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Gas-pandering update: Alders oppose Lightfoot’s gas cards, Wilson announcing candidacy

3:19 PM CDT on April 8, 2022

Willie Wilson, and one of the traffic jams he created at a gas giveaway last month.

“Gas-lighting,” “Fuel-ishness,” “Petrol pampering,” “Gas-turbation” – whatever you call it, local politicians trying to win votes by subsidizing driving is a hot topic right now. Here are the latest developments in this deeply problematic trend.

Alders push back on Lightfoot's $150 gas card plan

Last week Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced her Chicago Moves plan to help defray transportation costs for residents. There were some positive aspects of the proposal. It was an alternative to Lightfoot's previous idea of rolling back the recent three-cent increase in the city's gas tax, which would have cost Chicago an estimated $18 million this year and would have had little or no benefit for people who can't afford to drive or are physically unable to do so.

Instead, Chicago Moves would earmark $5 million to give away $50 prepaid transit cards for up to 100,000 residents, which is a good idea. Also commendable was the plan to focus the giveaway in lower-income parts of the South and West sides where many people depend on public transportation to get where they need to go, and that there was an income requirement. The city is also planning to give away 5,000 free bicycles, locks, and helmets, which is a great way to get more Chicagoans on bikes.

Despite all that, Chicago Moves was still a grossly inequitable plan. It called for reserving $7.5 million for 50,000 free prepaid gasoline cards worth $150 that can be used at gas stations within the city. That means Lightfoot would be using taxpayer money to pay people to drive instead of using sustainable transportation. Worse, each driver who gets a card would get three times as much money as each transit rider, and 50 percent more public money would be earmarked for driving than transit. That is, the mayor wants to spend a lot more money to help out people who are wealthy enough to drive than those who aren't.

Lori Lightfoot at the ceremony to rename DuSable Lake Shore Drive last October. Photo: John Greenfield
Lori Lightfoot at the ceremony to rename DuSable Lake Shore Drive last October. Photo: John Greenfield

Fortunately, some alders have pointed out how bonkers Lightfoot's proposal is. For starters, Council members noted that the mayor's initial plan to offer cards to anyone making up to 140 percent of Chicagoland's Area Mean Income, about $91K for a single person or $140K for a four-person family, made no sense – people that affluent don't need handouts. So when the plan was presented to alders at a Budget Committee meeting last Wednesday morning, the threshold had been lowered to roughly $65K and $93K respectively, which is more reasonable.

At Wednesday's hearing, downtown alderman Brendan Reilly (42nd) did a great job of highlighting how irrational the plan was, stating that he was opposed to using taxpayer funds to pay people to burn oil.  “We are literally burning up $12.5 million," he said, according to a report by WTTW's Heather Cherone. He argued that the cash should be used to improve safety and sanitation on the CTA instead, which would help coax people back onto the system post-COVID, creating a virtuous cycle of ridership and revenue.

Ultimately there was no vote on Chicago Moves at the committee meeting because it didn't appear to have enough votes to pass, WTTW reported. Therefore, Lightfoot needs to build enough support to pass the measure before the next full Council meeting on April 27.

According to WTTW, several alders at the hearing pointed out the obvious: Lightfoot's proposal to distribute $7.5 million in gasoline cards is an effort to get positive attention for herself after millionaire and perennial political candidate Willie Wilson gave away $1.2 million in free gas at two events last month. That PR move clogged streets and generated smog at 50 locations across Chicago and suburban Cook County.

Here's an alternative idea to Lightfoot's grotesquely unfair scheme to spend the lion's share of the $12.5 million on subsidizing driving. Instead, use that money to distribute 166,666 free CTA monthly passes worth $75 each, focusing on low-income and working-class communities on the South and West sides. That would be a great way to improve equity, reduce car-dependency, and convert more polluting commutes to sustainable ones.

Wilson to announce candidacy, confirming his gas giveaways were publicity stunts

The former McDonald's franchisee and medical supplies magnate framed his gas giveaway as a selfless action. “The need among the community is so great," he said in a statement. "Soaring gas prices have caused a hardship for too many of our citizens... The need is great and I want to help. If I can help somebody as I pass along this way, then my living is not in vain."

But Wilson had previously twice campaigned for Chicago mayor, as well as U.S. Senate, and even president, each time garnering a measly percentage of the vote. On March 21, I predicted that the purpose of the gas giveaways was to generate publicity for yet another mayoral run. "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 [money] on gas to get coverage from just about every local media outlet is a lot cheaper than buying political ads."

A person at one of last month's gas giveaways wearing a t-shirt stating "free Gas Donated by Dr. Willie Wilson, Businessman, Philanthropist, Humanitarian." Photo: John Greenfield
A person at one of last month's gas giveaways wearing a t-shirt stating "Free gas donated by Dr. Willie Wilson: businessman, philanthropist, humanitarian." Photo: John Greenfield

Today I was proven correct, as the Chicago Crusader reported that sources close to Wilson said he will announce his candidacy at his Wacker Drive penthouse on Monday. Moreover, the sources said, the millionaire has been planning the run for months, so he clearly had an ulterior motive in staging the gas giveaways.

But, you read it here first, Wilson's third mayoral campaign will once again be a wealthy person's empty exercise in ego gratification. Chicago voters are not going to elect a mayor who:

If only Willie Wilson could find a way to stroke his political ambitions that doesn't involve gas giveaways. These harm the most vulnerable Chicagoans by slowing down buses and creating more asthma-exacerbating emissions, while wasting taxpayer-funded police and traffic control resources, and causing a pain in the neck for everyone else with massive traffic jams.

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