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Williams campaign driven by school choice, hefty donors

Friday, May 14th, 2010



The candidates vying for Pennsylvania’s Democratic gubernatorial nomination Tuesday are largely unknown to voters in this region. But one Philadelphia Democratic State Senator with a famous father is reaching out to voters on television, thanks to some of the heftiest campaign contributions Pennsylvania has ever seen.

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Anthony Hardy Williams stood outside City Hall on a warm May morning, waiting to be endorsed by a handful of Philadelphia City Council members and the city’s District Attorney. Williams encouraged voters to make their voices heard by showing up at the polls.

“Others will understand gun control is not a danger to anyone who wants to legally own a gun,” said Williams, “it is the death to those who are taking lives of innocent Pennsylvanians. And to an educational system that needs our public support and we will give it – it means competition.  So I thank you for coming out today.”

It’s that issue Williams mentioned, school choice, that seems to have generated Williams’ eye-popping campaign contributions.

Williams, the son of prominent former state Senator Hardy Williams, was late to join the race for Governor – he announced his candidacy in February.

Since then, his campaign has been funded by a relatively small number of shockingly large contributions.

Williams has received financial support from three executives at a Bala Cynwyd investment firm called Susquehanna International Group. The trio supports school choice.  They have given Williams money through three political action committees, which gave Williams a whopping total of $1.5 million dollars in the early days of his candidacy.

More recent contributions from the PACs have brought that total to more than $3 million.

He has also received hundreds of thousands of dollars from a Chicago-based philanthropist and active advocate for school choice, and from a Pennsylvania-based philanthropist whom the Williams campaign identifies as a “supporter of civil rights, school choice, and education.”

Williams says major donors to his campaign will not be eligible for contracts with the state.

Williams says he supports a full menu of education options including public, charter, magnet and vocational schools.  He says it makes sense to let parents decide for themselves which school is best for their child and then let the money follow the child to the school.

“It has to do with looking beyond your own limited circumstances across Pennsylvania – be it rural Pennsylvania or urban Pennsylvania – and see what their circumstances are in life,” says Williams. “Why the drop-out rate is so significantly high across Pennsylvania, why the literacy rate is so dramatically low in Pennsylvania. It’s because the educational system may not be serving them in the way that we would hope that they would.”

Williams brushes off the suggestion that his school-choice platform is driven by his financial backers. But the question lingers: Why are these few donors spending so much to fuel his long-shot campaign?

Williams’ spokesman says the three executives from the Bala Cynwyd investment firm are backing the Williams campaign so strongly because they believe school choice is a civil rights matter.

“The kind of money that we’re seeing coming into the campaign finance system in Pennsylvania is just extraordinary,” says Barry Kauffman the Executive Director of the political watchdog group Common Cause Pennsylvania. “It’s just unseen before. Ed Rendell is often perceived to be the champion all-time fundraiser in Pennsylvania, but the contributions we’ve seen lately make him look like a piker!”

Kauffman says Pennsylvania is one of just a few states that do not put limits on political contributions.

“The people who give this money are smart business people,” he says, “and if the money did not achieve its intended goals they would not be giving it.”

Williams’ critics inside the Democratic Party accuse him of undercutting traditional public education.

In an ad from Joe Hoeffel, another Democratic candidate, Hoeffel tosses a pair of pink flip flops over his shoulder and accuses his opponents of changing their position on the issues.

“Tony Williams used to support our public schools,” says Hoeffel in the ad. “Now it’s private schools.”

“When I talk about educational choice, it doesn’t affect his community at all,” says Williams in response. “It affects kids who are trapped in bad under-performing schools.”

He is outspoken on school choice, but Williams say he is not a one-issue candidate. He says he is spent a lot of time on job creation, controlling spending and removing illegal guns from the streets.

For Lansdowne resident Charlotte Hummel, education is the decisive issue. She says she likes a lot of Williams’ other positions.

“He talks about, you know, progressive issues like needing jobs for working families to thinking about cities,” she says, “so in those areas I really believe that he is a good hearted person and on the right path.  But with regard to education – No! When it comes to public education, he and I part ways. I don’t think that charters are the solution.”

Hummel is supporting Hoeffel for the Democratic nomination.

The political action committee of Pennsylvania’s largest school employee union is backing Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato in the primary.

The president of the 191,000-member Pennsylvania State Education Association says Onorato believes state government should live up to its responsibility to fund public education.

A number of recent polls show Onorato with a commanding lead. A new Quinnipiac University poll of likely Democratic primary voters puts Onorato at 38 percent, with Williams back at 10 percent.

But that same poll has some hopeful elements for Williams.  The poll finds 32 percent of the likely Democratic primary voters remain undecided and 56 percent of those who named a candidate say they might change their mind.


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