Williams reflects on his mayoral defeat

20150531_inq_se1williams31-a
State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams said that if he could do it over, he would try to make a better case for charter schools, hire a political director, and work harder at retail politics. "We did not do that effectively, and that had a consequence."

There was no way around it. Democratic mayoral nominee Jim Kenney ran a better campaign than his closest rival, State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams.

The pundits and politicians said it. Now, Williams himself is saying it.

"Jimmy had a better campaign," Williams said. "I'm not going to parse words. . . . He was a class act in how he conducted himself throughout the campaign."

In a wide-ranging postelection interview with The Inquirer, Williams said Kenney bested him in every way, from getting his message out to garnering key political support to avoiding mistakes.

"He never tripped," Williams said.

He was less charitable about two fellow Democrats who turned on him in the race - State Sen. Vincent Hughes and Mayor Nutter.

"He never opened his mouth to say how much Sen. Williams has helped the city," Williams said of the mayor. "So I learned something about Michael Nutter."

Williams, who entered the race in November as the perceived front-runner, ended up with less than half the 129,000 votes Kenney received.

During the 75-minute interview at Pod restaurant in University City, Williams also blamed his own inexperience in running a citywide campaign. The longtime West Philadelphia legislator and son of a groundbreaking African American politician said the loss hit him and his family hard.

But to put it in perspective, Williams, 58, recalled grim news his doctors gave him five years ago.

And he disclosed for the first time publicly that the illness he eventually overcame was cancer.

After that, he said, "the rest of my life, it might work out."

And that's how he looked at his campaign, even when he saw the odds of defeat rising.

When Williams announced his run Nov. 19 at Independence Hall, the room was a who's who of city politics - officeholders, lobbyists, lawyers.

But from the start, he had trouble getting his message out. A campaign built on a "One Philadelphia" theme produced early ads that seemed mostly aimed at black voters. He was seen in some circles as the charter-school candidate - thanks to his long-standing advocacy for charter schools and school choice, but also to the financial support his campaign received from well-heeled charter supporters.

Williams credits Kenney with stealing his thunder by conveying a message of inclusion.

When he realized he was trailing Kenney badly, he considered switching gears in the campaign. But to do so "in the middle of the sprint, that's a hard thing to do," he said. "The other person has to trip."

In hindsight, some things Williams wishes he'd done:

Come to grips with the charter label. While support for school choice has been a hallmark of his career, Williams acknowledged not making it a strong part of his pitch, even as voters were telling pollsters the city's schools were Issue No. 1. Yet he bristled at being labeled.

"I'm not running from it, but do I have to announce it every time I come into the room?" Williams said. "And that was partly my fault. If you are going to make me dance a certain way, maybe I should just dance that way and make that the issue."

Then he reiterated the case he has long made: that a good charter school "gives an option to a child in a poor neighborhood" with a weak public school.

Hire a political director. "I think it would have served us a lot better in terms of maintaining relationships that would've been important for us down the road."

Do better at retail. "The retail part of it - 'Hey, how you doing?' Shaking hands. That part of it. We did not do that effectively, and that had a consequence."

No ill will - almost. Williams said he's been in politics long enough not to begrudge those who, for their own reasons, throw in with a rival candidate. He said he harbored no ill will for the several black politicians who endorsed Kenney - except for Hughes.

"Vince works in [Senate] leadership with me, and that's not a good thing for people in leadership to be doing to one another," Williams said. "That's the only one I took exception to, and still do."

He questioned whether he could still work with Hughes in Harrisburg: "How do you have a unified caucus going into budget negotiation when you just did that?"

(Told of Williams' remarks, Hughes said through an aide that choices in the mayor's race "should be kept separate from . . . our most important job, which is passing a state budget.")

Then there was Nutter.

Though the mayor endorsed no one, he spoke up after Williams said at a debate that he wouldn't keep Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey. In one of the race's more dramatic turns, Nutter said anyone who would fire Ramsey wasn't smart enough to be mayor.

Williams called that a needless "personal shot."

His reasoning: Mayors pick their own police commissioners. "One, you hired your own; I don't get to hire my own? And two, because I don't hire yours, I'm not smart enough?"

Williams pointedly recalled that Nutter had personally sought his help in Harrisburg on city initiatives such as the property-tax reevaluation and the cigarette tax. "I would've appreciated if he balanced it off by saying, 'I disagree with him about this, but he's helped in that.' That would've been fair."

(Asked for comment, Nutter declined through a spokesman "to engage in a newspaper conversation with Sen. Williams. . . . I deeply appreciate all his work and support he's given to ongoing efforts in city government.")

Williams still defends his call for replacing the popular Ramsey - a stance widely seen as a political blunder.

He praises Ramsey, but points out that the commissioner was hired to implement stop-and-frisk, a controversial policy that all six Democratic mayoral candidates pledged to halt.

When an Inquirer-commissioned poll just days before the primary found him trailing Kenney by 27 percentage points among likely voters, "I was surprised," Williams said. "We saw internal polling, but nothing like that."

He suspects the poll's news made a low turnout lower - barely 27 percent of registered voters voted. "That poll had an effect upon the general public, obviously, with how they perceived the race."

He also credits the millions spent by labor-backed groups to elect Kenney. Though preprimary finance reports showed those groups being outspent by Williams supporters - by a ratio of nearly 3-1 - he believes final reports will show Kenney's backers spent more in the end.

"I knew we would have a heck of a fight on election day relative to resources on the street. Our campaign couldn't match it."

After one of the worst defeats in modern Philadelphia political history, Williams and his wife, Shari, headed to Margate for Memorial Day weekend with friends who have a beach house there.

By Tuesday he was "back to reality," as he put it, to work, and to dealing with a very public defeat.

"The classics are when they say, 'I voted for you,' " he said in a mocking sad voice.

He's tried to console supporters by urging them, too, to keep some perspective. "I told people, 'This isn't cancer, it's an election.' They didn't know what I was saying."

Williams said he was fortunate to have his Senate job - his term runs until 2019 - and other "opportunities." He wouldn't specify, except to mention possible runs for other offices as well as the private sector.

In the meantime, what are his hopes for the next mayor, the job he wanted?

"I hope schools get better, dramatically better, to the point where it attracts people to Philadelphia. In order to do that, I hope they don't play politics. I hope they actually lead with data, facts, and things that have proven to be successful."

Williams promises his door will be open.

"There's a reality in Harrisburg, and I will be there. And I will make myself available to him when he needs me."


cvargas@phillynews.com

215-854-5520 @InqCVargas