Tom Kacich | Sen. Bennett was chosen to get things done — and he did – News-Gazette

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It was around this time of the year in 2014 that the Democratic Party chairmen in Vermilion and Champaign counties began to plan the process to appoint someone to serve as the next 52nd District state senator.

Mike Frerichs of Champaign, who had represented the district, was elected state treasurer in November 2014, and his replacement would have to be appointed by mid-January in order to begin the new legislative session on schedule.

The county chairmen — Frank Wright from Vermilion County and Al Klein from Champaign County — called for openness and transparency in selecting Frerichs’ replacement.

They scheduled a public session at the Illinois Terminal in downtown Champaign, where a dozen candidates could answer questions and make their case to be the next state senator, joining a list of local legends — and, by necessity, advocates for the University of Illinois — that included Frerichs and Republicans Stanley Weaver (34 years in the Senate) and Everett Peters (29 years in the upper chamber).

Among the array of candidates were Danville City Council member Michael Puhr, Vermilion County Clerk Lynn Foster, Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing, Champaign school board member Jamar Brown, a couple of county board members, a Lutheran minister and a past candidate for state representative.

There also was a Champaign County assistant state’s attorney well known to local Democratic leaders but not to the general public. His name was Scott Bennett, a one-time county board candidate who had lost a primary election but impressed other party members.

“I had known Scott for several years by that point,” said Frerichs, who although he had no vote in choosing his successor, carried much influence. “I had gotten to know his communication abilities, his ability to be disarming. His background made him a good fit for the district. He would listen to all sides in all areas.”

Klein, who not only held Champaign County’s vote in the appointment but essentially controlled the decision because he had 71 percent of the prorated vote, said he had met with Sen. Bennett before the public session at an Urbana restaurant.

“I asked him because he was a prosecutor but more than that a lawyer, ‘What is it about being a lawyer that you like?’

“I’ll never forget what he said. He said that the most satisfying part of his job was negotiation. He said that in negotiation people start off thinking that they have nothing in common. It’s too easy to say just split the difference. But people are aggrieved. A family is being split up or there’s an inheritance or someone is going to jail.

“So typically if you talk long enough, he said, you’ll discover that what I like is getting people to a position where they say, ‘This isn’t what I wanted but I can see a way forward.’

“I thought that that was an interesting way of putting it. And when you think about it, what is Scott known for now? Look at his last big job, negotiating the changes to the Safe-T Act (the controversial Illinois law that eliminates cash bail on Jan. 1.) He’s done things like that lots of times.

“You’ve got to be forceful. You want to win. But you have to give something to the other side too. He was a principled negotiator and I think he enjoyed it. He was good at it. And he knew what he was getting into and I think he enjoyed it.”

Frerichs said he had talked many times to Sen. Bennett, before the appointment, about public office.

“He had served on the Urbana library board and had run for the county board and so it was clear after getting to know him that he was someone of special talents and a big heart and a desire to serve,” Frerichs said. “He was someone I thought of when there was that vacancy.”

Sen. Bennett, 45, passed away unexpectedly on Dec. 9. A memorial service to remember and honor him will be held at 10 a.m. Monday at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana.

After winning the appointment, Sen. Bennett had to run for election in 2018 and defeated Urbana Republican Michael Madigan, 61 percent to 39 percent. Two years later, he defeated Alex Ruggieri 63 percent to 37 percent. He was unopposed this fall.

All the while he worked with his Senate colleagues, Democrats and Republicans, to help pass bills and budgets. He won protections for the Mahomet aquifer, helped restore funding for higher education during the budget impasse under Gov. Bruce Rauner, passed a bill to allow the use of therapy dogs to help child sexual assault victims testify in court and got Rauner to sign a bill that removed the statute of limitations for felony sex crimes committed against minors.

Both Frerichs and Klein said they were proud of the role they had in appointing Sen. Bennett and proud of the work he did in his too-brief legislative career.

“It was the most important job I was called on to do, presumably, in my term (as county chairman),” Klein said. “I think I did well by that. I was given a big responsibility and I think I did well. I’m proud of what I did and I’m proud of what he did. This is a great loss and he’ll be hard to replace. All the accolades you’re hearing about him are true.”

“He was someone who listened to all sides and all areas,” said Frerichs, who called Bennett “a very good” friend. “I think if you look at the response in the wake of his passing, you’ll see that we chose right.”

“We knew Scott would work out fine once he got into the job,” Klein said. “He enjoyed the job. He enjoyed working with the people in both Champaign and Vermilion. He really developed an affinity for Vermilion County. He was one of those people who will be succeeded by someone but he can’t really be replaced, and his successor will have high expectations to fulfill.”

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December 18, 2022 at 10:12AM

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