Covering the Land of Lincoln

Tom Kacich | Sen. Bennett’s lasting effect on his colleagues | Columns

Rarely is it the ones who die young who leave such an abundance of tales, wisdom and sage advice. But Scott Bennett, the state senator from Champaign who died suddenly last month at the age of 45, gave his colleagues all that and more.

Sen. Bennett, appointed to the seat in 2015 and a winner in elections in 2016, 2020 and 2022, was given an emotional tribute last week in Springfield. His widow, Stacy, who was appointed to fill the remaining weeks of his old term, was present on the Senate floor, accompanied by state treasurer Mike Frerichs of Champaign and Paul Faraci, the man appointed to serve out the two-year term Sen. Bennett born in November. Many of the accolades focused on Sen. Bennett’s fabled sense of humor.

“Deep down, Scott was one of the most serious people here, and yet he did it with a smile or a joke or a dry sense of humor and that was something that was special,” said state Sen. Robert Peters, D-Chicago . “It wasn’t just a static to negotiate. It was to help us move along or help us get through something.”

“Sometimes it was dangerous to be in a meeting that was supposed to be serious to sit next to him, because he would crack you up,” recalled state Sen. David Koehler, D-Peoria. “And so I found myself avoiding that because I knew — it was like kids in school — if you sat next to him you were going to get in trouble, right?”

“I would tell him that, ‘Dude, you missed your calling in life. You should have been a stand-up comedian,’” said state Sen. Christopher Belt, D-Cahokia. “This is what Scott understood. He understood that if I could get you to laugh, then I could get you to listen. And if I could get you to listen, then we could have a discourse. It doesn’t mean you always agree with me, but he disarmed you with the humor to get you to listen.”

“Scott brought to the political world that we live in a decency that is sorely needed in this world,” said state Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, who years ago was the head of the Champaign County Republican Party. “As I reflect on the 10 years or so that I’ve known Scott, I can tell each of you — and importantly, you, Stacy, and your children — that I never once had a negative, even slight, interaction with Scott. That’s the type of decent human being he was.”

State Sen. Ram Villivalam, D-Chicago, recalled when he, Bennett, Frerichs and two other senators went on a trade delegation trip to Taiwan in 2019.

“The biggest joke of that trip was that we have a treasurer who experiments with food and enjoys it. Scott Bennett was the opposite,” Villivalam remembered. “We had many a meal where he didn’t partake.”

A conversation developed where Bennett mentioned that he had been to TGI Fridays in nine countries.

“And then our tour guide was sitting there very innocently overhearing the conversation, and the next day, we went to TGI Fridays,” Villivalam related. “Of course Scott said ‘We don’t have to go there; I was just mentioning it.’ But we went, and he helped us out in terms of what to order.”

State Sen. Michael Hastings, D-Frankfort, told how he and Bennett “shared beers at Murphy’s Pub, we’ve had sandwiches at Potbelly’s on Green Street, we’ve walked every block of the U of I campus going to a basketball game and for him to show me around.”

State Sen. Omar Aquino, D-Chicago, recalled going to the old Alexander’s Steakhouse in Champaign with Bennett.

“I called my wife afterwards and I said, ‘Oh, my God. My stomach is hurting,’” he remembered. “She asked, ‘Did you eat something bad or something?’ I said, “No, the muscles of my stomach, my core, is hurting so much because I laughed so much. This colleague of mine, Scott Bennett, just had me laughing the entire night. And most of it was at his own expense.’”

Aquino teared up as he recalled the time he told Sen. Bennett — the father of twins — that he and his wife were expecting twins.

“He was so proud of the family that he came from, so proud of the area that he was from, that he was so blessed to be able to represent those folks that remind him of his own family,” Aquino said. “This institution is so blessed to have someone like that. This state is so lucky to have such an amazing public servant like Scott Bennett.”

State Sen. Mike Simmons, D-Chicago, said he had recently gone to dinner with Bennett and other senators.

“The very last thing that Senator Bennett told me — and this was just maybe a couple weeks before we lost him — he said really look after your family, look after your partner, look after your siblings. He really gave me a clear perspective about how we often talk about balance, but it’s one thing to talk about it and it’s another thing to actually live it.”

State Sen. Bill Cunningham, D-Chicago, said that Sen. Bennett’s “kindness was always there, even when he was making fun of things.”

“So that’s what I’m going to do the rest of my time here,” he promised. “I’m going to think to myself when I listen to a debate, what would Scott say? And I know that’s going to make me smile. I know that’s going to make me laugh again.”

State Sen. Stacy Bennett

Stacy Bennett said she intended to vote as her late husband would have as she finished out the last days of the term he was elected to in 2020.

She ended up voting for a series of Democratic-backed initiatives, including Senate Bill 208, which requires all employers to provide up to 40 hours of paid leave annually for workers; HB 5471, the controversial bill that would prohibit the sale of “assault weapons” and high-capacity magazines in the state; HB4664, which provides expanded abortion rights for Illinoisans and those traveling to the state for abortions; and SB 1720, which gives pay raises for legislators and other state officials, transfers $850 million to the state’s “rainy day” fund and allows for the transfer of $400 million into a “large-business attraction fund” to help the governor lure businesses to Illinois.

Frerichs’ surprise

Frerichs, the Champaign Democrat elected to a third term as state treasurer in November, dropped a surprise into his inaugural address last week.

“This has been a really great year,” he said. “I got married. I became a dog owner. I got re-elected. A lot of my friends got re-elected. We passed the Workers’ Rights Amendment.

“And a couple of weeks after the election, my wife let me know that this year, we will be growing our family.”

Frerichs, who married Erica Baker last year, already is the father of teenage daughters from his first marriage.

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