Wanda Williams: Phenomenal Public Servant (and Mother & Grandmother!)

New mayor is a “true blue” friend to all neighborhoods

Photo By Rick Snizik
Story By Randy Gross – rgross@harrisburgmagazine.com

“I am a woman phenomenally, phenomenal woman that is your grandmother, that is your mother, that is your sister, that is you and that is me.” – Maya Angelou

A few quick insights about phenomenal women. They don’t just materialize out of thin air. They are also often phenomenal mothers and grandmothers. And, last but not least, phenomenal women can be among a community’s best activists and public servants. In that latter category, in one breath, here in the capital city, one name tips the tongues of residents in all seven of Harrisburg’s distinct neighborhoods: Mayor Wanda Williams.

It is because of Williams’ many decades of providing phenomenal guidance and inspiration, both within and without her large family, that she has been selected as Harrisburg Magazine’s Influencer of the month.

Motherhood, sisterhood, brotherhood

It can be said that Wanda R.D. Williams is about as “true blue Harrisburg” as anyone. Born and raised here, schooled here (William Penn High and HACC), and she and her husband, Jerome “Jerry” K. Williams, have also raised an immense – and immensely-loving – family here: five children, eighteen grandchildren, and 16 great-grandchildren (and still counting!)  The importance of family has long been a given, but not just inside the home. Ever since Wanda was a girl herself, her fate as a public figure – and as a “sister” to her community – almost seemed pre-determined.

“My mother always said I was so debatable,” recalls Williams.“I used to be on the debate team, and she said, ‘you’re always debatable.’ And she would tell me why I couldn’t do something, and I would say ‘why, just tell me why?’ And she would say ‘because I’m a parent, and I make the best decisions for you.’ And I would say ‘okay … but still why?’ (laughs) So she says, ‘girl, you’re gonna be a lawyer or something.’”

But law wasn’t something she aspired to. And, actually, politics wasn’t either. Though most people know Williams as the former President of Harrisburg City Council, a post she held longer than anyone (11 years!), and now as the 39th Mayor of Harrisburg, she also had a career with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In fact, she didn’t seriously start dipping her toes into political waters until taking a turn as president of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local Union 3105 – and it was her devotion to family that led to a full “dive” into those waters.

Williams explains: “I decided to run for Harrisburg School Board because of my son’s curriculum that they gave him, and I was concerned for him going into his sophomore year. I didn’t think the curriculum they sent for him would be one he could utilize if he decided to go to college, because the courses they had documented on his schedule didn’t coincide with what he wanted to do. And so, I went to the Harrisburg School Board meeting, and I asked some of the questions that I needed to ask, and one response was ‘well, if you are that concerned, if you don’t like what we put in that curriculum for your son, then why don’t you run for school board?’ So, my reply was ‘I’m going to run, and I’m going to take your position.’ And so, I did run, and so I became president of the school board.”

After four years on the school board – and after Mayor Stephen Reed took over the distressed Harrisburg City Schools – Williams, upset with baseless accusations levied against her and her colleagues, and concerned about how the district’s 26-million-dollar surplus was going to be spent, made her next political move. “I’m leaving you with a surplus,” she remembers telling Reed, “So … I’m running for City Council.”

Meanwhile, even while building on her public service career, Williams always remained mindful of her obligations as a parent, stressing the importance of good schooling – and staying in the community’s “good graces” – to her children and grandchildren. “Just to be focused on education is really very very important … because education can take you so many places,” she says. “And even right now, always be respectful. When I’m out in the public and people hear my grandkids say ‘yes, ma’am’ and ‘no, ma’am,’ they turn around and they’re like, caught off guard. And they say ‘Are you kidding? They said yes, ma’am?’ And I say, ‘they better!’” 

The second (or third) calling

If parenting was Williams’ first calling, and entering politics was her second, could running for – and becoming elected – Harrisburg Mayor be her third? Actually, the third “act” of the Wanda Williams play was supposed to be retirement. That’s where she was headed slightly over a year ago, and who could blame her. All those grand and great-grandchildren were looking forward to spending time with their mumma! Her husband, a Harrisburg School District retiree who was still working for Keystone Health Services, told her at the time, “hey baby, if you’re gonna retire and not gonna run, maybe I’ll retire.” But then, says Williams, “I got a surge of energy.”

But that surge of energy didn’t come entirely from within. But rather, from what she considered was incumbent Mayor Papenfuse’s unwillingness to change.

She explains: “I was going to support the candidates that were running for City Council, but then when I looked into some of the things that weren’t done here in the administration I got concerned and I said to the mayor, ‘look, you’re running for a third term, you have to be more personable and out in the community. The community needs to see a mayor that’s involved in everyday life. He was really strongly against attending a lot of events, and I said ‘mayor, I cannot attend all the events as the president [of City Council] if you’re not attending as the mayor.’

And that was like 6 months before he really thought about running for a 3rd term. And I said you have to do better than that, and I’ll support you if I know you’re going in the right direction. And then when I saw that he wasn’t, I said ‘mayor, I can’t do this … you can’t do this to the city of Harrisburg anymore. This is 8 years. You have to do better than that. They deserve better.” 

The stage was set. And even though Williams had a lot on her plate, including taking care of ailing parents (a mother who would ultimately pass away in September of 2021, and father who passed 52 days after that), she says it wasn’t a difficult decision. “I just moved forward because I knew God was going to put me in this position,” she recalls, “because I needed to be here for the people.”

The hands-on approach

Feeling like she’s needed by her community has long been a driving force for Williams, and that’s been the motivating factor behind her “hands-on” approach to governing. She easily and humbly cites moments past and present when she went “above and beyond” to help constituents in need.

While President of City Council: “We had an incident over a holiday. And I received a call from Washington Square, down here by the Harrisburg Hospital. An apartment complex where their sewer backed up, and it was all in their apartments. And it was also coming through their tubs. And I said, ‘are you kidding?’ So, I said, ‘okay, I’ll be down.’ The water was like three feet, I was totally, totally stepping in feces. And I said, ‘oh my gosh,’ because the woman had cancer. She was on a machine, and I said, ‘I cannot allow you to stay in this apartment.’ So, I went into about 3 or 4 other apartments, and it was the same scenario. So, I called the Crowne Plaza, and I called [Harrisburg Fire] Chief Enterline, and I said, ‘we have to move these people.’ So, he and I moved them to the Crowne Plaza for 3 or 4 days. But they had called the mayor, and the mayor never took any action.”

While Mayor of Harrisburg: “I was just at the Senators game on Tuesday [opening day 2022], and I started giving out tickets to the kids that were in line, and I almost cried with the one young lady. She had just lost her husband to COVID, and she said ‘I just want to thank you for giving my kids and myself the tickets,’ because she was bringing her kids down to Harrisburg [from Pittsburgh], and she says ‘you just came up to me, you didn’t even know me, and you gave all of us tickets, and you invited us up to your suite. And she said ‘I’m just amazed. You’re just so open. Never in my life did I have a mayor just come up and talk to me and do what you did.’”

It is Williams’ hope – the entire capital city’s hope – that other pressing issues will benefit from her hands-on approach, including crime and gun control. Having lost one of her granddaughters to gun violence in 2013, Williams has long been a strong advocate against crime. “Especially guns,” she exclaims passionately. “So, last week we met with the PA State Police, and we were able to sit down at the round table with other state agencies involved … and we have a plan of action that we’re going to be putting in place. We’re out there now, we’re on the ground now. When it comes to safety for our residents, that’s a priority for me.”

Future ‘tents’

“Charity begins at home, and justice begins next door.” – Charles Dickens

As a next-door neighbor to all of Harrisburg, Williams is making her number one priority providing affordable “homes” to those in need. “One of the goals I want to accomplish is affordable housing,” she says. “And so, I met with a developer in February, and he confirmed that he is going to now do 67 affordable houses in the uptown area. So, I was elated. We’re going to do houses in the 6th and Emerald corridor, with the three vacant lots … and then also Schuylkill and Jefferson, also with a vacant lot that extends the whole block.  And then I hope we can convince the Harrisburg Housing Authority to renovate some of the homes down in that lower income area.”

With a goal of “revitalizing the whole city,” she admits “it’s going to take a while. But I intend to try to do something in 4 years that will make a major impact. Yes, I want to repave the streets … but another priority is to try to assist the homeless.”

But instead of “tent city,” think brick-and-mortar. Continues Williams, “I’m looking for a building, so that they’d be able to go in that building and sleep instead of sleeping on the street. And also have the ability to have them take a shower. And maybe stock it with clothes, so they can change their clothes if they want to.”

Future relaxation

With so many goals for her first year, it would seem that Williams has little time for R&R. Even so, there are a few favorite activities she likes to indulge in when she’s able to get away from her offices at the MLK Jr. City Government Center. 

“I read a little bit,” she says, “and I watch a lot of TV [CSI is a favorite] … I try to go visit my kids a lot, to their homes. And my grandkids, they’re usually there. There’s always two or three there. And I love to dance and spend time with my husband. Go out to dinner … and just relax.”