Willie Wilson’s gas giveaways could be a model for elected officials

Wilson’s latest philanthropic play — free gas — is a way “to alleviate some of the pain that Chicagoans are experiencing because of the highest fuel prices in 14 years,” he said.

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Neha Baig, a co-owner of the BP gas station at 4359 N. Pulaski Rd. in the Albany Park neighborhood, walks to a pump as volunteers give out free gas, which was donated by businessman Dr. Willie Wilson, Thursday morning, March 17, 2022. Hundreds lined up for free gas, some starting before 6 a.m. Wilson, a former mayoral candidate, said he would give each driver up to $50 worth of gas, totaling $200,000 in multiple gas stations across the city.

Neha Baig, a co-owner of a BP gas station in Albany Park, walks to a pump as volunteers give out free gas donated by businessman Willie Wilson. Hundreds lined up for the free gas at multiple gas stations across the city.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

It’s just a tank of gas, and yet.

Willie Wilson, the businessman and philanthropist, was living a politician’s dream last Thursday in a gambit that turned out hundreds of motorists who were momentarily freed from the vise of sky-high gas prices.

They were singing smiling praises to Wilson as they flocked to 10 gas stations across Chicago. Wilson says he donated $200,000 worth of gas, at $50 per motorist, to anyone who showed up at the designated stations. Gas is currently going for nearly $5 a gallon in the Chicago area.

Wilson was out there, pumping gas and taking bows for the wildly popular giveaway.

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“These are my neighborhoods. Chicago’s my town,” CNN quoted Wilson as saying. “I won’t just stand by and just talk. We do things to help the city.”

Chicago surely needs it.

Wilson’s latest philanthropic play is a way “to alleviate some of the pain that Chicagoans are experiencing because of the highest fuel prices in 14 years,” he told the Sun-Times.

The event kicked off at 7 a.m., and the charity quickly became controversial. The mobs of eager gas seekers graced the morning rush hour with massive traffic jams, frustration and disappointment. Many waited for hours; some left with empty tanks when the gas ran out.

The good deed was slammed by some. Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) of Rogers Park complained the effort sparked a traffic “disaster” in her neighborhood.

“This was irresponsible and reckless of Dr. Wilson and the gas station owners,” she tweeted Thursday.

At least he’s doing something, and more than many.

The response to Wilson’s pitch shows how desperate people are for any handout.

Free gasoline won’t change the world, but this is a world where a small kindness is a treasured relief.

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In 2015, Wilson garnered instant credibility when he jumped into a crowded field of challengers to then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, donating $1 million to his own campaign fund. Wilson lost.

The son-of-a-Louisiana-sharecropper-turned-Chicago-millionaire possesses enormous wealth and an even bigger ego.

He pitched another mayoral run in 2019 and a bid for the U.S. Senate in 2020. In 2016, he ran for president. He is likely to mount another mayoral bid in 2023.

Wilson built his fortune on a string of successful McDonald’s franchises and his Omar Medical Supplies Inc., which sells and distributes gloves and other items to an array of industries. He has been in TV, producing a long-running, syndicated gospel music program.

Before delving into politics, Wilson had donated at least $15 million to churches, he claims. 

During the earlier days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wilson donated millions of face masks to the city of Chicago, Cook County Jail and other institutions. He has helped struggling Chicagoans pay off their delinquent property taxes. Wilson regularly hands out cash at churches, senior centers and on the street.

His largess has targeted people of color, the working class and the poor.

This time, it’s gas.

Here he goes again, the critics claim. Wilson is just trying to buy votes.

If so, it’s an expensive proposition that isn’t likely to pay off. Wilson has never come close to winning any election.

But Wilson could be a model for our elected officials, who from the White House on down happily dole out billions in government aid. Taxpayer dollars. Our dollars.

Thanks a lot. There is no sacrifice in giving away tax dollars. Elected officials should be doing more to contribute personally.

Meanwhile, Wilson is gearing up for another round. On March 24, he’ll offer up $1 million in petrol freebies at 50 gas stations.

It’s Wilson’s cash to share as he chooses. He brings a sliver of light to dark places.

Laura Washington is a political analyst for ABC 7. Follow her on Twitter @MediaDervish

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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