the Illinois Senate Chamber

This is a story about two very different state legislators, representing very different districts with the same strong belief in hope during a time of anguish.

Some legislators are known for their lawmaking abilities and some are known for their constituent services. Representative Tom Bennett (R-Gibson City) falls more into the latter category.

The always-cheerful Bennett can attend as many as 10 or 12 events on a weekend day. His district is huge, stretching from just south of Streator all the way east and south to right above Danville. His constant travels caught up to him last year when he was in a bad one-car accident and broke several ribs. But his pace soon returned to "normal."

All the events have one thing in common: They're put on by groups to raise money for worthy causes. "They're good people, trying hard," Bennett said, adding that he tries not to eat at every event he attends.

I reached out to Bennett to see if he was experiencing any withdrawal symptoms. He said he was keeping plenty busy. He put up a lot of yard signs throughout the district even though he didn't have a primary opponent and has been taking them down since the election ended.

While he was doing that, he also visited restaurants throughout his sprawling district that have remained open for carry-out and delivery, and has been highlighting their offerings on social media to help them stay afloat.

He's on numerous conference calls every day. He had been putting out a weekly newsletter, but it's now daily. Bennett, like most legislators, is also fielding urgent calls from constituents.

Bennett has two district offices and they've been open from 7:30 or 8 in the morning "until well past supper" during the crisis, he said.

"I get my batteries charged by listening to people talk about what's going on in their lives," he said. "It's the best job I've ever had and I've had some good jobs. But this is … good."

Meanwhile, one of the most frustrating parts of this pandemic is the insane uncertainty about almost everything.

The state legislative session is just one of a multitude of events that have been upended by the crisis. We simply have no precedent to rely on here. And Senate President Don Harmon made an interesting point when I asked him if he was keeping in contact with House Speaker Michael Madigan.

"I try to stay in touch with him," said Harmon, who was sworn into the chamber's presidency just a couple of months ago. Madigan has been running his chamber for decades and was first elected to the House when Harmon was not yet four years old.

"It's strange that the first big crisis is something neither he nor I have experienced. I thought everything I'd go through, the speaker would have already been through."

Harmon, who's known as a policy wonk, said he's doing some work in his home at the dining-room table or at a desk in the family room. The Democratic leader all but closed his district office, which is less than a mile away from his Oak Park house, so he spends a lot of time there.

I asked the rookie president what the lowest point of the past few weeks has been for him.

"I think the starkest point was the realization that I was being asked to make decisions that would literally affect people's health in such a material way. That was a sobering moment."

Asked what has inspired him the most, Harmon said it would have to be "the willingness of everyone to put aside the usual points of bickering.

"In some odd way," he continued, "I think [Senate Republican Leader] Bill Brady and I are going to have a much more productive relationship in the long term because it was forged in this odd time, when we had a responsibility greater than to our caucus or to our party, but to the state and to the country and to the world.

"And I've seen that with Democrats and Republicans. I've seen that among the factions in the Democratic caucus. Almost universally people are very willing to put aside whatever petty grievances they may have had before and ask all the right questions. What can we be doing together to help our state and our neighbors through this?"

Harmon also praised the governor for acting capably and for being "very attentive to the needs of the legislature and the caucuses. So I'm hoping all of these relationships will be stronger because of this, once we return to normal times."

 

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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