Willie Wilson’s wild numbers

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Photo by April Alonso

Less than four weeks from the most consequential election in recent Chicago political history, it’s still anyone’s race.

The recent Chicago Sun-Times/We Ask America poll revealed a mayoral race where no candidate has generated a real lead. It also revealed a black electorate that has yet to unify behind one candidate, with the largest portion of respondents undecided.

One interesting statistic: the poll showed Willie Wilson significantly ahead of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle among black voters, getting 20.3 percent to her 11.4 percent. It’s just one poll, but Wilson did take as much as 30 percent in some of the city’s majority-black wards four years ago, when he received nearly 11 percent of the citywide vote.

A unified African-American electorate has been viewed by many as a prerequisite for a progressive mayoral coalition since Harold Washington’s 1983 election. The black vote is still a significant factor for any progressive candidate, but things have changed a lot since then.

African-Americans are no longer a plurality of the city’s voting population, while advances in black political representation have resulted in a much larger cast of possible leaders — though none with the gravitas and street cred Washington earned through hard-fought battles.

Washington’s political strategy had two components: black empowerment, which fueled his elections, and multiracial progressive coalition building, a not-insignificant factor in his electoral wins but crucial in his administration and the City Council bloc he eventually built to counter machine opposition.

With major population growth among Latinos and the loss of black voters — and with a new progressive wave among young voters of all races — coalition politics probably takes greater precedence today. At this point, it’s not clear whether there’s a mayoral candidate who can put that together.

Given her prominence as county board president, Preckwinkle is considered by many (including major unions) as the candidate who can attract the most black support and pull progressives together. Her campaign announcement was packed with long-time African-American political activists. She has a progressive record in the City Council, playing a leadership role backing police accountability, opposing the war on drugs, and supporting affordable housing and living wage legislation.

So far, though, her campaign hasn’t taken off. Her sponsorship of a regressive pop tax —  though arguably her best available option to prevent cuts in county services — has hurt her. Her faltering explanations of her relationship with Ald. Ed Burke have also set her back — not just because of his recent legal troubles, but also because of the legacy of gutter politics he deployed against Washington.

Gambling on a casino

But Wilson is not the candidate to put the grand coalition together. For one thing, the Sun-Times poll showed he has virtually no Latino or white support. For another, the brand of political leadership he offers is simply not progressive.

Wilson is certainly a sincere and charitable man. But he supported Donald Trump for president and Bruce Rauner for governor, both decisions that he now says were mistakes. Admitting mistakes is a fine character trait. But those are errors of political judgment of a vast magnitude — not a strong selling point for a candidate for office.

His calls for jailing Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other politicians may resonate in a city with at least two leading aldermen under criminal investigation, but they also echo Donald Trump leading chants of “lock her up.”

He seems to conflate wealth with political integrity, suggesting that because he is self-financing his campaign he’s immune from corruption. We’ve seen that wealthy business people often bring their own conflicts of interest into office. He also seems to conflate philanthropy and policy, attacking Preckwinkle for taking credit for bail reform in Cook County because he set up a private fund to help arrestees who can’t afford bail. That’s admirable, but it’s still true that she played a larger role advocating for policy changes, long before Wilson became involved in the issue.

Beyond that, the vision for governing the city that Wilson presents — expanding services while rejecting progressive revenue measures — just doesn’t add up.

Wilson is among five mayoral candidates (the others are Gery Chico, Bob Fioretti, John Kozlar and Garry McCarthy) who oppose amending the Illinois constitution to allow a progressive income tax for the state. He justifies his position saying he’s against all tax increases. He does back an increase in the real estate transfer tax for high-end home sales, but he opposes a city income tax, a commuter tax, or a financial transaction tax.

But tax reform does not equal tax increase. The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability has offered a model for a graduated income tax that would reduce taxes for nearly all state residents but raise an additional $2 billion a year. It would begin to fix the regressive structure of the current system, under which low-income residents pay almost twice as much of their income in state and local taxes as the top income levels. It could increase the city’s take of state funds, though probably not by much.

Raising the income tax rate a bit more broadly — in line with rates in neighboring states, but still protecting lower-income earners — would make possible additional state funding for schools and would allow for local property tax cuts. This would also reduce regressivity, in this case driven by Illinois’ overreliance on local property taxes to fund schools.

Instead, Wilson points to the same “shiny object” as most of the other current candidates when asked about revenue — just as Emanuel did in previous campaigns — a casino. (The only candidate opposing a casino is Amara Enyia.)

Wilson tells us a Chicago casino could bring in $1 billion in annual revenue, but that’s far beyond any other projections. The state’s Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability has estimated that a Chicago casino would take in about $100 million a year, possibly much less, with revenues declining over time. The video gambling debacle should serve as a cautionary tale about forecasting gaming revenues.

Wilson’s other revenue ideas are equally unreliable. He says the city could get $1 billion a year from marijuana legalization. Other current projections top out at $700 million — though $500 million may be more reasonable — in state revenues, of which the city would get a small share. Taxing marijuana at the level Wilson seems to be proposing would basically undermine legalization and drive a resurgent underground market.

He argues that putting the kibosh on O’Hare Airport’s expansion would save $8 billion. But that’s money coming from the airlines and the federal government. And he says reopening Meig’s Field, the lakefront airport closed by Mayor Richard M. Daley in the dead of night, would bring in $300 million to $500 million.

That’s another incredible prediction, given that Midway Airport, which had 22 million passengers in 2017, brings in less than $300 million a year in airline fees, concessions, and other sources. When it closed it 2003, Meigs had no regularly scheduled passenger flights, serving only private flyers. In any case, airport fees go into special funds that cover airport operations.

Wilson, like other candidates, has also promised efficiency, streamlining public services to reduce the city’s deficit. He has suggested that payroll costs are too large a proportion of the city’s budget.

We’ve seen this before. Emanuel came into office promising “reform before revenue,” and the areas he found to make cuts included mental health clinics, libraries, and neighborhood schools. Several years later there’s a growing consensus that those cuts were draconian and counterproductive. Wilson is among many candidates calling for reopening the clinics, and he wants to reopen or repurpose the schools. And Emanuel himself is now building new libraries.

Wilson likes to pose as the anti-politician, but given his opposition to most progressive revenue solutions, his promises about expanding services ring hollow. And they are certainly far from the roadmap — which is still quite relevant —  offered by Harold Washington of fully funding needed services with progressive revenue measures.