Anger over the political appointment process has been simmering among Champaign County Democrats since the Dec. 9 death of state Sen. Scott Bennett.
This week, it boiled over into a bitter public display after Champaign County Clerk and Recorder Aaron Ammons re-stated his accusation that party officials were motivated by racism and sexism when they appointed Paul Faraci to fill Sen. Bennett’s seat rather than his wife, state Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Urbana.
Aaron Ammons’ statement, made on the Champaign County Democrats’ Facebook page, drew immediate condemnation from others, including Sen. Bennett’s widow, Stacy. The lengthy exchange was pointed and personal.
Stacy Bennett repeated a widely shared story that Carol Ammons called the county Democratic Party chair immediately after Sen. Bennett died to state her claim for appointment. She also charged that Aaron Ammons “approached Scott’s Senate colleagues” at his Krannert Center memorial service “about endorsing Rep. Ammons.”
“I felt like I was repeatedly being kicked when I was already down. ... Imagining Rep. Ammons making calls about Scott’s Senate seat while I was telling my 9-year-old children that their daddy was never coming home is almost too much to bear,” she said.
Sen. Bennett, who was 45, died suddenly from a brain tumor about a month after winning re-election to the 52nd District seat he’d held since 2015. Under Illinois law, party leaders in Champaign and Vermilion counties, which the 52nd District covers, had 30 days to fill his seat.
Champaign County Democratic Party Chair Mike Ingram and Vermilion County Democratic Party Chair Sandra Lawlyes sought applications and scheduled a public hearing where those vying for the appointment were given a chance to state their cases. The 10 applicants included Carol Ammons, who said she was the “no-brainer” choice because of her legislative background.
The period prior to the public hearing, however, was filled with drama, some public and some hush-hush.
After the appointment, both Ammonses kept their thoughts to themselves until this week.
Noting his wife recently was named to leadership positions in the Legislative Black Caucus and the House Democratic Women’s Caucus, Aaron Ammons wrote that it was “a sham these important accomplishments played no role in determining” the Senate appointment.
Stacy Bennett and local Democratic Party Vice Chair Cari West-Henkelman responded. Both stated they were tired of keeping silent about the Ammonses’ political gamesmanship.
“I have bit my tongue about the (expletive deleted) that y’all pulled during the appointment process for several reasons,” West-Henkelman responded, explaining that, among other things, she wanted to “avoid jeopardizing you or Carol’s future elections.”
She also challenged the Ammonses’ professions of sympathy over Sen. Bennett’s death “when Carol literally called Mike (Ingram) within minutes” of it being known.
Aaron Ammons responded that the real problem was “the blatant disregard and disrespect” shown to his wife during the appointment process.
Bob Bennett, who identified himself as Sen. Bennett’s brother, leapt into the exchange, challenging what he called “the incredible claim” of Carol Ammons that she was “with the (Bennett) family” at the hospital.
He said he has been “incredibly, deeply troubled by this claim for a month now” and that only Sen. Bennett’s family members and their closest friends were in the intensive-care unit.
Aaron Ammons responded by saying he and his wife went to the hospital and waited with other local Democrats. The self-styled poet then shared some verses he wrote to illustrate his feelings of loss.
“I had my moment
I process death with dread
Scott is dead”
But Aaron Ammons also re-stated his objections to Faraci’s appointment, saying that “it’s clear to anyone who has done any work on themselves that the ignoring of (Carol) Ammons was racist and sexist.”
He also asked West-Henkelman to “tell us all how the choice Mike (Ingram) forced you to make was better” for the Senate district.
The exchange between Aaron Ammons and West-Henkelman was the longest and angriest. West-Henkelman cast Champaign County’s weighted vote for Faraci after Ingram recused himself from the process to avoid a conflict of interest because of his desire for the appointment.
West-Henkelman complained of a phone conversation in which the Ammonses “screamed and yelled and tried to bully me” into supporting Carol Ammons.
Aaron Ammons denied any harsh words were exchanged and complained she was “accusing a well-respected African-American couple of threatening someone with no proof and falsely accused us of trying to bully you.”
“I look forward to an even more public conversation about this,” he wrote.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at email@example.com or 217-393-8251.