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Wilson's million dollar donation makes him a mayoral contender

With a couple of flourishes of his pen, little-known businessman Willie Wilson firmly answered the question Monday of whether he should be regarded as a serious candidate for mayor of Chicago.

The $1 million check that Wilson made out to his own campaign has a way of doing that.

All those zeros added up to a great big “Yes.”

Assuming Wilson spends the money wisely on radio and television, he will have an opportunity that still looms as wishful thinking for more highly touted challengers Ald. Robert Fioretti and Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia — to make his case directly to Chicago’s voters.

Fioretti and Garcia have yet to raise enough money to get on the airwaves — and the clock is ticking with just 29 days until the start of early voting.

Wilson’s self-funded effort probably increases the prospect that no candidate will receive a majority of the votes for mayor on February 24 — and send the election into a runoff.

The question now is whether Wilson might be able to slip past Fioretti, Garcia and perennial candidate William “Dock” Walls into second place — and become the candidate Mayor Rahm Emanuel faces in the April 7 runoff.

That seems very unlikely.

Except for his support for Republican Bruce Rauner in the just completed governor’s race, Wilson is practically a complete unknown outside the African-American community, where his philanthropy has won him many friends.

Even among African-American voters, it’s not clear how broad-based his appeal will be, given what appear to be his conservative leanings.

But I expect his story of a self-made black businessman to win him a share of admirers — and votes.

Being a serious candidate, though, means that Wilson also will deserve the serious scrutiny that goes with it.

Despite that, it will be surprising if any of the other candidates attack him publicly before the February vote.

Emanuel’s other challengers won’t want to risk alienating black voters, and as long as they can stay ahead of him, it’s to their advantage to have somebody else who might draw votes away from the mayor.

The mayor’s own campaign dropped its challenge to Wilson’s nominating petitions just before Christmas following repeated accusations by Wilson supporters that the effort to remove him was racially motivated.

Emanuel said Monday he ended the challenge because Wilson “met the threshold” for valid signatures.

Others believe Emanuel would welcome a runoff with Wilson, whose rough-around-the-edges style isn’t going to remind anyone of Harold Washington.

So who is this guy who can drop 1 million bucks into a political campaign?

Even though Wilson has donated well over $200,000 in the last few decades to Illinois political candidates, I’ll admit that I’d never heard of him before he took charge of introducing Rauner to African-American church congregations — and won a spot on Rauner’s transition team as a result.

Wilson, 66, says he is the founder and CEO of two successful companies: Omar Supplies and Willie Wilson Productions, producer of the syndicated “Singsation” gospel entertainment television show.

According to a 1996 Wall Street Journal profile, the eighth-grade dropout got his start in business as a McDonald’s franchisee, persuading company founder Ray Kroc to give him a chance.

Wilson says he later sold the McDonald’s franchises and hit it big with “Singsation,” becoming a successful gospel singer in his own right even though he confesses he couldn’t carry a note when he started.

One year after the Wall Street Journal article, Wilson founded Omar Medical Supplies, which has since expanded into other products.

According to the company’s website, Omar is a distributor and direct importer of a variety of products, including gloves, can liners, protective clothing, towel and tissue, corrugated boxes, safety supplies and equipment. Omar is certified as a minority business enterprise.

Wilson drew the attention of the New York Times in 2009, after he paid to fly Congressman Danny K. Davis to Inner Mongolia to help him close a deal to open a new medical supplies factory in rural China.

In a recent interview with Fox News, one of Wilson’s sons who works with him acknowledged the company has moved jobs overseas to the Chinese factory.

In that Wall Street Journal story, Wilson acknowledged being estranged from his children in his pursuit of his business career — with one of his sons going to prison and later being murdered.

Political candidates, of course, need to be judged on much more than how much money they have to spend.

But there’s no getting around the fact that those with money have a better chance of being judged.