Mayoral challenger Willie Wilson played summertime Santa Claus again Wednesday — doling out $500 checks to help people pay their property taxes and ignoring the political outcry about his first round of grants.
Wilson was so defiant, he initially refused to answer questions while dozens of hard-pressed property owners pushed toward him in a chaotic scene outside the Cook County treasurer’s office.
Later, in the lobby away from the chaos, Wilson said he brought $150,000 worth of those checks to the treasurer’s office, but had to pull some back when he checked the records and found taxes on some of those homes had been paid in full.
“I would never use any dollars that I have or any other thing to buy votes. … [But] unless there’s a law that says that I cannot do it, I will continue to do it. … I’ve never been in jail. Never been in no trouble with the law. I’m not intending to do this here. But we’ve got to help people,” he said.
“These people are losing their homes. I’m very sensitive to that. … Nobody says nothin’ about a politician when they give people a grant for land. Nobody said nothin’ to `em when they give out turkeys. … Why hop on a person who’s been doing this for a long, long, long, long time?”
On the same day the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform filed a complaint against his mayoral committee, Wilson advised those who say he’s “buying votes” for his second campaign for mayor to “go see Dr. Phil.”
He saved a few choice words for Chicago aldermen demanding that state and federal prosecutors and the state and city election boards investigate Wilson’s July 22 “cash giveaway” at the New Covenant Baptist Church — an event attended by Gov. Bruce Rauner.
That’s even though the Illinois State Board of Elections says there’s no violation so long as the money given away came from Wilson’s charitable foundation.
“The citizens got to … rise up and get these crooks out. They need to be investigated for the wrong they’re doing to the citizens of Chicago. How can you tax people when they don’t have any money, run `em out of their homes and leave them with nothing?” he said.
The handful of property owners interviewed by the Chicago Sun-Times seemed oblivious to the controversy.
Denita Rogers started screaming at a reporter who dared ask about the appearance of buying votes.
“Why is it so important about a black man helping people? Appearance does not make who you are. That does not make his character,” Rogers said.
“Hell yeah, I’m happy. I’m gonna vote for him and I’m gonna get all my kids and their kids and anybody else I know — I’m gonna get everybody. And I’ve got a car. So I’m gonna ride them to the polls. What you gonna do for us, Miss? How many people are you gonna help? Answer my question. How many people will you help yourself, personally?”
Pullman retiree Jet Peterson said he “most likely” would vote for Wilson. As for the candidate’s largesse, Peterson said, “It helps. I can tell that he’s a better politician than most that I’ve met.”
Still, Peterson rejected the vote-buying label.
“I don’t think it’s that. I think it’s coming from his heart. … It doesn’t look bad to me,” Peterson said.
Roberta Jones showed up at the treasurer’s office even though she’s a renter without a property tax bill. She wanted help to pay her rent and overdue electric bill.
“My lights is on the way to getting cut off. I need to help my family,” Jones said.
She, too, declared herself a Willie Wilson supporter because of the millionaire businessman’s generosity.
“I will vote for him. I will help him. I will pass out fliers for him. I will get my community to vote for him,” she said.
Rickey “Hollywood” Hendon is a former alderman and state senator who is a longtime Wilson friend and adviser. He tried to calm the chaos by grabbing a microphone and shouting directions to the crowd.
Afterward, Hendon acknowledged he had advised Wilson to cancel Wednesday’s giveaway to put out the political firestorm that’s been raging since July 22.
That’s when Rauner joined Wilson at New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church, where Wilson doled out $200,000 in checks and cash to help people pay their property taxes. A few days later, Rauner said he would no longer contribute to Wilson’s charitable foundation.
“I have advised Dr. Wilson personally to not even do it this time. But, it’s in his heart. … He dropped out of school in seventh grade, ran away from home at 13. Picked cotton, 20 cents-a-pound. But he made it so he feels like he owed back to the people,” Hendon said.
As for the allegations about vote-buying, Hendon said, “It’s straight bulls–t.”
“We didn’t ask nobody whether they were a registered voter. We didn’t ask nobody to vote for Willie. We didn’t ask nobody whether they’re a Democrat or Republican. All we asked them was, bring your tax bill, the ID number, the tax number, the PIN number and we’ll try to help you,” Hendon said.
“Every alderman I know — especially the black ones — is getting ready to give school supplies to the kids, turkeys for Thanksgiving and toys for Christmas. Are they buying votes? I don’t think so. This is what they do traditionally in the African-American community. And if you don’t do it, your constituents get mad at you.”
The complaint filed Wednesday with the State Board of Elections argues that, even if the money doled out came from Wilson’s foundation, money spent by the foundation at the July 22 event should have been disclosed as an in-kind contribution to Wilson’s mayoral campaign.
That’s because it was of “material value,” having been “promoted with a press release from Wilson’s campaign spokesman and streamed live on Wilson’s campaign Facebook page.”
“We don’t take issue with a charitable foundation helping people. But, when such actions are so clearly tied to a political campaign, that has to be disclosed,” Executive Director Mary Miro was quoted as saying in a press release.
“As the organization in the forefront of fighting the corrosive influence of money in politics, ICPR is compelled to file this complaint where the appearance of impropriety is so obvious.”