Mayoral challenger Willie Wilson’s autobiography is unlike any political candidate’s book I’ve ever read.
Maybe that’s because Wilson truly had no future in politics in mind in 2008 when he published: “What Shall I Do Next When I Don’t Know Next What To Do?”
According to its subtitle, the book is “The Extraordinary Story of A Man, His Faith, and the Building of a Financial Empire.”
In the political context, the book is even more extraordinary for putting a lot of unflattering information about Wilson into the public record that probably wouldn’t have come up otherwise, such as:
- The time he punched his first wife. The book says he did so after she hit him in the head with an iron. Police came, but did not arrest him. Wilson now says punching her was just a “reflex,” and he never did it again.
- The time he escorted his live-in girlfriend out of his house at gunpoint after he caught her cheating on him yet again. Wilson says he unloaded the weapon before waving it at her after realizing his anger and a loaded gun were not a good mix. He now has a concealed-carry permit.
- A daughter that Wilson says he fathered when he was 16. He admits in the book he didn’t financially support her until she was about the same age, which is when he put her to work in one of his McDonald’s stores and promised to pay her tuition.
- The same girl later accused Wilson in a Peoria court of making improper sexual advances toward her on a trip to a family funeral, but then recanted, he wrote. Wilson said her mother put her up to making the false accusation and that he was “through with her” after that.
- Wilson also has no contact with his only other daughter, one of four children from his first marriage. In the book, he blames their mother for driving a wedge between him and his children, but says he always met his legal obligations to them.
There’s even an anecdote about Wilson catching a venereal disease at age 16 from a hooker in Miami when he used his earnings from a restaurant job on “a thing called 2-2-2: $2 for the prostitute, $2 for the room, and $2 for the pimp.” As a young adult, Wilson confesses to a weakness for “the ladies” and numerous forms of gambling.
Despite all this, the book is truly the story of Wilson’s amazing rise from being the son of a Louisiana sharecropper to a successful McDonald’s franchisee, gospel television show host and owner of an equipment supply business — and all with just a seventh-grade education.
Wilson’s success has allowed him to become a philanthropic legend in the African-American community by doling out cash in churches and on the street — somewhere between $750,000 and $1 million a year by his estimate Tuesday.
But it’s hard to ignore some of this personal stuff now that Wilson’s $1 million campaign contribution has made him a serious challenger in the mayor’s race.
Wilson told me he included the personal foibles in his book because he hoped to inspire others who might have faced similar problems — and wouldn’t have changed it if he was writing the book now.
“I believe in being honest. It happened,” he said.
Wilson spent 90 minutes talking with me Tuesday at the Chicago Baptist Institute, and I came away from the interview liking him a lot better than I had anticipated. He was very matter-of-fact and direct, refusing only to talk about the sexual misconduct allegation.
CBI is a training school for ministers at 51st and King Drive. Wilson, 66, is chairman of its board of trustees and says he’s plowed $500,000 of his own money into saving it. He’s also renting space there for his South Side campaign headquarters.
Wilson’s book contains many unfavorable references to “the white man,’’ mostly in reference to his upbringing in the pre-civil rights South. This particular paragraph gave me pause:
“Coming from the racist environment I was raised in, it wasn’t easy, but I have learned to deal with white people without distrusting them at first sight,” Wilson wrote. “Even so, I am still often uncomfortable when I meet white people for the first time. I admit it. I’m conditioned to expect the worst, but I have also learned that evil does not have a specific skin color, neither does good.”
In person, I detected no animosity from Wilson, and I don’t want this column to be another reason for him not to trust white people.
Make of the book what you will. If nothing else, it’s proof Wilson is not your typical political candidate.