South Carolina (WIS) - As a virtual unknown in the 2016 presidential campaign, Chicago businessman and onetime Windy City mayoral candidate Willie Wilson claimed a valuable, if unappreciated, connection to South Carolina voters.
"Basically, they need to know I'm one of them," Wilson declared in an interview with WIS News 10. "When I say 'one of them,' that means I have been poor. I've been through poverty. I've been successful, in business, and through life."
Wilson has barely registered in most presidential polls and failed to make the primaries at all in many states but he did qualify to appear on the ballot for South Carolina's Democratic primary Feb. 27.
Part of his trouble in getting attention and support he blames on the Democratic Party.
"It hasn't been that I haven't tried," he said. "I am running against the Democratic Party who have not, as they say, sanctioned me."
A native of Louisiana, Wilson showcases his humble beginnings. In the 1960s, he went from a janitor at McDonalds to the manager of several McDonalds franchises. Today, he is the multimillionaire founder of the Omar Medical Supplies international medical supply company and a nationally syndicated gospel music show.
"We think every citizen, regardless of what color you happen to be or what you want background happen to be, that you can make it," he said, "if you treat them right. You're going to come out successful. I've proven those types of things and we will continue to do that."
As part of his platform, Wilson calls for the forgiveness of student debt, a reduction in incarceration of American convicts and cutbacks in American military involvement abroad with savings coming back to pay for domestic priorities.
"I believe the war should be on poverty, here at home," he explained. "We should take care of home first.. If anybody tries to attack the United States, we can deal with those particular issues. But for too long, here in America, people are starving. People don't have money to get to college. People have over $1 trillion in terms of student debt loan. …If you don't focus on home first, and go focus somewhere else and try to police the whole world, where are you going? Where are we going? It's the wrong way."
In a primary contest against veteran Washington figures like former First Lady, former U.S. Senator, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and longtime U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, Wilson calls his own lack of conventional experience more an asset than a liability.
"I think the country today is in the problems that it's in because of the experience, so-called, of political people," he said. "We have the experience. They do not have the experience. I balance a budget for a living. They balanced budgets off of taxpayer dollars. And they haven't done a very good job of that."
It is on criminal justice reform that Wilson claims a personal stake.
"I have lost a 20-year-old son to drugs, gun violence, things of that nature," he said. "When you accept corporate money, to own, privatizing, prison system, that is a major problem for me. And I'm sure it is for America. When we can arrest our young people with misdemeanor drug charges, tickets, and go to prison for a lifetime, that's not right."
As a wealthy businessman funding his own campaign, Wilson acknowledges the parallels and comparisons to Republican front runner Donald Trump but says his approach with his own money is very different from Trump's.
"Well, one thing about Donald Trump is this. And he said it out of his own mouth: when he give to a politician, or anybody, he expect something back. I give unconditional. That's just what I do. I expect nothing back. Period. I have always been that way. We've lost a lot of money, in business before him. But that doesn't matter because we would take that loss but, on this hand over here, we've made a lot. And we've been successful all the way through. I don't give money to churches or politicians and expect anything back."
Wilson readily acknowledged he has not made much progress in getting his name onto primary ballots around the country. Besides South Carolina, Wilson said he has secured a place in the primaries of California, Louisiana, Illinois, Texas and Missouri and he's in a court fight to get onto the ballot in Mississippi. But short of the Democratic nomination for president, Wilson hoped for his campaign to highlight his own priority issues.
"This country should have economic empowerment to reflect the citizens of America," he ticked off. "This country should have free education. If Cuba and China can have free education, why not us? This country should have forgiveness of student debt loans. This country should have a public policy, public education, that should reflect equal opportunity under the law. This country should have equal work, equal pay for females. And also, last is a national
faith-based initiative program. These are things that I am talking about. And if it comes down to the fact that, if we cannot elect a president of these United States, with a platform and delegates we will use those to the fullest to get some of our message out there."