Williams Reflects on Washington as He Ponders ’18 Bid

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Jay Williams said he expects to decide in the next few months whether he will run for Ohio governor.

That’s as long as the former Youngstown mayor and outgoing assistant U.S. commerce secretary for economic development believes he can wait to give him enough time to mount a credible campaign in the 2018 statewide race.

“There is still a decent amount of time but because Ohio is such a large and diverse state, requiring a significant infrastructure, from a practical standpoint, I would say maybe within the next three to six months, to be pragmatic, in order to have an opportunity to put a structure in place and to do the things that would be necessary,” he said.

A bid for the governorship is just one of the options Williams is evaluating as he wraps up his service in the nation’s capital. At noon Jan. 20, Williams will end 5½ years in Washington with the end of the administration of President Barack Obama.

“To be asked and to have people encourage me to consider running for governor is not something that I take lightly,” Williams said in a phone interview Thursday afternoon. “It is something I am evaluating among some other very compelling opportunities.”

An early endorser of the then-U.S. senator when he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, Williams was initially tapped by Obama in July 2011 to serve as executive director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Recovery for Auto Communities and Workers. For a time, he served concurrently as deputy director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs.

The president nominated Williams in September 2013 to the Commerce Department post, where following his confirmation he would head the U.S. Economic Development Administration. The U.S. Senate confirmed Williams the following May.

“It was a lifetime experience, to have the opportunity to serve in a historic administration with this president, ultimately working on behalf of the American people and more specifically to engage in community and economic development,” he said.

Immediately after leaving his government post, Williams said he might do some consulting but is engaged in “ongoing discussions” regarding his next position. Among the options on the table are positions both in the public and private sectors, as well as with businesses and not-for-profit organizations. However, he noted, “There’s nothing concrete – no formal offers.”

Williams and his wife and son now live outside of Washington in Silver Springs, Md. They sold their home in Youngstown in 2013, he said.

In recent years, several people back here in Ohio as well as in Washington have encouraged him to consider the governor’s race in 2018. How Donald Trump’s election as president resonates in the midterm elections will be interesting to see, he acknowledged.

“Whatever organization, wherever I end up, I want to be impactful,” he said. “I want to help to be a transformative force in leading that organization, whether it’s the state of Ohio as governor or a handful of the other opportunities that are currently under consideration and discussion.”

In deciding whether to seek the governorship, Williams said the key consideration is whether the skills, talents and experience he has and the message he would run on is something that would resonate with voters. Ohio is “too large,” “too diverse” and “faces too many complex issues” to be governed though political ideology and must be governed from the center, he said.

“In my estimation, Democrats can ill afford a disastrous rollout like we had in 2014,” he added. “I am hopeful that there will be a number of candidates that present themselves with compelling skills and talents and visions that are thoroughly vetted by the citizens of the state of Ohio through forums and debates and a primary process.”

In making his decision, Williams won’t consider the composition of the electorate, which tends to be older and less diverse than in presidential years. “The message needs to resonate,” he asserted.

He also said he won’t be concerned with whoever else runs. Among Democrats who have hinted at or been discussed as potential candidates are U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-13 Ohio, and state Senator Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni of Boardman.

“The candidates are going to have to present a compelling vision and address the frustrations of the votes that Donald Trump’s message resonated with. It will be interesting to see whether Republicans distance themselves from their party’s often controversial standard bearer or embrace him.

Williams said he was “very satisfied and blessed” to be afforded the opportunity to serve in the Obama administration. He also was privileged to have “immensely talented and skilled” team members and colleagues there and to be part of seeing the transformation “from the economic decline that was as bad as anything that we had seen outside of the Great Depression” to the state of the economy today, with job creation at more than 15 million.

“The president made a deliberate commitment to invest in the U.S. economy in terms of manufacturing, in terms of innovation, and to be able to do that and have the trust of the administration to lead an agency that was heavily involved in that, those are all things that I’m humbled by and exceptionally proud of,” Williams said.

What he might be most proud of is improving morale at the EDA, which was doing “great work” but had challenges. When he stared with the agency in 2013, it was ranked “dead last” in employee satisfaction, but for the past two years was ranked the most improved agency.

“We have jumped over 100 spots in terms of employee satisfaction, how employees view the work that they’re doing” he reported. “It is now a more modern, more impactful agency that is really engaged in thought leadership in economic development across the federal government. … It is an agency that is better off now than when we started our journey together.”

Being from Youngstown, an area that has struggled economically for decades, also gave him credibility in economically devastated areas across the country, he said.

Two longtime allies, Ryan and Tom Humphries, president and CEO of the Youngstown Warren Regional Chamber, both expressed praise for Williams’s service in Washington. They also noted that Williams, in his roles in Washington was “representing the entire country,” and so could not be expected to direct resources to his hometown.

Williams “represented us well on the national stage” but retained his local roots, even down to keeping the 330 area code on his cell phone, Humphries said.

“It raises the stature of us as a community. At that level, I cannot think of one individual that I would want to represent me more in Washington than a man like Jay Williams,” he said. “He had the integrity and the experience and the charisma that we all should be proud of as he represents us.”

While the Mahoning Valley did not see any projects like an arena or courthouse awarded while Williams was in Washington, it did win the first of the federal Manufacturing USA hubs, now known as America Makes, and the EDA under Williams awarded funds for the Youngstown Business Incubator’s fifth building. Williams was also helpful in understanding federal process, as with the recent unsuccessful Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, grant the city recently sought.

“Would I have liked to see more come back here? Yeah, but I don’t believe we can put that on his back. That’s all of us,” Humphries acknowledged. “All of us have to come together to make something like that happen.”

Williams helped change the image of the Mahoning Valley “in a big way,” first as Youngstown mayor, gaining a national profile that allowed him to be recognized by the Obama administration, Ryan said.

“He really started to, in a national way, change people’s perceptions of what was going on in Youngstown,” he continued. “It’s important to have a guy to call for different issues, but the big thing he did was let people not only in the administration but people in Washington know that there is real talent that comes out of Youngstown.”

Ryan also noted the contentiousness of the time that Williams arrived in Washington during. “We weren’t even passing budgets so the idea that Jay Williams was going to pave the streets of Youngstown with gold, that’s not just realistic,” he remarked. The former mayor also showed a “level of professionalism,” which was why he was brought to Washington in the first place, he said.

Such expectations “probably ran the gamut,” from those who had unrealistically high expectations of benefits to the area to those who were more pessimistic, Williams acknowledged. He said he was proud of how the Valley benefitted from participating in the processes in place to benefit from the auto recovery program and the EDA.

Humphries said he was optimistic that the region might see some “direct support” from the incoming Trump administration.

“We’re always long to partner with people who want to help our community,” Ryan added. “If the Trump administration wants to be part of the economic renaissance that we’re trying to build in our community, we would certainly welcome that.”

Even though Williams is leaving the federal government, Youngstown will have representation in the incoming administration. On Wednesday, Trump’s transition team announced that Omarosa Manigault, an alumna of Trump’s realty show, “The Apprentice,” would serve as assistant to the president and director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison.

“Anytime you see somebody from Youngstown have some success you’ve got to root for them,” Ryan said. Williams had a “significant policy and economic development role and the responsibilities that came with that” in the Obama administration, which was his strong suit, while Manigault’s background is in communications and public relations, he noted.

Humphries noted that Manigault might have the upper hand at this stage in her career in terms of her relationship with Trump compared with Williams’ relationship with Obama. In addition to knowing Trump for several years prior to his run for president, she supported Trump early and her celebrity provided more value as a surrogate to the GOP candidate comparatively than Williams, as mayor of Youngstown, did for Obama.

“Clearly anytime an individual from Youngstown or the Mahoning Valley has an opportunity to serve in any administration is a good thing, especially if they remember their roots and stay connected,” Williams said. “I wish her the best, as I wish this administration. President-elect Trump is president of all of us, so in that regard I wish her well in that capacity and hope that she continues to hold Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley in her heart.”

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.