Tom Kacich: Legislature’s ‘Bennett Caucus’ uniting for fundraiser

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Photo by: Rick Danzl/The News-Gazette

The Illinois Legislature’s ‘Bennett Caucus’ — state Rep. Tom Bennett, R-Gibson City, left, and his nephew, state Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign — shown in 2015 at the State Capitol, are planning a combined fundraiser next year.

Political fundraisers in Springfield for two or more political candidates aren’t that unusual.

But a fundraiser for two candidates from different political parties, that’s unusual.

The Legislature’s so-called “Bennett Caucus” — Sen. Scott Bennett, a Champaign Democrat, and Rep. Tom Bennett, a Gibson City Republican — are going to try it next year.

It helps that they’re related. Tom Bennett is Scott Bennett’s uncle.

“We’ve talked about it off and on for quite a while, actually. Didn’t know if it was the right time to do it or not,” said Tom Bennett. “But you know that a lot of people think things are toxic in Springfield. And so maybe this is an opportunity to bring some folks together and show that we can work together.”

The two have been together in the Legislature for nearly three years, Scott representing an area of Champaign and Vermilion counties that includes Champaign-Urbana and Danville. Tom represents an area north of Champaign-Urbana that takes in parts of rural Ford, Vermilion, Iroquois, Livingston and Woodford counties.

“I think it came out of a conversation we had where we were joking about how we always get together, maybe once a month, for dinner,” said Scott Bennett. “And people, even in the General Assembly, can’t believe that we get along and sit down and talk. And that gets less funny and more sad as months go on.

“I can’t believe that’s a surprise. It didn’t use to be that way in Springfield. So we kinda just said, look, wouldn’t it be nice if we started the session off and we did something that’s not a big deal — just a small gesture — but my friends can meet your friends and we’ll get them all in the same room and just try to start out that spring session on a different foot. We’ll see if its a success or not, or if we get some blowback.”

The reception tentatively is set for Feb. 26, a couple weeks after Gov. Bruce Rauner’s scheduled budget address and a month before the primary election, at DH Brown’s, a Springfield bar a couple blocks from the Statehouse.

“We figured that since neither one of us appears to be in a contested election this year (Scott’s term expires in 2020 and Tom has no announced opposition in a heavily Republican district), then let’s do it at the beginning of the session when you know it will be heating up toward the end,” said Scott Bennett. “We know it’s going to be an ugly, partisan year with all the campaigning going on, so we thought it might be nice to try to reverse that course.”

Although the Bennetts try to jointly sponsor a couple of bills each session, they’re hardly political mates.

The interest groups that rate legislators certainly don’t think so. The American Conservative Union, for example, gave Tom Bennett an “excellence” award for the last legislative session and a score of 91 percent. It lumped Scott Bennett into the “Coalition of the Radical Left” and gave him a score of 6 percent.

Conversely the liberal group Citizen Action Illinois gave Scott Bennett a score of 100 percent and Tom Bennett a score of 21 percent.

“The joke between us,” said Scott Bennett, “is that we never vote the same way. That’s not true of course. We try to do one bill together every year where he sponsors it in the House and I sponsor it in he Senate.

“But what always seems to happen is that people will see the House voting record and they’ll see Bennett and they’ll call me and chew me out, and they’ll do the same thing to him on the other side. People will leave upset messages that say, ‘I met with you and you said you’d be a no on this and you voted yes.’ And my uncle Tom has had the same experience. We must not vote together very often based on that.”

“I’ve known Scott all his life,” said Tom Bennett. “Of course we don’t agree on everything. That’s OK. He’s my nephew, right? I’m his uncle. Someday I wont be in political office and Scott won’t be either, but he’s still going to be my nephew and I’m going to be his uncle.

“Plus, I really think we do need to bring people together somehow. There’s not a lot of trust. I don’t know that this is going to make a whole lot of difference but we can try.

“He will probably bring some folks to the event that might not otherwise be there and I might bring some that might not be there if it was just for him, and if we bring them together, that may not be such a bad thing.”

County auditor candidates

Anyone who wants to be on the March ballot as a candidate for Champaign County auditor will have to hustle.

The position was declared open last week when the current auditor, John Farney, resigned from the post effective Dec. 31, the same day he becomes county treasurer.

The Illinois Election Code considers the office vacancy to be created on the day the resignation is submitted, said County Clerk Gordy Hulten. That means that candidates who want to run for a two-year term as auditor and be on the March 20 ballot have to file petitions between Nov. 27 and Dec. 4.

Republican candidates need petitions with at least 326 signatures; Democratic candidates need at least 251.

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette reporter and columnist. His column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at kacich@news-gazette.com.

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