Purple Power

In less than four years, Grant Williams has turned a weak union local into one of Missouri's most potent political forces. So why's he placing all his bets on One-Term Bob?

His mother, Kathleen, returned to school for a master's degree, then taught at Villa Duchesne, a Catholic high school for girls in St. Louis County.

"We didn't have a lot; we really didn't. We lived in a small house in north Webster [Groves] -- Webster wasn't chichi back then," Williams says.

Williams' mother was committed to education and used insurance money from her husband's death and Social Security benefits to send her firstborn to the St. Louis Priory School. Williams, who graduated from high school in 1977, was a high achiever -- he got good grades and was a member of the swim and basketball teams, although, he adds, he wasn't a very good hoopster.

Jennifer Silverberg
Williams was arrested in March 2002 for disturbing the peace during a campaign appearance by President George W. Bush for Jim Talent.
Kevin P. Madden, Labor Tribune
Williams was arrested in March 2002 for disturbing the peace during a campaign appearance by President George W. Bush for Jim Talent.

Whereas other kids came to school in new cars, Williams sometimes was able to borrow the keys to his mother's station wagon. "Going to Priory made me realize that some people who have a lot of money don't particularly deserve it -- they didn't even earn it -- and maybe also made me realize how unfair the world was," Williams says.

A scholarship took Williams to the University of Virginia, where, in his junior year, he became active in the anti-apartheid movement that had been sweeping campuses, urging the university to get rid of its investments in companies doing business in South Africa. He recruited his friends, and soon he was running the demonstrations held by the Charlottesville Activist Coalition. One stunt was decorating a bust of President Thomas Jefferson -- UVA's founder -- at a Board of Regents' meeting with a sign: "Thomas Jefferson says: UVA Divest." That protest was covered by the Washington Post.

After graduation, Williams spent a year working in St. Louis for Mary Anne Sedey, a civil-rights and labor-discrimination lawyer. He was accepted by, but never attended, New York University's top-rated law school. A lawyer's life wasn't for him. Williams instead went to work for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now as a community organizer in Atlanta and Detroit. In 1987, he married Mary Hickey, the sister of high-school friend John Hickey. John and Mary also were organizers with ACORN; John is now executive director of Missouri Progressive Vote Coalition (a.k.a. Missouri ProVote), a grassroots coalition of labor unions and community groups.

In 1988, Williams left ACORN, deciding that union work was "the only way to change the world." Williams joined SEIU to organize state corrections workers in Georgia. He recalls handing out leaflets in 1992 or 1993 in Reedsville, Georgia, at the same prison that once briefly housed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The warden, accompanied by corrections officers, tried to chase Williams away, but he refused to leave. Williams was charged with solicitation on a roadside -- a charge usually reserved for prostitutes. He was offered a deal -- enter a guilty plea and never come back to the county -- but Williams fought the charge. A jury found him not guilty, and, he says, "We went on to organize state corrections."

By 1995, Williams and Hickey had two young children, and Williams took a job as SEIU's Midwest regional director, hoping the move would allow him to send more time with his family. But he found himself still traveling too much, so when the trusteeship was offered in St. Louis, he jumped at the opportunity to bring his family home.

And he got right to work, throwing himself into Holden's race for governor. Williams helped provide fireworks for the contentious campaign, making a point of dogging U.S. Rep. Jim Talent, then the Republicans' gubernatorial nominee.

When Talent showed up to speak at a Creve Coeur Chamber of Commerce meeting on October 19, 2000, just days after Mel Carnahan's fatal plane crash, Williams was there and promptly got into a dispute with Vi Smith, the chamber's executive director. Williams was upset because Holden wasn't part of the program and because Talent, unlike other candidates, didn't immediately pull his campaign ads after Carnahan's death.

Smith claims Williams tried to force his way into the private event, pushing her with a clipboard against a door as someone stepped on her foot, dislocating a toe. Williams says that Smith was wasn't blameless: "Vi actually pushed a number of our people around." Both sides say they filed police reports, but no one was charged -- and that drew fire from Republicans.

The chamber official's dislocated toe wasn't the only thing that got Republicans bent: SEIU's work with Missouri ProVote is another sore spot.

The union and Hickey's group were allies before Williams came back to town, but the working relationship has intensified. ProVote leases office space from SEIU, and ProVote's office manager, Marshall Rowland, runs the SEIU call center as part of a contract between the two groups.

ProVote and SEIU joined forces in March 2002 to protest President George W. Bush's campaign appearance for Talent, who was then running for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Jean Carnahan. About 200 people, including Williams' wife and kids, gathered outside America's Center. Williams was identified as the leader of the vocal group that was too large for the protest area. Williams says that the Secret Service was worried about the protest and told the local police to cuff him -- perhaps if their leader was gone, the group would dissolve.

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