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Dawn Clark Netsch: An outsider who fought her way in

by Mattie Quinn
March 05, 2013

Dawn Clark Netsch, the law professor who blazed her way through Illinois politics by challenging the status quo of the Chicago Machine and second-class status for women to become the first woman elected to statewide office, died overnight Tuesday in her Old Town Triangle home.

Netsch, who was 86, had announced in January that she was suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease.

She rose through the ranks of the progressive politics of the old IVI-IPO to be elected to Con-Con, the delegation charged in 1970 with updating Illinois' century-old constitution. In 1972, in a year that left the Machine and Mayor Richard J. Daley bruised, she won election to the Illinois state Senate in an upset of an organization candidate. She went on to serve 18 years.

Shortly after being elected, she joined an ad hoc group of Democrats who felt ignored by Daley’s Machine. One of those, who coined the term “Crazy 8” for the group, which often varied in size on roll call votes, remembered her Tuesday.

“She had a real impact on young women and young girls, but was inspirational to everyone she met,” said Terry Bruce of Olney, who served with her in Springfield before losing a congressional bid and retiring from politics. “She was a very good legislator, an outstanding comptroller and a great candidate for governor.”

Bruce, who currently is the CEO of Illinois Eastern Community Colleges, said, “She never failed at anything she did, although she might have felt like she did. ALS was such a blow, but I’m glad she didn’t have to suffer through it too long.”

During her Senate tenure, she saw her role shift from that of the outsider -- who famously tagged her seatmate, Richard M. Daley, son of the longtime mayor who was seen at the time as little more than a Machine errand boy, "dirty little Richie" -- to a player in appropriations with a keen understanding of state finances. 

That role led to her candidacy in 1990 as state comptroller, a successful bid in which she became the first woman elected to statewide office in Illinois.

After four years of sounding the alarm on the increasingly precarious state of Illinois' finances, she ran for governor in a Democratic primary field of three, and was given little chance of winning. She was 67 at the time and her opponents were seen as being better financed and having a wider base of support. But her campaign galvanized around a commercial of her making an intricate pool shot in which she looked voters in the eye and told them she was a straight shooter who would tell them the truth about taxes. 

That straight shooting – and promise to raise taxes as a part of fixing the state’s financial mess – won her the primary but didn’t play as well in the general election against incumbent Republican Jim Edgar.

Her press secretary during her term as comptroller, Jann Ingmire, said Tuesday, “She was the smartest person on the planet.”

“It was such a privilege to work for Mrs. Netsch,” Ingmire said. “She was such a remarkable person.”

“She knew the difference between right and wrong and how to appropriately work as a public servant. She took the public trust seriously and cared so much for the people of Illinois.”

“It’s a loss.”

Ingmire, who now is media relations director for the Journal of the American Medical Association in Chicago, said that when people say to her that all politicians are crooks, “I tell them, ‘No they’re not. I worked for Dawn Clark Netsch. She was full of integrity.’”

A longtime employee in the comptroller’s office in Springfield, Kathy Cutler, remembered Netsch as kind and caring.

“The best part of Dawn was her sense of humor and that she treated everyone equally,” Cutler said. “One time a reporter complimented her on a job I had done and she called me personally to relay what he had said. She was a wonderful boss and I will always remember her fondly.”

Netsch, who returned to teaching law at Northwestern University after her 1994 gubernatorial defeat, loved the Chicago White Sox and was a fixture at the Lyric Opera. Her husband, famed Modernist architect Walter Netsch, died in 2008.

In addition to her teaching, she also remained active in public affairs. Less than a week before she died, she answered a reporter’s questions about the causes of the pension crisis.

She said the legislature and the governor, over time, never really recognized or responded to the obligation to fund long-term retirement and pension benefits.

“There is no question that this is the primary cause,” she said.

She added that demographics played a huge role in the problem with a shift in the late 1980s, when she was in the Senate, with retirees outstripping employees paying into the funds.

She remained plain-spoken, too.

“The argument that the pension problems were caused because we pay public employees too much is baloney.”

In January, shortly after she announced her illness, Netsch was honored with a lifetime achievement award at a Planned Parenthood event marking the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Roe v. Wade case for her efforts to keep abortion safe and legal throughout Illinois.

“Today we lost a true hero,” said Carole Brite, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Illinois. “Dawn Clark Netsch embodied what we all
hope our public servants will be. She was honest and she fought for 
those who are most vulnerable. Dawn’s achievements have directly
 benefited the patients Planned Parenthood serves, and will for many 
years to come.”

Most recently, Netsch served on the board overseeing the Illinois
 Campaign for Political Reform.

In a statement from her nephew, Andrew
 Kerr, Netsch’s funeral will be private, but a public memorial will be
 scheduled later.

John Santore contributed to this article