Lori Lightfoot on Friday capped a triumphant week with the coveted endorsement of a former rival who could help boost her standing among African-American voters.
Millionaire businessman Willie Wilson, who won 58,831 votes and captured thirteen African-American wards on the city’s South and West Sides on Feb. 26, chose Lightfoot after a heavy courtship by both candidates.
“She’s the right person,” Wilson said, with Lightfoot at his side at the Chicago Baptist International Institute, 5120 S. King Drive.
Addressing the people of Chicago, Wilson added: “I’m going to ask you now to endorse her. She represents those changes that we so much need.”
News of the endorsement had actually leaked out hours earlier during Lightfoot’s appearance at a City Club of Chicago breakfast.
Lightfoot praised Wilson there as an “incredible man” with an “unbelievable life story” whose “generosity to people all over the city, particularly to the black communities that are struggling, I think warrants our support and our applause and our thanks.”
Asked what difference it would make, Lightfoot noted that Wilson is “deeply respected in black communities across the city” after spending “a significant amount of his time, his personal resources and wealth, to do everything he can to address some of the most urgent needs in those communities.”
Preckwinkle accused Wilson of making his endorsement “contingent upon him receiving guaranteed clout appointments for various city commissions and departments.”
She also accused him of demanding that Preckwinkle help retire the debt that remains from his self-funded mayoral campaign.
Those are promises that, Preckwinkle said, she was unwilling to make.
“Yet again, it seems Lightfoot is succumbing to a textbook example of pay-to-play politics, rather than looking out for Chicago’s best interests,” the Preckwinkle campaign said in a statement.
Preckwinkle’s deputy campaign manager, Jason Lee, was quoted as saying: “If Mr. Wilson’s endorsement can be bought, that is certainly not an endorsement that reflects the values of integrity of Toni’s campaign. And frankly, not one our campaign is interested in.”
Wilson said the charge “doesn’t make sense” coming from a candidate who, up until Thursday, was calling him and asking for his endorsement.
“I didn’t ask her…Why do I need anybody to retire my debt?” he said.
“I have not asked Dr. Lightfoot for anything for myself personally…When you got your own money, you don’t have to pay nothing.”
Turning the tables on Preckwinkle, Wilson noted that “the problem with Chicago— one of many, many problems — is corruption.”
“How can you expect things to change when she [Preckwinkle] is the machine?” he said.
Four years ago, Wilson got 10 percent of the vote in Round One of the mayoral election, then endorsed Jesus “Chuy” Garcia over Rahm Emanuel in the runoff.
It barely moved the needle.
In the six-week period between Feb. 24 and the April 7 runoff, Emanuel’s support increased by 14.5 percentage points among African-American voters, who had been alienated by his decision to close a record 50 elementary schools.
A former City Council ally of Mayor Harold Washington, Garcia had high hopes of resurrecting the black-Hispanic coalition that culminated in Washington’s 1983 election as Chicago’s first African-American mayor.
But it was Emanuel who came closer to bringing the old rainbow band back together.
Wilson’s endorsement of Lightfoot packs greater potential to help the former Police Board president expand her base because he won more wards than any of the fourteen candidates in Round One.
If Wilson can persuade even a fraction of those who supported him to back Lightfoot and actually show up to vote on April 2, she will take a giant step toward the mayor’s office.
Like Dorothy Brown, Wilson has deep religious roots and an older, church-based constituency.
Last week, Wilson openly acknowledged that the fact that Lightfoot is a lesbian would not play well with those voters.
“That’s a pretty hard sell . . . But I’m talking about contracts and jobs and schools and things of that nature,” Wilson said then.
“People have got religion. They believe in their religion, and so do I. But I have gays and lesbians in my workplace. And I go to church. It depends on how one looks at it.”
A Preckwinkle strategist downplayed the value of Wilson’s endorsement and questioned Wilson’s ability to transfer his personal popularity — built on years of charitable giving — to another candidate, let alone a political unknown.
“He endorsed Chuy, and Chuy wound up losing every African-American ward in the city,” the Preckwinkle strategist said.
Still, there is no denying the political momentum Lightfoot appears to be building.
The Wilson endorsement caps a big week that started with the Chicago Federation of Labor choosing to remain neutral, denying Preckwinkle a chance to consolidate labor support.
That was followed by the Latino Leadership Council, the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2 and two Northwest Side aldermen, who are former firefighters, endorsing Lightfoot.
The Local 2 endorsement alone could help Lightfoot in the 19th and 41st Wards won by Jerry Joyce.
In between all of that came two polls, one by the Lightfoot campaign, showing her winning in a landslide. Garcia, whose former campaign manager is doing the same for Lightfoot, plans to meet with Lightfoot this weekend in a potential prelude to an endorsement.