After his father was murdered in January of 1973, four-year-old Anthony Williams found joy in the “Joy Bus.” He remembers Highland Church of Christ bringing a big blue bus to his neighborhood to transport kids to Sunday services.
“They gave away orange juice and donuts,” Williams said, “and for a little fat kid like me, that was the hook.”
Ministers and elders at Highland helped his mother financially and spiritually, which influenced him to give back to the city when he got older.
Now Williams, chief business services officer, is campaigning for mayor of Abilene in the May elections. His mentor, Dr. Gary McCaleb, served as mayor of Abilene in the ’90s. Like McCaleb, Williams said he plans to focus on serving the Abilene community and expanding economic development, especially in downtown Abilene.
McCaleb and Williams met in the early ’90s when Williams was a senior at McMurry University. McCaleb said he asked Williams to help direct a program for at-risk teenage boys called Midnight Basketball. Williams spent seven years directing the program, which allowed boys to play basketball and hear encouraging speakers from 10 p.m.-1 a.m.
“He’s had the advantage of seeing Abilene at different ages,” McCaleb said. “He’s moved through all those different stages of life in Abilene.”
Williams graduated from Abilene High School in 1987 and got a bachelor’s degree from McMurry University. He said he and his wife, Lynette, decided he would campaign as an “average Abilenian” with a mortgage, a full-time job, and four children: Anthony Jr., Alissa, John and Ahjae. He served on the city council since 2001 and said he wants to continue to serve the city by running for mayor.
Williams is running against Robert Briley, owner of the local Aaron’s furniture rental stores, and Richard Kennedy, director of the 180 House.
At the 180 House, Kennedy helps people recover from addictions. Although he’s not a politician, he said he’s running for mayor because he wants to see change in Abilene, starting with doubling voter turnout. Kennedy said only 9,000 people voted in the last mayoral election.
Through running a nonprofit, Kennedy said he’s learned how to do more with less money, which would help him make budget decisions that benefit the city.
“I’ve been in the business of restoring lives and restoring houses,” Kennedy said. “And this city needs restoration.”
He said the city shouldn’t try to be like a metropolitan area, but should focus on being the best mid-sized city in this part of Texas.
Robert Briley ran for mayor in 2014 and lost to Mayor Norm Archibald by 132 votes, he said. As a small business owner for 36 years, Briley said he knows how to work with diverse groups and adapt to changes in the economy.
“You have to have a lot of grit and judgement because 80 percent of small businesses fail in the first two years,” Briley said.
He said his business started with just $1,500 and grew to a $20 million company.
“I know what it takes to grow a business, and I can grow the city as well,” Briley said.
Elections will take place on May 6 and about 336 students are registered to vote in Taylor County, according to the Students’ Association office which did a voter registration drive in October.
Because he grew up without a father, Williams said he looked to older men like McCaleb to mentor him. In the role of mayor, Williams would face similar issue to those faced by his mentor 20 years ago. One of the big issues for the city while McCaleb was mayor involved revitalizing downtown Abilene. McCaleb said the growth of the Mall of Abilene and other businesses on the south side of town drew a lot of the activity from downtown, causing downtown to grow stagnant.
“That was when an old hotel building that was empty became the Grace Museum,” McCaleb said, “gave it new life. You had to sort of reinvent downtown and bring it back with different purposes.”
Williams also wants to revitalize the city in a way that draws young professionals, like ACU graduates, to stay in the city.
“Young professionals are demanding that there be amenities, more recreational opportunities,” Williams said. “The challenge to the Abilene community is responding. We have to be creative.”
McCaleb said the mayor serves as the chief representative of the people and is elected from the community to serve community interests. The mayor doesn’t work full-time and only earns $1 a year, while the city manager works full time to handle daily city needs.
If elected, Williams would be the first black mayor of Abilene, but he said his race shouldn’t be a factor in the election.
“I really want to be elected because I’m the better candidate,” Williams said. “I want people to vote for me because they know they if vote for me, they’re voting for themselves. I don’t think there is an ‘If.’ I will be the next mayor of Abilene.”
His campaign signs don’t say “Anthony for Mayor,” but rather display “Anthony for the Arts” or “Anthony for Abilene” because he said wants to be a servant to the city.
McCaleb was the first person connected to ACU to run for mayor of Abilene and said most students weren’t involved in the Abilene community during his terms in the ’90s.
“I think maybe now students are more involved than maybe they were then,” McCaleb said. “They’re doing community service that makes them more aware of what’s going on in the city.”
Many faculty used to live on “The Hill” area right around campus, McCaleb said, but now faculty and staff, including Williams, live all over Abilene and are more involved in the city. McCaleb said Williams can represent the ACU community because he works here, but can also represent underprivileged populations throughout the city because he didn’t grow up in a privileged home.
“He’s never forgotten what it’s like, as he looks around town and knows there are still people here growing up under difficult circumstances,” McCaleb said. “But that’s what a community is for. Everybody works together, that’s what the city government is for.”