CHICAGO -- In the days leading up to the Chicago mayoral election, WGN News is profiling each candidate.
WGN’s Sean Lewis met with Willie Wilson.
Polls show Wilson trailing incumbent Rahm Emanuel by a big margin, but Wilson says he's the right man for the job.
Wilson is a millionaire businessman, who owned several McDonald’s restaurants before starting a medical and restaurant supply business in the 1990s.
But the road traveled to success has had a number of turns.
Wilson began his life in Louisiana, the son of sharecroppers. He says he ran away from home at age 13, and ended up working in Miami Beach, before coming Chicago.
In his book, published in 2008, Wilson details his teenage experiences with prostitutes and the ensuing venereal disease. Later, he styled himself a “ladies man” who had a penchant for gambling. He also details the time he says he punched his wife after, he says, she hit him.
“I wrote the book so people see the mistakes I made so they can see they can make it too,” he says. “I want to show my highs, my lows and my bad moments. I told it all to encourage people to show they can make it too.”
All of it, he says, led to him becoming more religious. He came to Chicago in 1965, eventually going to work at McDonalds and working his way into management, then as owner of five franchises, which he sold in 2003. He put all of his time into his supply business named Omar, the name of his son who got into drugs and was killed. Wilson tells me that in a life of highs and lows, that was his lowest moment.
“The police called me 12 o’clock at night and I had to go over and see him. When you see a kid over there on the floor, it’s tough. It’s tough. So you never, ever get over it.”
It’s an experience he says that would make him a more compassionate mayor. He wants to reopen mental health clinics. and reopen some CPS schools, retooling them into private trade schools. He says it is a vision Mayor Emanuel does not have.
“I think he’s an old snake in new skin,” Wilson says. “He may have brought a few jobs here and there, but it doesn’t balance itself off. You can succeed in one area but if your success is based off of helping your friends and cutting out the rest of the citizens. That to me is a failure.”
On public safety, he would fire CPD Superintendent Garry McCarthy and appoint four superintendents, responsible for their own quadrant of the city.
Wilson calls himself 99 percent Democrat, but just last week was endorsed by a Republican group for his views on taxes and business.
Last year, he broke ranks to endorse Republican Bruce Rauner for governor.
“I told Bruce if he lied to me, he wouldn’t be the first white man to lie to me he’d just be the new one. That’s exactly what I told him,” Wilson says.
And it’s that blunt talk on race that has turned some heads in this election including a controversial comment speech at the City Club of Chicago.
“What I was saying, basically, the white people who are in here,” he explains. “I think I talked a little too fast and it came out as ‘whitey.’”
With a flair for words and a flair for performance, he’s the driving force behind the Sunday morning gospel show Singsation and is proud of his philanthropy in the African-American community.
His title doctor, comes from his multiple honorary degrees. His formal education stopped in the 7th grade.
He’s financing his campaign largely from his own personal fortune and put two million dollars into the effort so far. It is, he says, to help the city that’s given him so much.
“The people’s good in Chicago,” he says. “They deserve better. They deserve the right leadership.”