Campaigns & Elections

‘I win hard elections’: City & State talks with Craig Williams about Pennsylvania’s AG race

Williams is one of two Republicans seeking the GOP nomination in 2024.

Attorney general candidate and state Rep. Craig Williams

Attorney general candidate and state Rep. Craig Williams Craig Williams for PA

On April 23, two Republicans will face off in a primary election battle to secure the GOP nomination for Pennsylvania attorney general.

The two candidates – York County District Attorney Dave Sunday and Delaware County state Rep. Craig Williams – have already met on the debate stage. As the primary election date gets closer, both candidates have sought to distinguish themselves from the other in an increasingly contentious race.

Williams, who currently represents the 160th House District, served as a chief prosecutor during a nearly 30-year stint in the U.S. Marine Corps, and flew 56 combat missions in the Gulf War. He also spent time as deputy legal counsel to the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Williams recently spoke with City & State about why he’s running for attorney general, how he plans to combat violent crime in the commonwealth, the Republican Party’s endorsement process and his electability in 2024. 

This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

What motivated you to run for attorney general?

It basically starts with the culture that I’m seeing in these large cities in Pennsylvania, where there is a huge predisposition to let people out of prison, to not insist on bail, to not prosecute – to allow retail theft crimes and the like to not be prosecuted at all. That’s not who I am. That's not the kind of prosecutor that I am. 

I was the architect of the gun violence task force that passed the House in 2022, which went to the Senate and died because we were in the middle of a gubernatorial election that would give the attorney general concurrent jurisdiction to go into Philadelphia to prosecute gun crimes. Let me be clear about what that means because some Republicans lose their mind about gun crimes: A gun crime is where a prohibited person is in possession of a gun. It’s both a federal crime and a state crime for a prior convicted felon, a military person who’s gotten a dishonorable discharge, any illegal alien – a whole host of people – it’s a crime for them even to possess a gun. So when you do a reasonable suspicion, stop-and-frisk, of a person, and do their background search, and they’re a convicted felon and you find a gun on them, they’ve committed a crime. It only takes three elements. It’s a very easy case to prove in court, but (Philadelphia District Attorney) Larry Krasner won’t prosecute. As a consequence, Philadelphia is besieged with violent criminals in possession of guns. That’s how you can attack that criminal element right away.

I’m the only candidate in the field of five Democrats and two Republicans that has a hardcore law-and-order message. Everyone else’s message is decarceration, prosecute fewer crimes and call that a decrease in criminality. They associate a decrease in crime with the fact that they're bringing fewer cases, when actually it’s driving it in the other direction. They bring fewer cases, and it’s causing an increase in violent crime. All you gotta do is turn on the nightly news and look at downtown Philadelphia: people ransacking retail stores, killing a Macy’s security guard, shooting at each other and at students in the Temple area of North Philadelphia. It’s time for us to take our streets back. 

Is that a message you’re going to carry with you throughout the campaign?

Absolutely, and that message has two prongs to it. One is that I’ve already proven that I’m a winner, that I win on ideas, I win on the strength of my background, I win on the strength of my character and the strength of my leadership style. I win.

Number two: I’m tired of the same handful of people in the Republican Party telling me who my candidates are going to be because it benefits them. That’s why I dropped out of the Republican endorsement process – it was being controlled by a handful of people telling the rest of the state who their candidate is going to be. Once again, they selected somebody from the center of the state who has no prayer of winning.

What did that endorsement process look like and what led to some of your frustrations with it?

The strength of my campaign has been the strength of my leadership style and not bending to what a handful of people believe will benefit them either financially or politically. That has been the culture of the Republican Party for years. It worked when we had a majority of the electorate. Now you need the best possible candidate on the ticket to convince the middle 40% of Pennsylvania that you’ve got somebody who can lead. That’s how Josh Shapiro did it in the Democratic Party when there was a void of leadership there.

In a normal cycle, after the odd-year municipal elections, which also involve the judges’ races, candidates come forward in November and December to declare their candidacy. At the winter meeting in February, the Republican Party typically endorses after traveling the state and meeting with the five or six caucuses of the state party. This year, more than a year in advance of that process, you have a lobbyist and one political figure get together and pick my opponent and say, “Everybody else needs to stay out of the race, this is our guy.” Not because they think he can win, but because they get value from that. Lobbyists running campaigns ought not be allowed to happen in Pennsylvania – that’s just an unassailable fact. You shouldn’t be able to buy an office. 

You mentioned crime – that’s been a big focus of what you’ve done in the legislature, as well. What are your top properties for the office if you get elected?

My top priorities are threefold. The first one we’ve talked about, which is violent crime in these large cities. When you travel the state, you hear people of all political spectrums saying, “I don’t want to go to Philadelphia. I don’t want to go to these large cities anymore, because it’s too violent. I’m risking the safety of my family to do so.” That is a culture that is allowed to exist because of local district attorneys, and I plan to take them on head-on. I’ll get concurrent jurisdiction if they won’t prosecute – I will. I’m gonna say that as cleanly and bluntly as I can: if you won’t prosecute, I will.

The second is elder abuse, which comes in two different categories: the first is in-person care, and the other is online schemes. As the digital world unfolds, we’re finding that more and more of our seniors are falling prey to people claiming that they’ve lost all of their financial data or that they need to sign up for this program. The state has a very important role to play in safeguarding our senior community from fraud online. 

My third priority is addiction. I lost my brother during the 2020 campaign to an overdose. It was, for him, a nearly lifelong battle with addiction since high school. I apologize for the lengthy story, but this one’s important to know. My first year in office in Delaware County, I went to the prison facility in my district and I specifically sat with men who were undergoing treatment for addiction. After about an hour of talking with them, and getting to know them and understanding their stories, I asked a question that perhaps I shouldn’t have asked, but it changed my life also, because I’m not an addict. I said, “Do you guys remember the day that you decided to start using drugs?” – which I thought was a fair question. This guy – who hadn’t said a word to me the entire time, was covered in tattoos, including on his hands and face – said, “You got it all effing wrong.” I said, “What do I have wrong?” He says: “It wasn’t the day I decided to start using drugs, it was the day that my mom’s boyfriend raped me.” I was like: “Everything since then is an attempt to cover that pain?” He’s like, “Absolutely. Have you ever been raped?” I was like, “No.” He’s like, “That’s what I’m struggling with.” I said, “Does everyone else have a story?” And they’re like, “Yep.”

I'm now involved in an effort at the former Glen Mills Schools, also in my district, to reopen it in a trauma-informed model for, not addicts, but kids that are caught up in criminal behavior. The way I characterize that is, if I can help a young man understand the “why” for his behavior and deal with his “why,” then maybe he’ll choose to change his behavior, he can change his own trajectory. It’s one of my great regrets that I never asked my brother what happened to him. I saw his world through the lens of a family member struggling with an addict in his life. In other words, through my lens, I kept asking, “What do I need to do to make you change?” And what I should have been asking is, “What do I do to help you deal with whatever you went through?” I still don’t know what happened to him, but now I know something did because he flipped the switch in high school and it was never the same.

You said you’ve knocked on a lot of doors in past campaigns. What are you hearing from voters this time around?

I want you to think about the three election cycles I’ve been in now. The first one was Trump versus Biden Part I. So everything at the door that year was about the presidential election. It’s interesting, because even in a door with someone who was very angry and upset, I would say, “Can I just tell you my story? While you’re angry about either Trump or Biden … I can tell you my story, because at the end of the day, when you have a problem with your road, or a problem with your taxes, or a problem with your family, you’re gonna call your state representative. That’s me.” And invariably, by the end of that conversation, there was a Williams sign in the yard, regardless of who they were voting for for president. That’s how I’ve won. I knocked my Democrat towns as hard as I knocked my Republican towns.

The next election was the 2022 cycle, which I call the abortion cycle. That’s all I was hearing at the doors again that year, even from Republicans. I was like, “You do understand I am one of the reasoned voices in our party?” One of the reasoned voices, so when Senate Bill 106 ran – this was the constitutional amendment that would not only have banned abortion, but the sentence said this: “There’s no constitutional right to a state-funded abortion, comma, or any other right related to abortion.” We were allowed to debate for only one day, allowed to consider the bill in the Senate for only one day, and I asked the question over and over and over again: “What’s the other right that you’re after?” Because I’m a pro-life candidate – pro-life with exceptions – but I’m not down with banning a health-care-related abortion or being forced to watch my daughter die because some segment of the community prefers the baby inside of her over her life, or banning contraception. 

What’s your elevator pitch to voters?

I served in the Marine Corps for 28 years. I fought for you in combat. I fought for you in the courtrooms of the federal courts of Denver, Colorado, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and military courtrooms to make those communities safe. I’ve been fighting my entire life for my community, the families around me, my state and my country, and I’m the only candidate in this field of seven that is a hardcore, tough-nosed, law-and-order prosecutor with an element of compassion for people who are suffering.

I’m not about emptying the prisons. I’m not about not prosecuting people who’ve committed crimes – in fact, just the opposite. We know from decades of prosecutorial experience that the most effective means of reducing violence is deterrence. Deterrence comes from prosecuting.