Gas giveaways harm people. We shouldn’t let rich politicians like Willie Wilson do them.

Willie Wilson
Willie Wilson

Update Monday 3/21/22, 8:00 PM: The Chicago Tribune reported the following:

In order to avoid another traffic calamity, officials with the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications and Chicago police released a joint statement saying their agencies were “coordinating with Dr. Wilson and his staff to provide city and department resources to alleviate traffic congestion and ensure public safety during his gas giveaway at participating stations located in the city of Chicago.”

It’s good to hear that there will be some advance traffic and security planning this time, but the city should require Wilson to reimburse taxpayers resources for these public resources to support his PR stunt.

Update Monday 3/21/22, 2:15 PM: In response to this article, Rogers Park alderwoman Maria Hadden (49th), who previously called Wilson’s gas giveaway “irresponsible and reckless” on Twitter and said she’s be asking the Chicago Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection to look into special permits the city could require for these event in the future, tweeted this:

When I first heard about entrepreneur and perennial political candidate Willie Wilson spending $200,000 of his reported $25 million fortune to give out free gasoline in $50 increments at ten Chicago gas stations last Thursday, and the predictably awful traffic jams that ensued, all I could do was laugh.

So I responded with a satirical piece for Streetsblog set in an alternate reality where, instead of creating gridlock with a car-centric publicity stunt, Wilson used his wealth to distribute free CTA Ventra tickets, virtually eliminating traffic congestion that day.

Since then, I’ve had more time to wrap my head around the issue, and Wilson has doubled down on this smog-generating PR move, announcing that this Thursday, March 24, he plans to dole out $1 million more in free gas at 50 locations in Chicago and the rest of Cook County. The self-identified “humanitarian and philanthropist” said in a statement, “Soaring gas prices have caused a hardship for too many of our citizens… I am confident that with God’s help and wisdom we will get through these tough times together.”

The upshot is that people in inner-ring suburbs will get to experience the same totally unnecessary, nightmarish traffic snarls and noxious fumes as city-dwellers. So I’d like to take a deeper dive into this subject.

First, let’s acknowledge Wilson is a unique character on Chicago’s political landscape, with some impressive accomplishments that particularly resonate with many Black residents, especially those of his generation. Born in 1948 to a family of sharecroppers in segregated Louisiana, he left school after seventh grade to labor at cotton and sugar cane farms. After moving to Chicago in 1965, he took a job flipping burgers at a McDonald’s, worked he way up to manager, and eventually became a franchisee. Then he sold his five restaurants and launched a medical supply company, growing it into a multi-million dollar empire, as well as producing “Singsation,” a nationally-syndicated gospel music TV show. That’s a rags-to-riches story lots of people find inspiring.

Wilson has repeatedly tried to parlay his business success into political power, with failed runs for Chicago mayor (2015 and 2019), U.S. Senate (2020), and even president (2016.) One thing that’s probably holding him back is his relatively conservative positions that don’t jibe with those of most Chicagoans, including many African Americans.

Wilson denounced the 2015 Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage, although he later said he changed his mind on the issue. In 2016 he voted for Donald Trump in the general election, although he eventually disavowed him. Wilson accepted the endorsement of the Chicago police union for his Senate run and is chummy with union president John Catanzara, a Trump supporter who defended those who stormed the Capitol and compared COVID-19 vaccine mandates to the Holocaust. Last December Catanzara praised Wilson after the millionaire gave $50,000 to 243 Chicago cops and 20 firefighters who lost pay after refusing to disclose their vaccination status.

Willie Wilson hugs John Catanzara while accepting the police union’s endorsement. Photo: Pat Nabong for the Chicago Sun-Times
Willie Wilson hugs John Catanzara while accepting the police union’s endorsement. Photo: Pat Nabong for the Chicago Sun-Times

But while Wilson’s positions are often to the right of most Chicagoans, and he’s never won an election, thanks to his popularity in the Black community he has enjoyed a kingmaker role in local politics. For example, after winning a plurality of votes in 13 out of Chicago’s 18 majority-African-American wards in the 2019 general mayoral election, he endorsed Lori Lightfoot in the runoff, which was credited with making socially conservative Black churchgoers more comfortable with electing our city’s first openly gay mayor.

The gas giveaway isn’t the first time Wilson has gotten lots of media attention for handing out free stuff. During the run-up to the 2019 election he distributed about $200,000 in checks and cash from his nonprofit foundation to church attendees, raising questions about whether that was a form of illegal vote-buying. (The Illinois State Board of Elections said it wasn’t.)

Wilson isn’t currently running for anything, but with Lightfoot profoundly unpopular in many different circles nowadays, it’s likely the entrepreneur will stage a third vanity mayoral campaign next year. While he’s portrayed the gasoline gimmick as purely altruistic, spending $200,000 on gas to get coverage from just about every local media outlet is a lot cheaper than buying political ads, and he clearly loves all the attention.

They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but Wilson deservedly got plenty of negative press for last Thursday’s event, a fiasco that involved drivers idling in their cars for hours in lines that stretched for many blocks all over town, completely screwing up morning commutes.

Many drivers told reporters they were thrilled about the free gasoline, distributed at the ten stations located almost exclusively in Black and Latino neighborhoods, and didn’t seem to mind wasting gas and time to get it. But there were plenty of stories from motorists who had deeply frustrating experiences.

Almost all of the 10 gas stations were in Black (green on map) or Latino (orange) communities. Image: John Greenfield via the Racial Dot Map
Almost all of the 10 gas stations were in Black (green on map) or Latino (orange) communities. Image: John Greenfield via the Racial Dot Map

For example, Humboldt Park resident Chantine Adams told the Chicago Tribune she sat in line for an hour to access a station at Pulski Road and Grand Avenue and was nearly to the front when a police officer diverted her away from the pumps, and she wound paying for gas elsewhere. “It really upset me,” she said. “I was literally driving the last of my gas to get there.”

“I tried to line up for Willie Wilson’s gas and almost ran out of gas in line for the free gas,” posted Twitter user @lilginapamish, who wound up leaving the line to pay for fuel elsewhere. “Pumped that thing and didn’t even look at the total price because what’s the point.”

Another person commented on Wilson’s initial Facebook post about the event, “I’m burning gas trying to get gas.”

Wilson brushed off the complaints. “People don’t say nothing when you got gridlock and traffic when they’re going to the Bulls game or the Sox game,” he told Block Club Chicago.

Sure, but sports events don’t mess up traffic all over town and, unlike a gas giveaway, you don’t have to bring a car to attend them – driving isn’t the whole raison d’etre. There are plenty of transit options to get to local stadiums, and the upcoming Damen Avenue Green Line stop will make it even easier to get to basketball games at the United Center without a car.

Elected officials vented about the gas giveaway chaos on Twitter. “In Rogers Park, this has caused a traffic disaster,” tweeted local alderwoman Maria Hadden (49th.) “This was irresponsible and reckless of Dr. Wilson and the gas station owners.”

“Residents can’t leave to get to work,” Hadden added. “Our fire station is compromised due to the location of the gas station. EMS vehicles aren’t able to get through the streets. Students have been endangered at a local high school and police resources are spread thin. Impact > Intentions.”

Here’s state rep Kelly Cassidy (14th):

“You think maybe the fact that we had traffic stalled up all over the city for free gas due to rising prices might be a sign to move away from gas powered vehicles?” tweeted 40th Ward alderman Andre Vasquez.

But IT worker and Streetsblog reader Michael Kendricks argued on Twitter that the giveaway was a savvy move on the millionaire’s part. “I don’t agree with Willie Wilson’s political stances, but a LOT of politicians/activists could learn from what he’s doing. He’s putting something tangible in the hands of people in the Black community. Not the ‘promise’ of something, actually useful today. That’s smart politics.”

Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington took Kendricks’ notion, that the entrepreneur’s giveaway represents a best practice, to a ridiculous extreme. “Wilson could be a model for our elected officials, who from the White House on down happily dole out billions in government aid. Taxpayer dollars. Our dollars… Elected officials should be doing more to contribute personally.”

You know what would be even better than affluent politicians giving away their own money to attract attention? This is a wild idea, but hear me out. We could change Illinois’ flat income tax to a graduated one, so that ultra-wealthy people like Wilson pay their fair share. We could call it a “fair tax.” (I’m being ironic here – Governor JB Pritzker tried to pass this very thing via a ballot initiative in 2020, but the measure failed after the state’s richest man, hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin, spent $56.5 million on propaganda to kill it.) 

On the other hand, Chicago Historian Sherman “Dilla” Thomas offered a nuanced appraisal of the gas-giveaway in an op-ed in the local news and culture website The TriiBE. Thomas gave Wilson the benefit of the doubt that his motivation was generosity, not a desire for publicity.

However, Thomas noted, “The road to hell was paved with good intentions.” He pointed out that having hundreds of drivers idling near homes and schools on the South and West sides was harmful, since these areas have higher asthma rates than wealthier areas. Gridlock is also especially problematic in these parts of town since, due to disinvestment, people have longer commutes to work than their North Side counterparts.

Moreover, Thomas said, with many police officers deployed to direct traffic, and tempers flaring, there could have easily been a bad outcome. And babysitting gas stations prevented the police from doing more important work preventing serious crime. “Giving back shouldn’t have a zero-sum gain and ultimately, that’s how I would rate the great gas giveaway of 2022.”

So how could this Dunkirk have been avoided? Some suggested distributing gift cards instead of having thousands of drivers bring their cars to a limited number of locations at the same time.

Wilson argued that giving people free gas left residents with more money for other needs, such as better food for their families. So why not give people gift certificates for grocery stores? Or else he could simply give them cash, or prepaid credit cards and let them decide how to spend the money. None of that would clog the streets and generate smog.

Of course, the best approach to easing transportation costs for drivers is to enable and encourage them to drive less, by avoiding unnecessary trips, carpooling, riding transit, walking, or biking.

Image: John Greenfield
Image: John Greenfield

But regarding the fantasy free CTA tickets scenario from my fake news piece, some commentators like former Streetsblog reporter Lynda Lopez argued that wouldn’t necessarily help all Chicagoans, because many car owners who live in areas with sub-par transit access feel they have no choice but drive for essential trips. That’s a valid point, and I’d add that retail deserts and street crime on the South and West sides contribute to the perception that driving is the only safe and practical way to get around.

On the other hand, Wilson’s handout was basically only useful for those who can afford to drive and are physically able to do so. As of 2015, 27.5 percent of Chicago households didn’t own cars. In many or most cases living car-less is a matter of economic necessity, rather than a choice. Free gas is also of little or no help for many people with disabilities, seniors, and kids who rely on transit because they’re unable to drive.

And, again, gas giveaways don’t just benefit some residents while leaving others out in the cold. They actively harm vulnerable people by slowing down buses and creating more emissions. And they’re a pain in the neck for everyone else, including drivers. As such, large-scale free gas promotions should be outlawed.

In the short term, if there’s no way for Mayor Lightfoot and Cook County president Toni Preckwinkle to put the brakes on Wilson’s upcoming wasteful and destructive $1 million countywide event, they should at least do damage control. Sure, planning traffic management around the 50 gas stations in advance would help make the inevitable lines of idling drivers a little less awful.

But Wilson should absolutely be required to pay back municipalities for the police resources diverted for his publicity stunt. And ideally we would send him a bill for the wasted productivity and environmental degradation caused by his vanity traffic jams.