Election 2020

Illinois Gov. Rauner Caught in Chicago Mayoral Candidate’s Cash Giveaway Flap

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner speaks during a news conference Aug. 9, 2018, in Springfield, Ill. (AP Photo/ John O'Connor)

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner decided in late July he won’t be giving any more money to millionaire Chicago mayoral candidate Willie Wilson’s charitable foundation, and the African-American businessman decided he’s tired of white people telling him how to spend his money.

“I was raised in the South Jim Crow days,” Wilson said. “I’m just tired of white people telling me what to do. It was with my own money, all right, I didn’t use taxpayer dollars.”

Wilson, who owns several McDonald’s franchises in the Chicago area, along with the Omar Medical Supplies company, also produces a nationally syndicated gospel music TV program, Singsation.

Wilson, a Democrat, is running for mayor of Chicago for the second time. Wilson ran against Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2015, and lost. Wilson ran for president in 2016 as a Democrat and was the first presidential candidate, Democrat or Republican, to buy ads in Iowa for that election.

Rauner is running for re-election against J.B. Pritzker, and the race is much tighter than the Republican would like it to be. A June Capitol Fax/We Ask America poll showed Pritzker leading Rauner by nine points. Another 26 percent of the voters surveyed said they’d just as soon vote for an unnamed third-party candidate. Another 11 percent were undecided. So the last thing the Rauner campaign needs is this kind of aggravation.

At the core of this conflict is a South Side Chicago church event — attended by both men — at which Wilson was handing out cash and checks to parishioners. “We’re honored to help you pay your property taxes,” Rauner told those who were on the receiving end of the handouts, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. But the sight of an incumbent Republican governor helping a nonpartisan mayoral candidate hand out money four months away from an election was so unseemly that Rauner flipped a few days later, flopping to a position a few days later.

Although Rauner said helping poor people pay property taxes is a worthy cause, he added, “Just handing out cash randomly to people, I’ve never done that, and I think it’s not a good thing to do.”

Rauner also told reporters “as far as I know” none of the $200,000 he gave Wilson’s foundation was part of the New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church handouts.

Rauner’s assurance that nothing untoward happened, on that Sunday in July at the Baptist church, failed to reassure Illinois senator and Conservative Party gubernatorial candidate Sam McCann.

“Governor Rauner has reached a new low,” said McCann in a statement. “This was a political event, and Bruce Rauner and Willie Wilson were handing out stacks of cash. This is the kind of old-school Democratic Machine politics that got us where we are today.”

Christian Mitchell, the executive director of the Illinois Democratic Party, called the church cash and check giveaway “one of the most highly unethical campaign stunts Rauner has ever conducted.”

“It’s stunning that he would even dare show up in the black community after failing to pass a budget for four years and creating the highest unemployment rate for black people in the country,” said Mitchell. “But to show up with a campaign staffer and hand out $100,000 in cash? It’s not only possible that it’s illegal, but the height of hypocrisy from someone who claims they want to ‘clean up the system.’”

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office is investigating the cash/check giveaway, and that’s something else that angered Wilson.

“As long as I am not breaking any laws of the United States of America I have a right to do what I want to do with my money,” Wilson said. “I am not going to pass up a person on the street who’s laying down, don’t have legs and needs money for food to eat.”

But wasn’t Wilson buying votes? Helping those who can’t help themselves is one thing. Sometimes you have to fish for a person before teaching them how to fish. Still, when you hand out cash this close to an election, won’t that at least influence the way that person votes?

Wilson advisor Ricky Hendon, a man who knows something about politics as a former state senator and Chicago alderman, said all Wilson did was give people money to help pay property taxes and other expenses through the Dr. Willie Wilson Foundation, a registered nonprofit organization.

Illinois State Board of Elections spokesman Matt Dietrich said to the Chicago Tribune that, appearances aside, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with what Wilson did at the church.

“As far as we can see, it looks like he didn’t use campaign funds for this,” Dietrich said. “And there doesn’t appear to have been any quid pro quo, like, ‘Here’s some money, vote for me.’ So from our perspective, it doesn’t look like there was anything illegal about this.”

Hendon told the Sun-Times if Wilson was handing out hundreds or even thousands of dollars per vote, he was “overpaying by 1,500 percent.”

“Because if we wanted to buy votes,” Hendon said, “it’s five or 10 bucks on the West Side, and the South Side, so let’s just be real about that.”