Mayoral candidate Willie Wilson struck a defiant note as he again handed out cash to all comers at a South Side church service Sunday.
“There is no greater joy than helping those who cannot help themselves. So don’t worry about people talking about you. Don’t listen to what the newspapers are going to say, or what TV media is going to say. Don’t let that get you down, or get you discouraged,” Wilson said. “As long as you know what’s in your heart, it’ll keep you going.”
Wilson was only cleared Friday of accusations that a similar giveaway in July violated campaign finance law. On Sunday, he handed out thousands more to attendees of services at the Old Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, in Grand Boulevard at 542 E. 50th Street.
Wilson’s actual mayoral campaign was only touched on glancingly at Sunday’s event, but Wilson spoke at length about his victory in the case and his decision to continue distributing money.
Pastor Keith H. Burgess also welcomed Wilson’s exoneration.
“I want to tell Dr. Wilson personally: we thank you for what you do. Just real quick, I know we’re not at a political event, we’re at God’s event, but while we’re here, why don’t we give God a praise for that victory the other day,” Burgess said. “A black man goes downtown, and comes out with a victory – You all ought to give God a praise.”
Through the course of the service Wilson sang and preached, at one point inviting unbaptized attendees to join him at the front of the church.
At the end of the service line of people waiting for Wilson’s largesse snaked through the church for the better part of an hour. At the front of the line, Wilson handed each person about $25, first as loose cash and then in envelopes.
Wilson’s aides had not totaled up the precise amount distributed as they left the church, but Wilson guessed that they had given away $10,000 to $15,000. Wilson also gave the church a $2000 check.
Wilson has long engaged in extravagant acts of generosity, including cash handouts, sometimes pitched as a way to help seniors pay their property bills.
July’s giveaway, which came in the midst of Wilson’s mayoral campaign, attracted a new level of scrutiny after it was caught on video. The attention was redoubled because Gov. Bruce Rauner, engaged in his own heated election campaign, was in attendance, and had donated to Wilson’s foundation.
Rauner quickly distanced himself from Wilson’s giveaway, which also drew criticism from his rivals in the mayoral race.
But on Friday, the Illinois State Board of Elections signed off on the practice, rejecting an accusation from the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a watchdog group, that Wilson had illegally failed to report the money he handed out as a contribution to his campaign. The Wilson camp has maintained throughout that the giveaway was part of a long-established practice by Wilson, and unrelated to the campaign.
A campaign spokesman, F. Scott Winslow, pushed back against the controversy surrounding the donations.
“I don’t think the poor are concerned about the optics of anything. … I think people in more affluent communities, particularly the white community, but all affluent communities, are used to a sanitized method of giving,” Winslow said. ” Dr. Wilson, coming from a poor background, likes to look in the eyes of people, likes to put the money in their hands.”
Winslow said the event was meant to be apolitical: any campaign employees present, he said, were volunteering their time, and ‘Wilson for Mayor’ buttons visible had been brought by attendees on their own account.
As envelopes full of cash were still being distributed, Burgess placed Wilson in a line of successful black politicians in Chicago.
“I know we aren’t at a political rally, but I believe in supporting the man that came today to bless us,” Burgess said from his pulpit. “We thanked God a few years ago for Harold Washington, right. We thanked God a few years ago for Michelle and Barack Obama. Can we give God a huge praise, thank God for Dr. Wilson and Lady Wilson. … We’re going to claim them, and we’re going to believe in them, that they’re going to be holding the office of mayor of the city of Chicago.”
“The pastor said something, but we can’t control the pastor. He’s not part of the campaign,” Winslow said.
Winslow said that Wilson’s last handout through his foundation would happen Tuesday, but that he planned to continue distributing his personal funds on Sundays up to election day and beyond.
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