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Applicants for Scott Bennett’s state Senate seat make their case at an online forum.

The late Scott Bennett, who died in December. Democrats in his state Senate district are choosing his successor.

Applicants seeking to fill the state Senate seat left vacant by the death last month of Scott Bennett appeared on an online forum Wednesday evening, to make their case to local Democrats.

Ten Democrats living in the 52nd Senate District have applied to serve in Scott Bennett’s place for the next two years, with a special election for another two-year term to be held in 2024. The new senator will begin serving when the new legislative session begins next week. Until that time, Bennett’s widow, Dr. Stacy Bennett, is serving out the remaining days of her husband’s term in the old legislative session.

Party leaders from Champaign and Vermilion Counties will make the decision on who succeeds Bennett, with input from an advisory committee. The selection will be done by a weighted vote, with Champaign County having the majority voice.

Praise for Bennett

The applicants had already answered a questionnaire as part of the application process. At the forum, most of them said they wanted to emulate the qualities Bennett had shown as a legislator.

“Scott Bennett was someone who I always looked up to,” said Champaign County Board Chairman Kyle Patterson. “His style of leadership was remarkable in how open he was for discussion, and how he embraces all ideas to come to common sense solutions.”

“I marvel at what Scott Bennett accomplished during his short time with us,” said City of Champaign Township Assessor Paul Faraci. But we all know he had so much more he wanted to do. I’m interested in this position because I want to see the causes he was so passionate about move forward.”

“I know that Senator Bennett practiced common sense and compassion,” said business counselor Mickensy Ellis-White of Oakwood, the only applicant from Vermilion County. “I hope to continue his legacy.”  

“I’ve had the pleasure of serving with Senator Bennett for the last eight years and passing many pieces of legislation,” said State Representative Carol Ammons of Urbana.

Ammons cited her experience in the Illinois House and said that would make her an effective senator who could work for some of Bennett’s priorities.

Applicants Cite Their Experience

Besides positioning themselves in the tradition of the late Senator Bennett, applicants for his state Senate seat talked about their own experience, and how they could use it as a state senator to benefit the district.

“I’ve been successful in all my elections by outworking my opponents and building a coalition of supporters,” said City of Champaign Township Supervisor Andy Quarnstrom, who also noted his experience as a Champaign firefighter.

“I have 20 years of public policy experience as an advocate, creating an Illinois where aging at home is the rule, rather than the exception, for people who become ill or troubled,” said three-time state representative candidate Cynthia Cunningham. Cunningham lost three successive Illinois House elections to Republican Mike Marron in the 104th Illinois House District, which takes up the eastern half of the 52nd Senate District. But she says she would do better in the 52nd Senate District, which leans more Democratic.

Attorney and special education teacher Cristina Manuel said she would work for the oppressed and marginalized, including people of color and the LGBT+ community.

“I don’t believe in or engage in political word salad, and as such, I’m pretty much a straight shooter, so no one will have to guess what my position is on any particular issue,” said Manuel.

Champaign Unit 4 School Board member and licensed professional counselor  Gianina Baker noted her African-American and Mexican heritage, and said as state senator, she would add to the 52nd District’s diverse leadership, “and bring trustworthiness, credibility, integrity and the ability to make tough, yet reasonable decisions.”

Attorney and Champaign County Democratic Party Secretary Matt Sullard cited his previous experience as a prosecutor, working to improve community safety.

“I have experience working with both allies and adversaries to find common ground, to find the fair and equitable outcomes and pursue justice,” said Sullard.

Bennett’s Choices

Champaign County Democratic Chairman Mike Ingram is also an applicant for Bennett’s Senate seat. Ingram, who is also a Champaign County Board member, says he decided to apply after Champaign Community Relations Manager Mary Catherine Roberson decided not to. Roberson, who is part of the selection process advisory committee, is one of four people that Scott Bennett’s widow, Dr. Stacy Bennett said her husband had considered as possible successors he could support, as part of a plan to leave the state Senate after his new term ended in 2026.  (The other three have all applied for the Senate seat: Paul Faraci, Andy Quarnstrom and Gianina Baker).

Ingram, who used his forum statement to praise each one of the other nine applicants, said he would have liked Roberson to succeed Bennett in the state Senate.

“She’s a wonderful leader, a great role model for so many, and she has kept her roots in Danville while working in the city of Champaign, in some of the toughest areas of this town,” said Ingram. “I think she is amazing. And while I respect her choice not to do this now, I really hope that I get to vote for her someday.”

Because he has applied for the Senate seat, Ingram has recused himself from the selection process. Champaign County Democratic First Vice-Chair Cari West-Hinkelman will take her county’s role in the selection process, along with Vermilion County Democratic Chair Sandra Lawlyes (West-Hinkelman is herself a former chair of the Vermilion County Democrats). The two are working with input from a 16-member advisory committee that includes Mary Catherine Roberson.

West-Hinkelman says they will take into account the names that Stacy Bennett said her late husband supported for the Senate seat, but that it is not the only factor.

“There are many different things that we have to look at when considering who to appoint to this seat,” said West-Hinkelman. “It’s not a one-issue thing.”

West-Hinkelman said she and Lawlyes want to select Bennett’s successor in time for the legislative inauguration in Springfield on Wednesday, January 11th.

Picture of Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows has been covering local news for WILL Radio since 2000, with occasional periods as local host for Morning Edition and All Things Considered and a stint hosting WILL's old Focus talk show. He was previously a reporter at public radio station WCBU in Peoria.

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