The TRiiBE sat down with the 2023 Black mayoral candidates to learn more about their political views. Read their Q&A profiles here. Visit The TRiiBE Election Center to learn more about the Chicago municipal election taking place on Feb. 28.

Dr. Willie Wilson ain’t changing for nobody. As a product of the Great Migration myself, it’s that part of him many find most respectable. Born in Louisiana in 1948, he worked alongside his parents as sharecroppers. He landed on Chicago’s West Side in 1965. He worked odd jobs until getting hired at McDonald’s. He crossed picket lines to get promoted to manager and went on to become one of the first African Americans to own a McDonald’s franchise which set him on a path to become a self-made millionaire who today gives thousands of dollars to the community.

“Business, I’ve pretty much did that and I don’t want no more business. We can give away $10 million, $5 million to the community in a year, whatever we can afford to do,” Wilson told The TRiiBE. “But if you in government as mayor of the city of Chicago, you can make sure there’s equal opportunity, equality for all citizens, without leaving anybody behind because of the color of your skin.”

As part of our 2023 Before the Polls mayoral candidate interview series, Wilson invited The TRiiBE on Jan. 2 to his downtown Chicago penthouse, an opulent 46th-floor campaign HQ with 180-degree views of Lake Michigan. Initially he thought we were “the bourgeois,” and jokingly said he planned to be short with us. 

But when he heard about my West Side roots, he let his guard down and spoke more easily. “The bread and butter of Chicago, especially people my age, they basically from Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama,” he said.

“It’s a different world now. I mean, people’s different. What do you call the younger people? Progressive? We never looked at nothing progressive. We was just regular people,” Wilson said. “I decided to stay the same and not change. Chicago, I’m ‘gon stay Louisiana. That’s who I remain today. Louisiana.”

Wilson’s immutability is the part of him that voters should consider when choosing Chicago’s next mayor. 

In the public safety section of our interview, Wilson said, if elected, he would call for more policing; he’s also specifically said “We need to take the handcuffs off the police” at his summer 2022 safety platform announcement and that police should “hunt them down like a rabbit,” referring to suspects, at a Jan. 19 mayoral debate. That comes as no surprise: the FOP endorsed his 2020 U.S. Senate run, and it’s been reported that Wilson sought the FOP endorsement this time around, but Paul Vallas got it.

Throughout our interview, when asked questions about public safety policies such as the SAFE-T Act and Treatment Not Trauma, Wilson indicated he either hasn’t read up on it or was altogether unfamiliar with it.

(This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity).

Quick jump

1 Background

The TRiiBE: Your story is one that many older Black Chicagoans relate to. How did your environment growing up shape who you are today, your politics, and your outlook on life?

Willie: Being from down South set the foundation for the rest of my life. It taught me how to work, respect, and integrity. Down South, we wave at everybody. You could walk down South and someone got a house here, and you literally could walk in and sit down and start eating. Everybody was welcomed. There was no lock on doors. There was a latch, but that was only for the wind. And there was no contracts to sign. We were sharecroppers. We just trusted everybody.

And nobody got killed in my community down South by a break-in or firearm. Nobody. Everybody died [of] natural causes. That was it.

From your public appearances across Chicago, it is very clear that many on the South, North and West sides connect with you. Why do you think that is?

The people that are my age related to me because we have a lot in common together. Now, we have some of the young people. We got some of the middle-aged people. They related because I believe that we have set the example of what people should be about. They should be about helping one another and not one for self. We work hard. Got some Fortune 500 company like McDonald’s. Everything we have, we work hard for. We didn’t get it by misusing other people. I think young people look at, like, to have someone to think about and care about them too. I think whether you progressive, senior citizen, or coming up as a kid, everybody wants to be cared for.

I think young people look at, like, to have someone to think about and care about them too. I think whether you progressive, senior citizen, or coming up as a kid, everybody wants to be cared for.

In the streets, a lot of young guys respect you and the work you’re doing, especially the charitable events that you’ve hosted for the gas and food giveaways. What’s your connection to young folks in Chicago?

I’ve helped a lot of people get out of jail for misdemeanor and non-violent. They were sitting in there for two, three months. A year. They ain’t even have [a] trial. They ain’t even been to court. I don’t know how much money I took. It was hundreds of thousands of dollars. And I didn’t know not one person. We went in there and we took my attorney and we bailed them out. We felt that was wrong to keep somebody in jail for that long for misdemeanor, non-violent. Couldn’t even afford a lawyer. I think that had a lot to do with it.

And another [thing] is caring, in terms of the gas giveaway, the food giveaway. We been doing this since 35, 40 years. We been giving away, maybe not gas so much, but paying people’s property taxes and keeping people out of jail, helping churches, buying food. We’ve spent $60 million, $70 million, $80 million. 

When I got into politics, everybody wanted to say I’m doing ulterior motives. But the people know who I am. There’s some people [who] also hate me too, for the good that we do. I’m not perfect. In order to help other people, particularly our particular people, you’ve got to graduate. And I say graduate because you’ve got to be misused, mistreated when you do good. You got to walk alone. You got to be spit on. You got to be called names. I call that graduating. Some of the same people that said they dislike me, or say I talk a certain way, were in lines for gasoline.

You face a lot of pushback because of the way you talk and your accent?

Yes. But I don’t pay no mind to it. Always tell people this way; I sign the front of my check. They sign the back of theirs. They working for somebody else. I work for myself. I can live wherever I wanna, do what I wanna do. I don’t have to take commercial flight. I go private plane. I can go wherever I wanna go, wherever money can take me to. They can’t even get out of Chicago.

I call some of them bourgeois. I have very little respect for bourgeois. Why? Because they don’t help nobody but themselves. All the people in Chicago got so much money, and not lift one finger to help nobody. And I don’t respect that, nor do I care about them.

2 Safety & Policing

You mentioned that you bailed people out of jail. How do you feel about the SAFE-T Act? Is that something you support?

It’s had some ups and downs to it. I haven’t looked at it personally. I haven’t given a lot of thought to it. But again, there [are] some things that may be good in there. I haven’t read it all personally. And there [are] some things may be bad in there.

In 2019, you campaigned on reducing violence by putting jobs back in the community. And then in summer 2022, during a press conference where you announced your policy platforms, you said we must stop young people and gangbangers from polarizing our community by locking them up. You said, “and if the state’s attorney or anybody lets them out, we’ll just lock them up again.” Has your policy around safety changed over the last few years? If so, can you clarify what your policy is now, especially when it comes to Black neighborhoods in Chicago?

I don’t care what color you are. I’m thinking about the one who commits the crime.My policy have not changed. I’m ‘gon lock ‘em up. And they get out again, we’ll lock ‘em back up. Because crime has no color.

I was at a service station myself and went to get some water. Came out, they broke in my car. I let them take what they want. I didn’t go back out there because I didn’t want any of them causing problems. If you are African American, white, Latina, Asian American, I don’t care about color. Crime has no bearing because you took somebody’s life. What right do you have?

3 Mental Health

Do you feel that there’s a correlation between mental health and violence in Chicago? If so, how are you thinking about that correlation as you draft policies?

First of all, people say I have mental problems by giving away [the] money we give away. I think we need to open up some clinics. I don’t think our policemen should be locking up people that have mental illness problems. I think those got to be professional people. If you look at the police department, they arrest a lot of people who are mentally ill. They’re not trained for that. Open up 25, 50 or 30 mental illness [clinics].

Why don’t you use some of our churches and create economic empowerment within that? Some of our churches got all kinds of room. 

My 14-year-old niece, I think she was 14 or 15, committed suicide four months ago. That’s a serious problem that should not be dealt with [by] our police officers. Let them use their time for working on what they need to be doing. But even with the police department, we got to find places for them too.

A lot of people go back in Cook County Jail because they can get three meals a day. Some of them want to stop using drugs. They got a good drug center. It’s a cycle.

Are there any parts of Treatment Not Trauma that you support when it comes to mental health and safety?

No, not that I know of. All I know about mental illness is that we need to open up the mental [health] clinic; whether they’re into the school, hospital, police office, anyplace else. Any other name that you may call it, I’m not familiar with that.

Willie Wilson
Willie Wilson // Photo by Alexander Gouletas for The TRiIBE

4 Youth & Education

You want to put trades in the curriculum for CPS students. What exactly does that look like? How does a mayor go about implementing a curriculum change? How much money goes into that?

Well, they find money to fund everything else. I mean, they find money for people coming to the city. They find it to let major corporations come into the city.

As mayor, where would you pull the money from?

Use money that you already have. It’s about managing your budget. It’s about bidding out the contract. But most of the same people that own those contracts get them year after year. They never bid them out. Those dollars there, alright.

Then you got new businesses that comes in too. You take, like, the percentage. Put line items, like every month, we got to pay our rent out [of] our paycheck. That’s a line item. So those kind of dollars. What could’ve been a good thing to use is some of the COVID money.

You got to deal with the red-light cameras. That’ll make people go out of this city. Businesses don’t want to come in and be in the city because [their customers are discouraged]. The customers out there in Oakbrook or in Indiana, they go there and buy their gasoline and stuff like that. So you start eliminating those barriers then people going to shop more in the city of Chicago. Those dollars gon’ come just from that.

5 Housing & Community

You’ve been here since 1965. You’ve talked about how communities like North Lawndale still look the same today as they did after the riots in 1968. What policies will you create to uplift Black neighborhoods that are still in a state of despair, so that they have the same resources that downtown Chicago has?

The situation is making sure we get an infrastructure in place. Putting those trades into high schools, elementary schools. Use some of our existing churches and community centers. Put a trade school in those as well. 

Ask the major corporations that we have in Chicago, and reach out to them too, and ask them [to] train some people within that major corporation and do some type of tax incentive break. We’ll get that done.

I came to Chicago in 1965. I was at 223 N. Leamington. And I also lived at 2141 S. Lawndale. So I know about Lawndale. I know about the West Side. I didn’t spend too much time on the South Side, but I’m a West Sider since 1965. 

So I think that, what has happened is that, we have to face the fact that we taught our kids that you need to finish high school. But we need to go on from high school. We need to get on and finish college. But the failure that I think we all [have] done as parents, we failed them to say you need a trade along with the high-school diploma or the college degree.

How do we build up our communities without displacing the Black people who live there and giving the community a new name? There are some people around the Obama Presidential Center who are being forced out by landlords and new developments pricing them out.

A lot of us leave out of Chicago because of the crime. A lot of us leave out of Chicago because of the taxes.

The rent is going higher. In something like that, the library, before they put anything in anybody’s community, they should check with the community and it should be at the community request. For example, like the casino that’s coming in up here in Chicago, the community don’t want it there. I wouldn’t have put it there. I would have put it at the McCormick Place. Infrastructure’s already in place there.

We have to communicate with our citizens. Because if you don’t communicate with our citizens, you’re out of luck.

I will fight and make sure these taxes get down. We got the line item in them, that nobody loses their home until they get back on their feet; kind of like COVID-19. [With] COVID-19, they took care of that eventually. They stopped everybody from working and when they stopped everybody from working, they brought these COVID-19 dollars in. You can find and do what you want to do if you want to do it, when you want to do it, and if you have the heart to do it.

You’ve talked about supporting a livable wage. You’ve become wealthy and successful yourself off the growth of businesses, especially with the McDonald’s franchises. Have you implemented a livable wage within your own businesses? How will you support Chicago workers and unions who are fighting for a livable wage and better working conditions today?

My average pay for my employees, I believe it’s a little over minimum wage. I would hope so. My average employee that works for me makes about over $100,000 a year.

Can you say which business?

All of them. That’s my average. So there may be a couple maybe making $70,000. But most of them make $300,000, $200,000, $150,000. So the average comes up.

What about your McDonald’s franchises?

No. McDonald’s is totally different. We’re a franchisee. McDonald’s Corporation is who owns the land. We own the franchise. It’s kind of like we pay rent.

6 Accountability

At the time of this interview, there isn’t a good list of your platforms and policies on your campaign website. If a Chicago voter wants to learn more about your platforms, about your policies, how can they do so?

Well, they go to my Willie Wilson Facebook. I think you’ll find a lot of stuff there. You do your research on me. Google my name. I’m there. I’m well known in the neighborhood. Everybody knows what we stand for.

But a lot of candidates do have their platforms written out on a website or other mediums  to read through what their plans are

We have our handout. Everything is on that as well. We’ve got thousands and thousands of interviews. We do live townhall meetings. I’m not what you call the “average candidate.”I’m not going to be, nor will I receive a paycheck. I’m not ‘gon take $50,000, $100,000 or $200,000 because then I’m working for somebody in between the people. So I’m not ‘gon take that. I don’t have to do that. The other politicians take dollars from people that they ‘gon have to answer for.

You don’t have to answer to your donors? They won’t hold you accountable to any promises?

I don’t do that. I answer straight to the people. But there are some people [who] don’t need to be in the race, because they ain’t got no money. I’m just telling you point blank. It costs a lot of money out here. They need to be at home trying to take care of their families and wait til their time. Now they can borrow it — I’m not knocking that either. I’m just saying I’m in a position where I don’t have to do it.

I don’t want to go back in slavery like I came out of slavery down South. I don’t want nobody money. Pay my own way. My own commercials, we do our own thing. And I like that. That way, I can talk and say what I want to say on the camera. If somebody say something to me on camera I don’t like, I can just tell them I don’t like your remark. But if somebody else done paid me, then I got to answer to a Democratic Party or a Republican Party or any other party. Nah, I don’t have to do that.

READ THE NEXT MAYORAL PROFILE

is the editor-in-chief of The TRiiBE and a 2023-2024 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow.