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Willie Wilson offers free masks — and trouble for Lightfoot, Pritzker as he readies Senate run

He might not be a serious threat to unseat U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin. But these are strange times. And Wilson seems to have figured out how to run amid a pandemic better than most. 

Willie Wilson joined dozens of religious leaders and supporters Thursday outside the Thompson Center to call on Gov. J.B. Pritzker to allow churches to reopen amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic,
Willie Wilson joined dozens of religious leaders and supporters Thursday outside the Thompson Center to call on Gov. J.B. Pritzker to allow churches to reopen amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic,
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

When Willie Wilson turns up in the news, which is quite often these days, it should not be forgotten he is an announced candidate for the U.S. Senate.

Wilson — whose latest gambit is to encourage the efforts of Chicago pastors who want to reopen their churches for services Sunday in defiance of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order — says he’ll run as an independent or third-party candidate against Sen. Dick Durbin in November.

Wilson reiterated his intent Thursday following a news conference with about 60 pastors outside the Thompson Center.

“I do still plan on running,” said Wilson, adding it will be easy to gather the necessary nominating petitions now that a federal judge has reduced the number of signatures candidates need to 2,500, down from 25,000.

Wilson and other statewide candidates have until July 20 to submit their petitions under a modified order issued Friday by the judge, who eased the filing requirements because of complications created by the pandemic.

“I’ve been busy with all these other things going on lately,” Wilson said. “We’ll get around to it, but I do plan on it.”

He certainly has been busy.

In the past week, it was inserting himself in the debate over whether churches are discriminated against by Pritzker’s executive order limiting services to no more than 10 people in attendance at a time.

That put him on a collision course with Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who wants city residents to abide by the stay-at-home plan.

Earlier, Wilson threatened to sue Pritzker over the governor’s order to wear face masks in public, saying Pritzker hadn’t taken steps to provide masks to poor people.

In the weeks before that, Wilson was busy handing out millions of free face masks himself. It is one of the ironies of the pandemic crisis that it hits Wilson’s business sweet spot: Procuring medical supplies from China is a major part of how he became a millionaire.

Wilson gave Chicago aldermen what he said were 1 million masks to distribute. Then, he said he was giving out 5 million more on his own, which caused a stir when Lightfoot questioned how he could safely accomplish that.

Wilson said he also has gifted masks to the Cook County Jail, the CTA, firefighters and police, two hospitals and 75 nursing homes and given $1 million to people who are unemployed and another $1 million to churches since the start of the crisis.

Am I saying everything Wilson is doing is because he’s a candidate for the Senate?

Not at all. In the six years since he surfaced as a candidate for mayor, Wilson has proven to be a much more complicated figure than that as he combines what seem to be genuine philanthropic efforts with self-promotion.

But everything he’s doing now should certainly be understood in the context that this is someone already in the middle of a political campaign.

Wilson is not considered a serious threat to win the Senate race or even to take enough votes from Durbin to allow Republican nominee Mark Curran a chance to squeak past.

Durbin is a huge favorite in this increasingly Democratic state, especially in a presidential election year in which President Donald Trump is expected to fare poorly here.

Still, these are strange times, with plenty of unforeseeable curves in the road between now and Election Day.

Wilson received 59,072 votes for mayor in 2019 and was the top voter-getter in numerous African Americans wards. That was in a field that included Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle, so it’s not unreasonable to think he might do even better against Durbin.

Recently, he’s been distributing his masks downstate as well, which could get his name before more prospective voters. Then again, he was planning Friday to hand out his supplies in Gary, where nobody can vote for him.

At the Thompson Center, Wilson arrived wearing a KN95 mask, disposable gloves and a fur hat.

He said he’s prepared to write his campaign a big check. First, he said, “We got to sell some things.”

That would be a major shipment of medical supplies, just arrived from China.

Some say nobody really knows how to wage an election campaign right now, with the pandemic having made retail politics impractical.

Wilson seems to have figured it out better than most.