This isn’t exactly how Willie Wilson planned his presidential campaign. He’d at least hoped to be viewed as a candidate by his party, the Democrats, but they won’t return his phone calls.
“I’ve been a Democrat all my life,” he told me over the phone last week. “The Democrats are supposed to have inclusion, they’re for equality and affirmative action, but they don’t seem to want to allow that to happen. I’ve written them, I’ve called them. They won’t return my calls or nothing else.”
“If you look at the Republican side of it,” he continues, “they got what, fifteen, seventeen plus or more Republicans. They got white, they got black, they got minorities, Cuban, Hispanic, the whole nine yards.”
The Democratic Party’s official position on Wilson is unknown—they did not reply to requests for comment by press time. A possible reason for the Democratic stonewalling is Wilson’s complete lack of political experience, though he would be in good company; three Republican candidates—businesspeople Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson—have never held public office before either.
Additionally, all three remaining major Democratic candidates (to say nothing of the two who’ve dropped out) have struggled to address racism and anti-racism protesters. And yet Wilson, whose platform includes an end to mass incarceration and, during his mayoral campaign, called for three-quarters of the Chicago Police Department’s force to patrol by foot or public transit to better facilitate community policing, has been barred from party events—from large ones, like debates on national TV, to small ones, like fairs in Iowa. “I think that they are a little nervous about—a lot nervous about—that my candidacy will generate a lot of people, in particular the minority portion,” he said.
That hasn’t deterred the businessman, local Emmy-winning host and producer of WGN’s long-running gospel show Singsation! (each season is filmed at once over a couple weekends, he assured me; filming a new show every week and running a national campaign don’t go hand-in-hand), and third-place Chicago mayoral candidate. Since announcing his presidential candidacy in June at the Chicago Baptist Institute in Washington Park, he’s flown multiple times to Iowa, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Michigan, and other states from his Chicago home base, all on his dime, which has resulted in at least one success: he is on the ballot for the South Carolina primary.
Though many of his views line up with the Democratic social agenda (he identifies as pro-choice and supports legalizing cannabis), he differs from the Democratic base in a handful of ways. Included in his platform is a “national faith-based initiative,” which may give many secular Democrats pause. “I’m running for president, but I’m running for Christ, too, in terms of my spirituality,” he said. His campaign Facebook page is unique among 2016 presidential candidates in that most of the posts consist of quotes from the Bible. Wilson himself, along with two staffers, handpicks the quotes. “We want to encourage people to think, no matter how bad you think you are, or how down you may feel, there is hope if you believe in Christ,” he said. Informed by his faith is his steadfast belief that marriage “is between a man and a woman,” but he indicated to me that his personal views would not stand in the way of the will of the people should they support something he does not.
Wilson’s backstory, an extreme example of the American dream, makes the question of why the Democratic Party won’t recognize him even more opaque. Born to sharecroppers in rural Louisiana, he escaped a work camp at twelve, later began working at a McDonald’s mopping floors, and met the then-CEO of McDonald’s, Ray Kroc, who helped him get his own restaurant. He accrued five, then sold them to focus on gospel music and later founded a successful medical supplies company, becoming a millionaire philanthropist in the process.
He has reached out to the Black Congressional Caucus, the NAACP, and the National Urban League for support. All have turned him down, something which clearly rankles him still; the only time any trace of anger appeared in his voice during our phone call was when he accused the black civil rights organizations and politicians of “selling out” to the Democrats.
But he persists. “We haven’t given up, and we won’t give up,” Wilson told me. The first true test of his in-person campaigning will come in February, when South Carolinians will vote in the only election Wilson is currently listed on the ballot for. As of press time, no statewide polls have indexed his popularity.