who finished second in a seven-way for governor in 1994 with numbers far greater than polling suggested.

And if Arlen Specter can push out a heavy Democratic vote in Philly, Williams clearly could benefit.

This doesn't mean I'm not skeptical about a Williams run - just maybe not profoundly so.

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