WASHINGTON (CN) – A self-made millionaire who ran for president last year claims in a federal complaint that the Democratic National Committee’s bias toward white candidates thwarted his campaign.
“The Democratic Party talks about inclusion,” Willie Wilson said in a phone interview. “I found that it was not so.”
A resident of Hazelcrest, Illinois, Wilson filed suit on April 19 in Washington, saying the DNC “intentionally denied him equal logistical assistance and guidance, resources, and access to certain information while simultaneously providing such to similarly situated white presidential candidates.”
Though the DNC did not respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit, allegations of its bias are nothing new. Indeed the committee’s chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, was ultimately forced out ahead of Hillary Clinton’s nomination last year when internal DNC emails brought to light by WikiLeaks exposed a concerted effort by party officials to sabotage the candidacy of Sen. Bernie Sanders.
As Clinton’s biggest opponent in the primary race, Sanders was instrumental in bringing the DNC’s disparate treatment of candidates to light.
The Vermont senator sued the DNC himself in December 2015 for suspending his campaign’s access to the committee’s voter database.
For less keyed in candidates like Wilson, the disparity was more significant.
“It was not clear to the Wilson campaign that this was even available to them during the campaign, until Bernie Sanders sued the DNC,” Wilson’s attorney Wayne Kendall said in an interview, regarding the voter database.
Wilson had managed to qualify for the Democratic ticket only in 10 states, but he claims that was enough to make the DNC worry.
As a rags-to-riches businessman with a strong Christian background, Wilson says the DNC likely perceived him as a threat to Clinton’s already shaky hold on black and and working-class voters.
The complaint quotes DNC officials as repeatedly characterizing Wilson as an unsanctioned candidate, but attorney Kendall contends that no DNC rules support its efforts to keep Wilson from accessing its voter database.
“So the question is,” Kendall asked, “how were these decisions made to allow some candidates to have access to a tool, which by all indications, is a seriously vital tool for mounting any sort of a credible opportunity to have a national campaign for the office of the president?”
Discovery will help resolve whether other candidates like Jim Webb and Lincoln Chaffe had access, the attorney noted.
“We’ve not seen any definitive methodology by which the DNC goes about so-called sanctioning or legitimizing a candidate,” Kendall said.
Wilson also claims that the DNC excluded him from key events, including a weekend conference in Minneapolis.
Though Wilson attended anyway, the DNC allegedly prevented him from participating in scheduled events, and refused to recognize him as an official Democratic candidate during the conference.
“Only White candidates were allowed to attend and to speak at the DNC’s Minneapolis event,” the complaint says, referring to Clinton, Sanders, Webb, Chafee and Martin O’Malley.
Wilson, 68, was born in Louisiana in 1948 and grew up in the Jim Crow-era South.
“So I understand when you’re being discriminated against and when you’re not being discriminated against,” he said.
Now a 50-year Chicago resident, Wilson became one of the first black owners of a McDonald’s franchise after starting with the company making $2 an hour as a custodian.
He started a television production company in 1987 and says the medical-supply company he founded in 1997 now draws $55 million in annual sales.
Wilson’s first foray into politics came in 2015, when he garnered 11 percent of the vote in Chicago’s mayoral race.
His presidential platform had prioritized education, public safety, economic empowerment and free college education, he said.
Saying the DNC fiercely resisted his campaign, he recounts phone calls, emails and letters that went ignored by DNC officials.
“I was shut out pretty much on every end,” he said. “I spent money for television, radio, print – I traveled the country – I spent $20,00 to be on the ballot in South Carolina.”
Police later blocked him from attending a DNC dinner in that state, he said, something that he contends also happened to him in Iowa and Minnesota.
“To still come through this, it makes me reflect back on the 1950s when I could not go across the street or go in certain doors,” he said. “I just didn’t figure it so blatantly could be this way in 2015.”
Attorney Kendall noted the DNC also refused to put Wilson’s name as a candidate on the DNC website.
“He was never provided any sort of a rule, regulation, or qualifying criteria by which he could have been also listed,” Kendall said.
“These kind of arbitrary and capricious actions on the part of the DNC lead us to the conclusion that he was discriminated against,” Kendall added.
Wilson is asking for at least $2 million in compensation, plus at least $5 million in punitive damages, for breach of contract, racial discrimination and conspiracy.
He said hopes the lawsuit will inspire some shifts within the DNC under the leadership of newly minted chair Tom Perez.
“I do know there needs to be a lot of changes made if they’re going to win back the White House,” Wilson said.
In addition to Kendall, an attorney from Fayetteville, Georgia, Wilson is represented by Washington attorney Donald Temple.