Willie Wilson believes he's running for president. Why doesn't anyone else? | Feature | Chicago Reader

Willie Wilson believes he's running for president. Why doesn't anyone else? 

The erstwhile mayoral candidate tries his hand at national politics.

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click to enlarge Willie Wilson announced his presidential bid back in June. - MITCH DUDEK/SUN-TIMES
  • Willie Wilson announced his presidential bid back in June.
  • Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

Willie Wilson was wearing a suit with an American flag pin on the lapel. He stood in front of a pair of local reporters in a downtown hotel in Columbia, South Carolina, waiting to hear the results of the February 27 Democratic presidential primary. The room was nearly empty, but a few supporters and one Black Lives Matter activist milled about, chatting with each other and with the candidate.

Yes, really, the candidate for president of these United States, the 67-year-old businessman whom Chicagoans may or may not remember for unsuccessfully challenging Mayor Rahm Emanuel last year, getting 10 percent of the vote.

Wilson knows he won't be the next president, but he doesn't care. He was on the South Carolina Democratic ballot, and when asked whether he'd be on the Illinois ballot too he said: "You better believe it."

Whether voters here will recognize his name is another question. Whether they'll vote for him, still another. He isn't deluded into thinking he can get Chicagoans to take him seriously, but that doesn't mean he won't try.

"I'm not a quitter," Wilson said as the results rolled in. He finished with a fraction of the total, just 1,300 votes, or 0.36 percent. Front-runner Hillary Clinton won the state with more than 73 percent of the vote, while U.S. senator Bernie Sanders took second place with just under 26 percent.

When Wilson gave his speech in his thick Louisiana accent, he talked about making education free for students; he himself made it only through the seventh grade. He told supporters he would stick with the presidential election until the very end. He prayed aloud many times.

In two conversations in late February, Wilson, who previously owned five McDonald's franchises in Chicago, emphasized his commitment to self-financing and his history as an impoverished worker who grew to own a successful glove distribution company. He said he's running for all Americans, not just African-Americans. His campaign ad aired more than 3,000 times in the run-up to the South Carolina primary.

So why aren't more people paying attention?

In some ways, Wilson could be viewed as a liberal counterpart to Donald Trump: he has no previous political experience, a self-funded campaign, and a history of saying what he wants.

What Wilson doesn't have is a string of Super Tuesday wins.

Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and former Chicago alderman, says Wilson will lose because he doesn't understand the realities of the political landscape or how to run a campaign—those who do support Wilson are essentially throwing their vote away.

"He's not a Barack Obama," Simpson says. "He's never mastered the craft. It'd be like asking him to build a house when he's never been to carpentry school."

When asked whether he'd be on the Illinois ballot too he said: "You better believe it."


Saturday night in Columbia, there were at least a few voters who believed in Wilson, albeit a little too late.

Two women wandered into the room shortly before Wilson addressed the crowd of about 40. One wore a Hillary Clinton campaign sticker, which she'd received after voting for the former secretary of state earlier that day. Kerine Johnson of Alcolu, South Carolina, said she wasn't aware of Wilson until after she cast her ballot. If she could go back and do it all over again, the domestic violence activist and devout Christian would've supported him.

"He's a legend that nobody knows about. He should be known," Johnson said. "He's a man of God."

Johnson, her husband, and a friend walked up to the candidate and asked for his autograph. They said they purchased his memoir, What Shall I Do When I Don't Know What to Do Next, after friends told them about his campaign. Now they couldn't stop reading it; they had to meet Wilson in person, they said.

Meanwhile, a few miles away and a few hours earlier, a poll judge said two voters asked him if it was Willie Nelson on the ballot.

Wilson probably won't overcome his viability hurdles in the Illinois primary March 15, despite the fact that Black Lives Matter Chicago endorsed him at a press conference March 1. People are still tweeting things like, "Just saw a Willie Wilson for president sign on the west side. I can't."

Wilson says he hasn't asked for anyone to endorse him, but was excited to be supported by the activist group. When his campaign for mayor ended, Wilson endorsed Cook County commissioner Chuy Garcia. Garcia has endorsed Bernie Sanders for president, even traveling with him on the campaign trail in Iowa. Wilson says he hasn't heard from the commissioner, but he would've appreciated a phone call at least.

In his South Carolina speech, Wilson admitted his chances were slim but remained stubbornly optimistic.

"I don't want anyone getting discouraged, because the mission is to do good. . . . I'll be back," Wilson said. He told the crowd it was a combination of his faith and his desire to help Americans that drove him to run for office, and that he will jump into any political race where he feels he can make an impact.

Later that evening, Wilson and his driver would make the nearly 12-hour drive back home to Chicago. Though he has been hitting the campaign trail hard, visiting communities across South Carolina, Wilson said he wasn't tired.

"When you're doing things to help other people, you don't get tired," he said.

The campaign will be documented in a new book Wilson is writing.

He's already put up close to 100 billboards in Chicago in advance of next week's primary. But most national polls fail to note that he's even a contender.

Will he continue his campaign even if he doesn't do well in his home state? Wilson said he's focused on this election, but afterwards he'll find something else to do—maybe politics, although he wasn't sure.

There is one thing Wilson does know for sure. The next time he campaigns South Carolina, he won't hire a driver. The crowd in the hotel laughed with him when Wilson said he'd be driving all the way home after spending the previous week campaigning.

"Next time, I think we'll fly," he said. v

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