Late Ill. Senator's Wife Discusses 'Therapeutic' Decision to Carry Out His Term in Office After Abrupt Death

Dr. Stacy Bennett — now former Illinois state Sen. Stacy Bennett — tells PEOPLE about stepping into her late husband's Senate seat after he unexpectedly died of a brain tumor in December State Senator Scott Bennett , Swearing in
From left: Dr. Stacy Bennett and Scott Bennett. Photo: FaceBook

After years of watching her husband work as an Illinois state senator, Dr. Stacy Bennett absorbed plenty of knowledge about the legislative process. But when she was asked to assume her husband's position after he unexpectedly died last month, it was still quite the adjustment.

"It's totally different sitting in that seat," Stacy tells PEOPLE, reflecting on her emotional journey to put a bow on her husband of 20 years' public service career.

Taking over not only meant studying up on where Sen. Scott Bennett left off, but doing so while juggling responsibilities as a parent to their young twins, Sam and Emma.

"Finishing his term certainly complicated things," she says, "but it was an important thing for me to do to provide closure to that part of our lives."

FILE - Illinois state Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign, right, explains clarifications to the SAFE-T Act criminal justice overhaul he co-sponsored before the Senate Executive Committee on Dec. 1, 2022, at the state Capitol in Springfield, Ill. Bennett, a key legislative negotiator on clarifying the landmark SAFE-T Act criminal justice overhaul that takes effect Jan. 1, 2023, died Friday, Dec. 9. He was 45. (AP Photo/John O'Connor, File)
Sen. Scott Bennett one week before his death. AP Photo/John O'Connor, File

News about Scott's sudden death last month — just two weeks before the holidays — sent shockwaves throughout Illinois politics, and took the lawmaker's friends and family by surprise.

The 45-year-old politician was abruptly admitted to the hospital on Thursday, Dec. 8, where doctors discovered a large tumor on his brain. By the next afternoon, the family announced his death.

Condolences poured in from both sides of the aisle, as state lawmakers praised their late Democratic colleague not only as a "loving husband" and "devoted father," but as a disarming and particularly compassionate politician.

"Scott was incredibly smart and funny, yet completely humble," Stacy says. "He captured any room he entered by making people laugh — often a self-deprecating joke — and making them feel at ease."

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker called Scott "a good man who always operated with the best interest of his constituents in mind" and said "the entire state is a better place" because of him.

Stacy says she recognized those qualities in Scott soon after getting to know him more than two decades ago.

Scott and Stacy Bennett Where was the image taken – Washington, D.C. When was the image taken – 1999 Who took the photograph – Full credit line – Stacy Bennett Source contact information: Name: Stacy Bennett Phone: Email:
Scott and Stacy Bennett. Stacy Bennett

The Bennetts found love the way any political couple might dream of: working at the White House.

"Scott and I met while interning in the Clinton administration," Stacy says, working side-by-side as they opened and logged gifts sent to the first family. They married in 2002, and had twins in 2013.

"He loved our kids and just loved spending time with them," Stacy says. "Our ideal day was camping out in the living room and watching college football games together."

After Scott's death, family friend Mike Ingram, the chair of their local Champaign County Democratic Party, asked Stacy if she'd carry the baton and finish the last weeks of Scott's term, ending in mid-January.

At first, Stacy laughed at Ingram's idea. She was already navigating the difficult task of caring for twins as a newly single parent, but adding public office on top of that was another story.

"I have a master's and doctorate degree focusing on public policy, plus years of discussions with Scott, so I thought I was knowledgeable," Stacy says, but "there's an enormous amount of pressure making decisions that impact the entire state."

Yet, she had seen up close the pride that comes with making policies to better constituents' lives, so she convinced herself to more seriously consider Ingram's proposal.

Four days before Christmas — and less than two weeks after Scott's death — Stacy was sworn into office, becoming the newest Sen. Bennett to represent Illinois' 52nd District.

Congratulations to the newest member of the Illinois State Senate, Doctor Stacy Meredith Bennett. Welcome to the Senate Democratic Caucus! . Credit: Illinois Senate Democratic Caucus
Dr. Stacy Bennett is sworn in as an Illinois state senator. Illinois Senate Democratic Caucus

The conference room ceremony took place without much fanfare, aside from a local news camera and a selfie with Ingram.

"She's such an incredible person and I'm so happy that she was amenable to this idea to honor Scott's legacy and also her own," Ingram wrote on Instagram. "Having the person who he trusted the most fill in and cast the last votes of this term feels like the best way to do this."

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Stacy has now completed her time in office, made possible thanks to family and friends at home who watched the twins while she carried out his work. She also credits a bipartisan family of lawmakers for guiding her in the Senate day-to-day and giving her the lifelong honor of sharing in her husband's legacy.

"Finishing Scott's term was therapeutic not only for me, but for his colleagues as well," she says, now back home. "His colleagues were so warm and welcoming and interested in continuing his legacy."

This week, Stacy handed Scott's seat in the Illinois statehouse over to newly elected state Sen. Paul Faraci — a local official from their hometown who was on a shortlist of candidates she and Scott once made to ensure his work would carry on in case he ever wanted to retire.

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