Millionaire businessman Willie Wilson on Thursday launched a massive voter registration drive with the ambitious goal of adding 1 million new voters to the Chicago rolls by the Feb. 28 mayoral and aldermanic election.
Voter turnout for the mayoral election in February 2019 was 35.4%, or 560,701 of Chicago’s 1.58 million registered voters.. Turnout dropped to 33% for the runoff, which Lori Lightfoot won over Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
In the June 28 Illinois primary to nominate candidates for a host of offices including governor, attorney general, and secretary of state, the turnout was an even more dismal 22.8%.
Wilson is determined to turn the tide of voter apathy before the mayoral election, which will be his second attempt to win the office.
It relies on the formidable, church-based constituency that helped him capture 13 of 18 Blackwards in 2019 and finish fourth overall with 10.6% of the vote.
But Wilson said his voter registration drive will not rely solely on those roughly 300 African-American, Hispanic and white ministers after they’re done preaching every Sunday.
He’s also recruiting scores of people, some of them paid, to serve as deputy registrars on Wednesdays and Saturdays outside more than a dozen grocery stores, including Cermak Fresh Markets.
Wilson has already used millions of his personal fortune to hold a series of gas and food giveaways that have endedeared him to Chicago voters.
He said he’s prepared to spend “whatever it takes” from his Willie Wilson Foundation to persuade cynical and apathetic Chicagoans to get off the sidelines, register and vote.
“I came up in the Jim Crow days when we couldn’t vote in the South. Ever since we were able to vote when I came up North, I have not missed. Not one time,” Wilson said.
“I’m an American dream. I’ve got a seventh-grade education. I ran away from home. Look at myself — how I kept the right attitude and kept working hard. If I can get up and vote and make it, they’ve got to look at themselves, too. If they don’t want to vote for themselves, vote for the kids and the grandkids. Give them a better life.”
The 2020 Census pegged Chicago’s population at 2.67 million. Just 1.49 million of those people are registered to vote. That leaves 1.17 million potential voters.
Election Board spokesman Max Bever said the number is difficult to estimate because some of those 1.17 million people “may not be eligible to vote” because of “age, citizenship, etc.”
The more voters Wilson and his supporters can register, the more it could potentially benefit his second mayoral campaign.
But Wilson said it’s not about that. It’s about changing the system and ending the voter cynicism that’s a natural outgrowth of public corruption, like the scandals still swirling around indicated Ald. Edward Burke (14th), former Zoning Committee Chairman-turned-FBI mole Danny Solis (25th) and former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago.
“I don’t care if you vote for me. Vote for somebody. … I don’t need help. I’m doing it to help the community so they can have some choices… and help change their life, change their own neighborhoods and begin to get generational wealth,” Wilson said.
“Politics is a game played … with kickbacks and everything else. People get money from other people to get into office. They’re held to those so-called organizations versus the people. If we can get enough people to come out and vote, we can change that.”