A locally popular black Pennsylvania state senator who bucks his party and the teachers unions on school choice could play a significant role in the May 18 Pennsylvania Democratic gubernatorial primary.
Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams of Philadelphia lags far behind his opponents, with statewide polls among Democrats giving him only 5 percent, but his support of school choice allowed him to raise $1.7 million as of late March — after a little over a month of campaigning. He is running against Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, state Auditor General Jack Wagner, and Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel.
As those four battle it out for the Democratic nod, many observers view state Attorney General Tom Corbett, the Republican front-runner, as the likely favorite to win the gubernatorial election in November because of his prosecution of several corruption cases.
Much of Williams’ money has come from school-choice advocates, including the out-of-state Democrats for Education Reform, which gave $750,000 to Williams’ campaign, according to Philadelphia Weekly. Students First PAC, another school-choice PAC, donated $250,000.
Joel Greenberg, Jeffrey Yass, and Arthur Dantchik, school-choice supporters and managing directors of suburban Philadelphia-based investment firm Susquehanna International Group, have been his largest contributors, giving $1.5 million to his campaign through several PACs, including the aforementioned ones.
According to Williams’ campaign Web site, he would make it possible for parents to “apply their tax dollars to the school setting that works best.”
Promoting school competition would increase the quality of education, decrease overall spending, and allow money to be spent more efficiently, the site says.
“It would allow for more dollars to boost the salaries of good teachers and allow for greater flexibility to weed out ineffective ones,” the campaign site says. “Finally, it would responsibly lower property taxes and allow real reform to occur across the commonwealth and assure residents that their investment is yielding data-based results.”
When it comes to school choice, many black Democrats are closer to conservatives on the issue than most white Democrats are, so Williams’ choice advocacy is not surprising, said Lowman Henry, chairman of the Harrisburg-based Lincoln Institute for Public Policy.
“He is not your typical urban Democrat,” said Terry Madonna, a longtime observer of Pennsylvania politics and a professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. “And there is no reason to think his advocacy for school choice is not sincere. He is a dark-horse candidate who has an outside chance of winning.”
School choice has not had much traction in Pennsylvania since former Gov. Tom Ridge’s proposal to give vouchers to parents of students in underperforming schools failed because of Ridge’s declining popularity and opposition from the state’s largest teachers union.
Even if Williams does not win his party’s nomination, Madonna said his school-choice advocacy will have put the issue back on the table in Pennsylvania politically.
Most Philadelphia Democrats oppose school choice, but Williams has won the endorsements of Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, Philadelphia Democratic Party boss Rep. Robert Brady, and State Rep. Dwight Evans, who chairs the state House Appropriations Committee. Williams’ influence in Philadelphia gained the backing of those city leaders, according to Madonna and Henry.
And their endorsements came despite the fact that former Philadelphia Mayor and current Gov. Ed Rendell threw the support of his political machine behind Onorato, the apparent Democratic front-runner.
Apart from his stance on school choice, Williams holds liberal positions on gun control and gay rights.
Hoeffel, a liberal former congressman from neighboring Montgomery County who has been courting the party’s left wing, has attacked Williams on school choice.
“I understand the realities of Philadelphia politics,” Hoeffel said in a statement. “But I am surprised the mayor would support a candidate whose primary goal, shared by his primary funders, is to use public money for private-school vouchers.
“I believe that using tax dollars for private-school vouchers would greatly weaken public education and would be a direct threat to Philadelphia and Pennsylvania schools,” said Hoeffel, who had raised $239,000 as of the beginning of this month.
Although Williams is a long shot to win his party’s primary, Madonna said he hopes to repeat Rendell’s 2002 strategy to get a come-from-behind win because he likely will not be able to raise the $5 million needed to boost his profile across the state.
Rendell beat now-Sen. Bob Casey Jr. for the Democratic nomination that year by focusing on winning the vote-rich southeastern part of the state around Philadelphia, which contains 40 percent of the state’s Democrats.
“Philadelphia has 1 million registered Democrats, far more than the rest of the state,” Madonna said.
But Williams will be able to run ads in the Philadelphia and Lancaster-Harrisburg television markets to raise his profile there.
A weakness in Williams’ strategy is that 11 percent of Philadelphia’s Democratic electorate normally comes out for midterm elections compared with 21 percent statewide, Madonna said.
Henry expressed skepticism about Williams’ appeal outside of Philadelphia.
The real Democratic race will be between Onorato and Wagner, who both hail from the Pittsburgh area and who have significant statewide name recognition, Henry said. Onorato raised $6.7 million and Wagner raised $673,000 as of the beginning of April.
Wagner, who is pro-life and pro-gun, has the advantage of having won two statewide elections, although Onorato has the clout of Rendell’s backing. But Henry thinks Williams’ main role could be siphoning votes from either Onorato or Wagner in Philadelphia and playing the role of spoiler.
The real challenge will be for all of the candidates to reach the undecided half of the Democratic electorate, and Williams’ backers believe their candidate could eke out a win by picking up 15 percent of the non-black vote.
Whoever wins the Democratic primary will have a tough time winning in November, observers say, because Republican voters are more energized than Democratic ones this year and because Pennsylvanians have a habit of changing parties in the governor's mansion every eight years.
On the Republican side, the favored Corbett faces an insurgent challenge from State Rep. Sam Rohrer, who enjoys the backing of tea party activists and several lesser-known candidates.
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