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Dawn Clark Netsch, iconic Illinois politician, dies

Dawn Clark Netsch August 27 2009. | Brian Jackson~Chicago Sun-Times

Dawn Clark Netsch, August 27, 2009. | Brian Jackson~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: April 7, 2013 6:15AM



There was nobody like Dawn Clark Netsch, the cigarette-smoking, pool-playing politician who helped break barriers that had kept women as stenographers and homemakers.

Netsch, who died Tuesday at 86, having battled ALS, was the first woman to win the Democratic nomination for governor in Illinois, going on to wage a colorful, longshot battle against a popular sitting governor, Jim Edgar.

She was also the first woman to hold statewide elective office, having won the comptroller’s seat in 1990, after serving 18 years in the Illinois State Senate.

But Netsch’s lifelong contributions to Illinois politics and government go beyond personal eccentricity or the symbolism of opening doors for women.

“In some ways, she was the conscience of the Illinois Senate,” said political consultant Don Rose. “Even when she couldn’t get legislation through, she posed the highest ethical standards they tried to live up to — and often did not.”

During the 1994 Democratic gubernatorial primary, a clever commercial portraying a pool-playing Netsch as a “straight-shooter” helped seal her primary victory.

“She was an actually wonderful contradiction in terms ... cerebral, cigarette-smoking, loved beer and champagne and liverwurst,” said her nephew Andrew D. Kerr. “She could carry on with the best of them.”

It was a different story in the general election, when Netsch was trounced by Edgar, the moderate Republican incumbent.

But even in defeat, Netsch still had tremendous impact.

“More than any other person in our state’s history, Dawn Clark Netsch created the modern era of women in Illinois political leadership,” said Sen. Richard Durbin, who praised her “blunt honesty.” “As always, those who open the doors of opportunity must be extraordinarily gifted, determined and patient. Dawn was all of these and more.”

Her former adversary agreed wholeheartedly.

Nearly two decades after their heated political battle, Edgar remembered Netsch Tuesday with “great respect.”

“Dawn Clark Netsch was one of our state’s most influential public officials, and she was likely the most influential woman in Illinois state government over the last 50 years,” the former governor said. “I had the greatest respect for Dawn. She was a brilliant and thoughtful trailblazer and an honest advocate for the best in our government.”

Similar accolades poured in from Illinois politicians who follow in her footsteps.

“Dawn Clark Netsch set the standard for integrity in public service,” said Attorney General Lisa Madigan. “She led by example with relentless honesty, fierce independence and a passionate belief in civil liberty for all. She blazed a trail for women and worked hard to make sure so many of us could follow her. She remained active and engaged in public policy up to the very end, and her unwavering dedication to the People of Illinois will be missed.”

She was born Patricia Dawn Clark in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Sept. 16, 1926. Her father was in the construction business, though his business suffered in the Great Depression. Her mother was a social worker. As a high school student, Dawn told people she wanted to be president someday.

She went to Northwestern University in 1944 because a good friend had gone there. The university would mold her life, introducing her to social activism — she was there during the fight to help racially integrate campus housing — and she went on to get her law degree there in 1952, graduating first and the only woman graduate in her class.

“She was very close to her classmates,” said professor Robert Bennett, former dean of the law school.

Already having decided to dedicate her life to politics, her first job was working for the Adlai Stevenson campaign. Afterward, she worked for a Washington law firm, Covington & Burling, before returning to Chicago in 1954, where she clerked for Judge Julius J. Hoffman, later of Chicago Seven trial fame, until 1956, when she rejoined Stevenson’s campaign when he ran for a second time against Eisenhower.

After Stevenson’s defeat, she organized Democratic clubs, which found her calling on Walter Netsch, to see if she could use his art-filled penthouse on Lake Shore Drive for a fund-raiser. She found him on the floor with an associate, going over the drawings for his chapel at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, what would be his masterpiece. He was startled by her cigarette holder. They married in October 1963. Later, he would sell part of his art collection to finance her gubernatorial campaign.

From 1961 to 1965 she was a legal adviser to Gov. Otto Kerner — the first woman to hold such a job. But she was frustrated working for Kerner and decided to join the faculty at Northwestern. She was the first woman hired to teach law there, and one of six female tenure-track professors hired in the United States in 1965.

She returned to politics, helping to rewrite the Illinois constitution.

“As an elected delegate to the Illinois constitutional convention in 1970, she spearheaded the movement to modernize our constitution,” said Gov. Pat Quinn, who was state treasurer when she was comptroller. “I witnessed firsthand her dedication to honest government when we served together.”

A liberal Democrat, she defeated the Machine-backed incumbent state Sen. Danny O’Brien to win a seat in the Illinois Senate in 1972 that she held for 18 years.

Former Gov. James Thompson said one of his most vivid memories of the principled Netsch was when she joined a rebel group of state senators in holding up a vote for senate president.

“It was the beginning of my first term. She joined the ‘Crazy Eight’ that held up the proceedings for 187 roll calls that I presided over when I should have been down on the second floor [of the state capitol] being governor,” Thompson recalled. “She stuck with the minority… She was willing to stand with the minority in their fight for greater representation in Senate Democratic leadership.”

In 1980, an endorsement from Netsch helped transform then-State Sen. Richard M. Daley (D-Chicago) from “Dirty Little Richie” — the nickname Netsch gave Daley for his bullying tactics in Springfield — to the darling of the lakefront. It was the single most important endorsement of Daley’s victorious campaign for state’s attorney. Thanks to Netsch, Daley stunningly ended up carrying the lakefront.

“She was the most important person to legitimize Daley among reformers, independents and liberals by endorsing him and the relationship they developed over the years,” Rose said.

“It’s because of her standing. People who knew her uncompromising ethical and liberal positions saw this and passing it on to Daley because she was so flawless. It was profoundly important [to Daley] — and profoundly important in developing what became known as lakefront liberalism.”

She defeated Roland Burris in the 1994 Democratic gubernatorial primary but never had much of a chance against Edgar.

Thompson remembered Netsch as a “woman of courage” who was willing to wage an uphill battle against Edgar made “more difficult by the positions” she staked out during the campaign

“She supported increased taxes that proved to be unpopular, yet she stuck to it,” Thompson recalled.

Edgar steamrolled Netsch in the general election, 64 percent to 34 percent. She took her loss with characteristic good humor.

“Well, doggone it, we’ll just have to try again next time,” she said, conceding defeat.

But there was no next time, in terms of public office — she returned instead to teaching.

“She continued to teach until nearly the end,” said Bennett. “She was a popular teacher, just great, full of energy and enthusiasm and that will sorely be missed.”

Netsch said she “never ran as a woman” but always argued, “More women are needed to make a difference in public policy.”

Wendy Cohen, her one-time chief of staff and dear friend, recalled that despite the onset of her illness, “Dawn thrived on political gossip and a bit of sherry.” And she was sending out donations to a variety of causes up until the end.

She “cared so deeply about civil rights, human rights, women’s rights,” Kerr said.

A fiscal conservative but social liberal, Netsch was honored in January with a lifetime achievement award by Planned Parenthood on the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade ruling.

“She paved the way for others,” President Barack Obama wrote in a letter read at the event by former senior presidential adviser David Axelrod. “The unwavering grace and integrity [Netsch] has shown throughout decades of public service are an inspiration to us all. Dawn’s legacy will live forever in our hearts and the history books.”

Axelrod, a close Netsch friend, added: “Her life is a series of firsts.”

Throughout her long and distinguished career, Netsch’s name remained synonymous with ethics. In one of her last public roles, Netsch served as a member of Emanuel’s Ethics Task Force. On the day the panel delivered its final report, a frail-looking Netsch attended the news conference, but uncharacteristically said very little.

Services will be private, Kerr said, but there will be a public memorial.



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