Tony Williams: young, Republican and no relation to the mayor
Tony Williams says he’s not a morning person.
As an insomniac, his nightly routine consists of a half-hour meditation, and then he’s off to bed by 4 a.m. and up by 8 a.m.
On a warm Thursday morning at the Starbucks on Pennsylvania and Third, Williams, with an iced tea in hand, is sitting in the sunshine at an outside table as Hill dwellers in tailored suits and flowing skirts spill outside the door.
The meditating must work. He looks wide awake, peaceful and on an important mission in an elegant dark pinstripe suit and sturdy black shoes.
There is an urgency to his demeanor, but nothing pompous. If anything, he’s a little green around the edges. At 26, Williams, the son of National Public Radio (NPR) correspondent Juan Williams, is running for Washington D.C. City Council, specifically Ward 6, which includes portions of Capitol Hill.
A striking characteristic about Williams, considering that his father is such a vocal liberal on Fox News and NPR: Williams is a Republican who has filed to run as an independent.
It is going to be an uphill battle for Williams. Five Democrats are running in the September primary before the general election in November. Ward 6 is filled with many Democrats, who overwhelmingly supported Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) over President Bush in 2004.
His greenness isn’t immediately apparent. However, a look at his “Policy Suggestions,” a 10-page synopsis of what he would do in Ward 6, contains numerous typographical errors, as does his r�sum�. For instance, Capitol Hill is “Capital Hill.”
In all fairness, this is his first interview — ever — with a reporter, and he admits that he feels nervous about how he sounds and whether his words will be twisted or tweaked.
Spelling errors aside, running for City Council with a name like Tony Williams seems like a stroke of good luck, since the mayor bears the same name. That may not be the case, he said, noting that wealthier residents of Capitol Hill support the mayor but are also not excited about change.
So far, he has amassed $5,000 in donations, and this is without asking. And he hates to ask. “I don’t even go asking for them because I’m a bad politician, I guess,” he says. He is hoping to raise more than $150,000.
Part of Williams’s strategy is his newness and his youth. In addition, he counts Armstrong Williams, the syndicated GOP columnist who was paid by the Bush administration to support the president’s No Child Left Behind initiative, among his friends.
He’s also hoping to tap his resources from his congressional contacts. From March 2004 to November 2006, he was a speechwriter and legislative correspondent for Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.). In 2000 he was a communications and public-relations assistant for the Republican National Committee (RNC). And back in 1996 and 1997 he was a Senate page and intern for Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), where he performed typical intern duties such as giving Capitol tours.
Williams is distressed by people who work on the Hill but don’t take part in their community. “You’re stuck on the Hill campus, and that’s your entire life,” he says. “I want to change that.”
“The real answer is empowering people, empowering individuals to move forward,” he says, revealing a major theme of his campaign platform. “This is about bringing people together. The last thing I need is people divided because you are Republican or Democrat.”
Williams slightly resembles his father, with his dark Panamanian skin and freckles, but he’s taller and with chiseled dark features and almond-shaped eyes. He looks as though he just stepped out of a Gap ad.
He has never modeled professionally, but he has been asked. While attending Macalester College, a small, private liberal-arts institution in St. Paul, Minn., he was running across campus one morning to deliver a final paper. In a rush, he wore only pajama bottoms and flip-flops. A talent scout for Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch approached and asked if Williams would model.
“They wanted to do a shoot,” Williams recalls. “My thought wasn’t, ‘I want to be a model.’ It’s ‘I want to get my work done.’ I told them thanks, but no thanks. Maybe I missed my true calling.”
It was at Macalester College, the alma mater of Kofi Annan and Walter Mondale, where Williams discovered that he was Republican. “I went there as a liberal,” he says, but “I was more on the Republican side of things.”
Though he was raised with his father’s liberal foundation, the liberals at Macalster took liberalism to an extreme that made Williams uncomfortable. “I am just a middle-of-the-road person generally,” he says. “They started labeling me as a Republican. At first I just thought these guys are throwing names out.”
But soon he realized that he really did identify more with Republicans. When Williams began interning for the RNC, his father had questions: “He was kind of like, ‘What are you doing over there?’ But he was also like, ‘Let my son do his thing.’”
When Williams began working on Bush’s presidential campaign, again his father came with concerns. “He certainly got on me,” Williams says. “In a serious way, he talked to me about it. He said, ‘You are making a real choice here.’ He would challenge my beliefs, especially on the religious issues, [saying], ‘You are also putting this into power.’”
Williams defends Bush: “There is no perfect choice in any election. George Bush was the best choice.”
He says his parents are concerned about his impending election come November.
“I’m so young,” he says. “My father is jaded by being a Washington insider, so his view is that the message I’m talking about isn’t what they want to hear. He thinks they want someone to promise them the stars and the moon, that I haven’t learned the political lesson, which is to give them everything.”
Williams may disagree with his father on many political issues, and even the upcoming election, but he clearly looks up to him. “He’s great on the radio, especially NPR.
“No matter what teachers tell you, there are dumb questions,” he says, expressing his distaste for what he considers NPR’s dull, monotone nature. “Even if I don’t agree with his views all the time, he brings some life to that station.”
On his father’s parenting style, Williams says, “He wasn’t strict with me. My dad demanded accountability from me. He’s a very loving man.”
Asked about his son’s campaign, Juan Williams’s reaction is surprising: “I don’t know all that much about it. One, he’s doing it, which was a shock to me.”
When pressed, Juan Williams, who had no idea that his son was running as an independent instead of a Republican, is supportive. “It’s a great idea,” he says, explaining that he would not provide financial backing because of the journalistic conflict. “He’d be a fabulous member of the City Council.”
Asked how he feels about his son’s Republican pedigree, he replies, “Initially it was a surprise to everybody in our family, but the whole idea was to raise a young man who was empowered to make his own choices in life. He is a conservative person and has always been. It wasn’t a surprise in that sense.”
Williams the candidate says he believes his youth is an asset and expects opponents like school board member Tommy Wells to pound him on it. “He can attack me on age and lack of experience,” Williams says, “but I can attack him on the lack of what he’s done in 15 to 20 years.”
Greg Crist, a former House Republican leadership aide, sees youth as an advantage for Williams.
“If you had to capture him in a word, it would be energetic and that is what this city needs,” Crist says. “The youth could actually be an asset, particularly when you’re talking about a City Council seat. First impressions matter. If the denizens of Ward 6 have the same first impression that I’ve had, then that bodes well for Tony.”
Williams owns two condos on Capitol Hill — one he lives in and the other he rents to a Democratic female Senate Judiciary Committee staffer. Since graduation from college in 2002, he has been a freelance journalist and speechwriter. He’s also earning a master’s degree in journalism from American University.
Bars have never been his scene, he says, explaining that with a long-term girlfriend he feels no need for them. He prefers coffee shops.
Williams has always had trouble sleeping. From the time he was 8, he’d sit downstairs with a thermos of tea and play video games.
“I still don’t sleep very well,” he says, explaining that he now puts his awake time to better use with writing and with reading long, difficult books.
Where he stands on the issues…
Abortion: “If I was a woman I would be pro-life. [But] just like the government shouldn’t regulate the bedroom, they shouldn’t regulate people’s bodies.”
Same-sex marriage: “Would I ever want to marry a man? No. You can’t regulate what goes on in the bedroom. Marriage is a religious commitment — that is where it crosses the line. I support civil unions. I don’t understand why gay people would want to be married under a religion that doesn’t recognize them.”
Immigration issues: “I come from a family of immigrants. My father is from Panama. I’m pro-business. It’s good business sense to have immigrants here. Everyone has their own views on it. There are always going to be extremists.”