May 13, 2020


Do masks equal votes?

Wealthy Chicago entrepreneur Willie Wilson thinks so. He has (or had) a bunch of them, like more than 2 million stockpiled in his warehouses, and he's passing them out for free like candy on Halloween.

All that's missing is "Willie Wilson for U.S. Senator" emblazoned across the cloth-face. Then they would be "Willie Masks," a walking billboard. Mayor Lori Lightfoot puts city logos and messages on the masks she wears. Wilson might as well do the same thing.

Wilson is the epitome of persistence, which is a commendable personal and business attribute. But not so much in politics, where losing once and losing well is commendable and encouraging, losing twice is problematical and discouraging, and losing thrice is fatal and just plain tiresome. Wilson has lost 3 times: For Chicago mayor in 2015 and 2019, getting, respectively, 10.7 and 10.6 percent, and in the 2016 Illinois Democratic presidential primary, getting 0.32 percent.

Now he's running for U.S. Senator, and will be on the Nov. 3 ballot as an "independent" against incumbent Democrat Dick Durbin, Republican Mark Curran, and a yet-to-be-determined Libertarian - if he submits at least 2,500 valid nominating petition signatures by Aug. 8. A campaign source said Wilson already has over 100,000 signatures and was prepared to file them in June until a federal judge, due to COVID-19 concerns, pushed back the file date and lowered the signature threshold from 25,000 to 2,500.

Despite his defeats, Wilson is not tiresome and is taken seriously. He has money (as his campaign committee is carrying as a debt a $1,055,109 loan from him), can self-fund unlimitedly, and has a viable political base among African-Americans in general. He produces a national gospel music TV program called "Singsation." Wilson owns a string of McDonald's franchises, as well as other businesses, one of which is Omar Medical Supplies, which manufactures hospital masks, latex gloves and syringe needles off-shore, then imports, warehouses and distributes them in Illinois. The company is named after his son, Omar, who was shot and killed at age 20.

Wilson in April offered to donate one million masks to Chicagoans, an offer which Mayor Lori Lightfoot ignored, so he reached-out to the 50 city aldermen and offered to dole out 20,000 mask per ward. He has done so in 48 of the wards, with the aldermen in the 42nd and 46th wards declining.

"He's a great guy," said Alderman Nicholas Sposato (38th) after his ward's distribution event, hinting that he might even vote for him for senator. The "donation," of course, is a nice tax write-off - a WIN-WIN.

Chicago and Illinois at present have the fourth-highest concentration of coronavirus cases, and are busily obsessed with the shut-down and shelter-in-place. "Re-opening" may now not occur until mid-June. Wilson, age 71, is the only politician who is giving people something useful for nothing.

It should be remembered that Wilson's 2019 mayoral candidacy exposed the hollowness of county board president Toni Preckwinkle's black base. In the primary she got 89,343 votes, to Lightfoot's 97,667 and Wilson's 59,072. In the city's 18 black-majority wards on the South and West Sides, Wilson topped Preckwinkle 47,087 - 44,416, winning 13 wards. Wilson upped his vote from 50,960 in 2015 to 59,072 in 2019, a gain of 8,112. But that did confirm the solidity of his base: Older, black women who vote, plus their families. Wilson strictly adheres to the practice of attending a different black church each week, and always donates $1,000, amounting to $52,000 annually, and each of the close-knit congregations know it and appreciate it. Given those circumstances, getting 100,000 petition signatures was no sweat.

In the 2019 Lightfoot-Preckwinkle runoff, Wilson early endorsed Lightfoot. But it appears the now-mayor didn't much appreciate it.

Wilson's real goal is to run against Preckwinkle in the 2022 Democratic primary, or for sheriff against Tom Dart as a fallback if a credible candidate like Commissioner Bridget Gainer challenges Preckwinkle. In all likelihood there will be a multiplicity of aspirants for both jobs. Losing, from Wilson's perspective, is simply part of his marketing strategy, not much different than hawking hamburgers. Each successive election is his opportunity to increase his market share - to get his name and good deeds before the voting public.

Wilson's political philosophy is an eclectic mix of ideological non-synchronicity: He is a fiscal tightwad but supports slavery reparations. He is a self-made millionaire whose forebears were Louisiana sharecroppers. I attended a February 2019 mayoral forum where he said he wanted to "freeze" all Chicago property taxes, not raise current or impose any new taxes, and "solve" the city's fiscal plight by balancing the city's now-$11.65 billion budget.

"Don't spend what you don't have," he said.

Wilson, of the 14 mayoral candidates, was the most fiscally conservative. Some Republicans, like the NW Side GOP Club, county Republican chairman Sean Morrison, and the county's Young Republicans, even endorsed him. Wilson said he voted for Trump.

But his reparations focus, an off-the-wall non-starter which is going nowhere given America's $22 trillion (and rising) national debt, gives Wilson a hook into the liberal black mainstream, and those to the left thereof. It's a cause he can plausibly and safely champion. It appeals to African-Americans' self-interest. It's a showcase for his Southern roots. It crystallizes his black base. It takes votes away from Durbin. And it might even appeal to guilt-ridden white liberals.

Of course, it has NO appeal to working-class whites or Hispanics, independent suburbanites, Downstaters, conservatives or Republicans. But that's not the point. Durbin is going to win. But if Wilson can snatch 300,000-plus votes from Durbin's Democratic base, it makes Wilson a MAJOR player in Chicago and Cook County politics. And it could happen.

Wilson's stance on LGBTQ issues, and what he says is his tradition- and religion-based opposition to gay marriage, could be either ingratiating or off-putting.

Durbin, age 75, has long been known as a senatorial lightweight, all talk and minimal substance, a master of guile and opportunism. He is a party apparatchik, spewing forth Democratic propaganda with aplomb and mind-numbing consistency. He was majority whip under Harry Reid from 2004-10, then minority whip. But when Reid retired in 2016, his fellow senators rejected him for Chuck Schumer (D-NY) for leader.

Durbin beat the ubiquitous Pat Quinn 512,520-233,138 in the 1996 primary, getting 64.9 percent; he then had the good fortune to have right-winger Al Salvi upset lieutenant governor Bob Kustra in the Republican primary. Durbin pounced on Salvi as an "extremist" due to his pro-gun and anti-abortion positions. Durbin won 2,384,028-1,728,824, or 54.3 percent, while the state's Clinton-Dole-Perot vote was 2,341,744-1,587,021-346,408. Durbin ran slightly ahead of Clinton, but Salvi 150,000 behind Dole.

Durbin toyed for a while about running for governor in 2002, didn't, and allowed Rod Blagojevich to be the nominee. Durbin's 2002 re-election was perfunctory. He defeated Jim Durkin, now the state House Republican leader, 2,103,766-1,325,703, or 60.3 percent. Durbin was now an entrenched Democrat in an increasingly Democratic state. In 2008, with senate colleague Barack Obama as presidential nominee, Durbin won 3,615,844-1,520,621, or 67.8 percent, while it was 3,419,348-2,031,179 for Obama-McCain, with Durbin running 200,000 votes ahead of Obama.

2014 was a decent Republican year in Illinois, with Bruce Rauner elected governor. But Durbin won his fourth term easily, beating Jim Oberweis (R) 1,929,637-1,528,622, or 53.5 percent.

Going into 2020 Durbin has $3,832,000 on-hand. He can easily raise $5 million more if he feels threatened. Given Durbin's age, this is may be his last term. Republican Curran is a lawyer and former Lake County sheriff, elected in 2006 as a Democrat, switching to Republican in 2008, and re-elected in 2010 and 2014, then losing in 2018.

The 2016 election turnout was 5,536,424, and the Clinton-Trump vote 3,090,729-2,146,015, meaning the Republican floor is about 39 percent. Blacks comprise 14.3 percent of Illinois' population.

Wilson's goal is to get 300,000-400,000 votes, or 5 to 8 percent, with almost all coming from Cook County. And a COVID-19-driven election, with mail-in ballots, would be just fine for his older, churchgoing base. Wilson does not have what it takes to grow and motivate a base. He's not Obama or Harold Washington. Nor is Durbin reviled.

Wilson will get 150,000 votes statewide. And that is the point: Market share and market strategy. Hopefully by 2022 the coronavirus will be over and gone. But Willie Wilson will still be around.

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