November 02, 2016
On Tuesday, 171 women across the United States and its territories are up for seats in the U.S. Congress. Of that group, 46 are running as Republicans. Just four are African-American.
And one of those candidates is a Philadelphian.
Deborah Williams, 47, a divorced mother of two, is a one-woman show, sans the political entourage, taking on the monolithic U.S. Rep Bob Brady, the nine-time representative of the 1st Congressional District and chairman of the Philadelphia Democratic Party. She’s aware of the reality.
She has no real financial backing, other than the pamphlets supplied by the Republican Party, and a small donation from Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, a fellow Republican.
She has no real advocate, other than her own voice.
She has no support locally, other than word of mouth and social media, and no regional media endorsement (The Philadelphia Inquirer “reluctantly endorsed” Brady, despite his “unremarkable congressional record.”)
On a recent Friday morning, Williams walks through the main concourse of One Liberty Place, where she once worked, in an elegant red dress with her 27-year-old son, Cameron, in tow, clinging tightly to her right arm.
She laughs, because she knows she doesn’t fit the mold: a black woman running for Congress as a Republican, a party whose current face, presidential candidate Donald Trump, is mired in rising accusations that he sexually harassed women and claims that he has largely ignored the African-American community until recently.
Williams feels framed in a no-win situation: not traditionally accepted by the party she’s running for, and accused of “betraying her race” because she’s running as a Republican.
“I’m holding up OK emotionally. I don’t want to feel as if I’m wasting my time, especially after having a stroke. I said after the last time I ran that people wouldn’t bother me. I am a hustler, I won’t dispute that." – Deborah Williams
Factor in surviving a stroke in December 2011 and a diagnosis of lupus, all while serving as the primary caretaker for her autistic son, and you’re forced to ask Williams why she’s putting herself through this a second time. She challenged Brady in the 2004 general election and lost.
“I’ve been asking myself that same question,” admits Williams, who graduated from Ben Franklin High School and has a doctorate in theology from Jameson Bible Institute. “I had interviewed to become a financial adviser and went through all of the background checks and was offered a position. I thought about getting detached from this. But I don’t regret being a part of this. I regret what is happening to our country and the division that’s going on.
“I’m holding up OK emotionally. I don’t want to feel as if I’m wasting my time, especially after having a stroke," she added. "I said after the last time I ran that people wouldn’t bother me. I am a hustler, I won’t dispute that."
Williams likened herself to David facing Goliath, as she tries to break the glass ceiling.
"I’m a poor, divorced black woman who’s the mother of two running as a Republican for Congress. I know I don’t fit the mold, but I want to move the needle," she said. "I think there is only one like me, and no, Mr. Trump and what he’s said and his behavior hasn’t made it easy on me."
Williams said the great support she has received from so many people is giving her the courage to continue her campaign amid the vitriolic attacks.
"I’ve shed some tears over this. I’ve heard everything from betraying my race to running on the same party as Trump. I don’t defend Trump; that’s up to him to defend himself. I’m running for Deborah Williams and that’s the only reason why I’m holding up," she said. "I was about to throw up my hands and say ‘F all of this.’ Trump’s words and behavior make it difficult for everyone that’s running as a Republican and that’s the thing, he doesn’t see it. I’m a woman that Donald Trump is directly affecting.”
Williams has had some success running against the Brady machine in the First Congressional District, even if by low Republican standards. In 2004, she received 33,266 votes to Brady’s 214,462, the second-highest tally against the incumbent since he was first elected in 1998. (John Featherman nicked Brady for 41,708 votes in the 2012 contest).
Williams counts Augusta Clark, the second African-American woman to serve on Philadelphia City Council, and family friend David Richardson, a former Democratic member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, as her early political influences. She began working the polls in high school and mentions in hushed tones that she was part of Chaka Fattah’s campaign when he was first elected in the Second Congressional District in 1995 — and who since was found guilty of federal corruption.
“I suppose there is one thing about Bob Brady that I am impressed by, he continues to get people to vote for him while not doing a damn thing; that’s impressive.”
On Tuesday, Williams will find herself in the rarified territory of four African-American women running for the U.S. House as Republicans, joining: Lori Bartley, who is running in the 18th District in Texas, Glo Smith running in the 5th District in Florida, and Mia Love, the first black female Republican in Congress in U.S. history running as the incumbent in the 4th District in Utah.
Williams’ resume is thin. It includes a hodgepodge of blips that run the gamut of model, financial analyst, insurance agent, actress, personal trainer, legal assistant and retail clerk. She points out, however, what’s not on paper, like a litany of community service – from helping schoolchildren, to delivering food to the homeless, efforts she undertook before she ran for office, she points out.
She also broaches the opinion that Brady hasn’t done much in close to two decades of service. Her strengths, she feels, is her ability to relate to the impoverished First Congressional District, which includes South Philadelphia and parts of Delaware County, including the City of Chester. The district has a population of 678,723, which is 47 percent male, 53 percent female, and racially breaks down 46.4 percent black, 25.7 percent white, 19.3 percent Hispanic and 6.4 percent Asian.
It is an area rife with hardship. The district's median household income in 2015 was $35,702, significantly less than the state median income, according to HUD statistics. Its unemployment rate of 15.6 percent is 10 percent higher than the state rate, as of September, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. High school and college graduation rates also lag the state average.
“I suppose there is one thing about Bob Brady that I am impressed by, he continues to get people to vote for him while not doing a damn thing; that’s impressive,” said Williams, claiming that he has only had 12 bills pass in nearly two decades in Washington.
“This is what bothers me about the Democrats: they take the African-American vote for granted. That’s what I keep telling people. They need to hear that," she said. "Black people are being prostituted for our votes by the Democratic Party, mainly because blacks vote Democrat. A few weeks before the election, minorities, not just blacks, are being prostituted. Don’t treat us like we matter before the election. Don’t treat us like we don’t matter after the election, and that’s for both parties.”
“I want people to hear me about children with disabilities, because I live it every day....I know poverty doesn't have a color."
Williams met Trump personally in September when he visited Philadelphia. They shook hands and Trump told her that he thought she looked “beautiful” without trying to “grab me,” she said, “but I am a woman and I have experienced many forms of harassment. So yes, I was upset when I heard the tape come out about Trump on the bus with Billy Bush. I was supporting Trump — and I need as much support as I could get. I don’t like Hillary Clinton and I’m not crazy about Trump, which places me in the same place as everyone else.”
Then Williams' lower lip trembled and fissures of emotion creased the her face, the tears soon flowing down her cheeks.
“My life is what it is, taking care of Cameron,” said Williams, whose younger son, Christian, 20, is a sophomore at Bloomsburg University. “I want people to hear me about children with disabilities, because I live it every day. I understand that I’m a black Republican candidate. I am the pink elephant in the room. I know poverty doesn’t have a color.
"When you really care about something, I don’t know if politics is a place where people who really care should go. If I feel that way and I’m running, how do the rest of people running feel? If a miracle happens, and I win, I’ll sleep in on Nov. 9 ....
"Regardless of what happens, a lot of people are still going to vote for Donald Trump anyway. I’ll go on living my life...”