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Gas Giveaways Harm People. Don’t Let Rich Politicians do Them.

When I first heard about entrepreneur and perennial political candidate Willie Wilson spending $200,000 of his reported $25 million fortune to give out free gasoline in $50 increments at ten Chicago gas stations last Thursday, and the predictably awful traffic jams that ensued, all I could do was laugh.

So I responded with a satirical piece for Streetsblog set in an alternate reality where, instead of creating gridlock with a car-centric publicity stunt, Wilson used his wealth to distribute free CTA Ventra tickets, virtually eliminating traffic congestion that day.

Since then, I’ve had more time to wrap my head around the issue, and Wilson has doubled down on this smog-generating PR move, announcing that this Thursday, March 24, he plans to dole out $1 million more in free gas at 50 locations in Chicago and the rest of Cook County. The self-identified “humanitarian and philanthropist” said in a statement, “Soaring gas prices have caused a hardship for too many of our citizens… I am confident that with God’s help and wisdom we will get through these tough times together.”

The upshot is that people in inner-ring suburbs will get to experience the same totally unnecessary, nightmarish traffic snarls and noxious fumes as city-dwellers. So I’d like to take a deeper dive into this subject.

First, let’s acknowledge Wilson is a unique character on Chicago’s political landscape, with some impressive accomplishments that particularly resonate with many Black residents, especially those of his generation. Born in 1948 to a family of sharecroppers in segregated Louisiana, he left school after seventh grade to labor at cotton and sugar cane farms. After moving to Chicago in 1965, he took a job flipping burgers at a McDonald’s, worked he way up to manager, and eventually became a franchisee. Then he sold his five restaurants and launched a medical supply company, growing it into a multi-million dollar empire, as well as producing “Singsation,” a nationally-syndicated gospel music TV show. That’s a rags-to-riches story lots of people find inspiring.

Wilson has repeatedly tried to parlay his business success into political power, with failed runs for Chicago mayor (2015 and 2019), U.S. Senate (2020), and even president (2016.) One thing that’s probably holding him back is his relatively conservative positions that don’t jibe with those of most Chicagoans, including many African Americans.

Wilson denounced the 2015 Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage, although he later said he changed his mind on the issue. In 2016 he voted for Donald Trump in the general election, although he eventually disavowed him. Wilson accepted the endorsement of the Chicago police union for his Senate run and is chummy with union president John Catanzara, a Trump supporter who defended those who stormed the Capitol and compared COVID-19 vaccine mandates to the Holocaust. Last December Catanzara praised Wilson after the millionaire gave $50,000 to 243 Chicago cops and 20 firefighters who lost pay after refusing to disclose their vaccination status.

Willie Wilson hugs John Catanzara while accepting the police union’s endorsement. Photo: Pat Nabong for the Chicago Sun-Times
Willie Wilson hugs John Catanzara while accepting the police union’s endorsement. Photo: Pat Nabong for the Chicago Sun-Times

But while Wilson’s positions are often to the right of most Chicagoans, and he’s never won an election, thanks to his popularity in the Black community he has enjoyed a kingmaker role in local politics. For example, after winning a plurality of votes in 13 out of Chicago’s 18 majority-African-American wards in the 2019 general mayoral election, he endorsed Lori Lightfoot in the runoff, which was credited with making socially conservative Black churchgoers more comfortable with electing our city’s first openly gay mayor.

The gas giveaway isn’t the first time Wilson has gotten lots of media attention for handing out free stuff. During the run-up to the 2019 election he distributed about $200,000 in checks and cash from his nonprofit foundation to church attendees, raising questions about whether that was a form of illegal vote-buying. (The Illinois State Board of Elections said it wasn’t.)

Wilson isn’t currently running for anything, but with Lightfoot profoundly unpopular in many different circles nowadays, it’s likely the entrepreneur will make a third vanity mayoral run next year. While he’s portrayed the gasoline gimmick as purely altruistic, spending $200,000 on gas to get coverage from just about every local media outlet is a lot cheaper than buying political ads, and he clearly loves all the attention.

On the other hand, Wilson’s handout was basically only useful for those who can afford to drive and are physically able to do so. As of 2015, 27.5 percent of Chicago households didn’t own cars. In many or most cases living car-less is a matter of economic necessity, rather than a choice. Free gas is also of little or no help for many people with disabilities, seniors, and kids who rely on transit because they’re unable to drive.

And, again, gas giveaways don’t just benefit some residents while leaving others out in the cold, they actively harm vulnerable people by slowing down buses and creating more emissions. And they’re a pain in the neck for everyone else, including drivers. As such, large-scale free gas promotions should be outlawed.

In the short term, if there’s no way for Mayor Lightfoot and Cook County president Toni Preckwinkle to put the brakes on Wilson’s upcoming wasteful and destructive $1 million countywide event, they should at least do damage control. Sure, planning traffic management around the 50 gas stations in advance would help make the inevitable lines of idling drivers a little less awful. But Wilson should absolutely be required to pay back municipalities for the police resources diverted for his publicity stunt. And ideally we would send him a bill for the wasted productivity and environmental degradation caused by his vanity traffic jams.

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