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Steinberg: Netsch not just another pretty face

Dawn Clark Netsch reacts colleague who jokingly asked if she had been influenced by campaign contributiduring debate Oct. 19 1983

Dawn Clark Netsch reacts to a colleague, who jokingly asked if she had been influenced by a campaign contribution, during a debate on Oct. 19, 1983 ,in Springfield, Ill. | UPI photo

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Updated: April 7, 2013 6:19AM



She was a fun gal.

Yes, Dawn Clark Netsch was a politician, a feminist pioneer and an academic. But she never took herself too seriously. I’m certain that I was not alone, when hearing that she had passed away Tuesday, in first remembering Netsch for her practice of riding in the Gay Pride Parade every June in an open car bearing the refreshing banner, “Not running for anything.” She was that rarest of birds — a politician who cared about people, even when she didn’t need their vote.

Netsch’s resume is well-known: state senator for 18 years, the first woman elected to Illinois statewide office, becoming comptroller in 1990. She also was the first woman to win the Democratic nomination for governor in Illinois, in 1994, running a longshot candidacy against Gov. Jim Edgar in a typically spirited campaign that featured TV ads of her shooting pool — not a stunt but a passion of hers.

When an Edgar supporter — his campaign denied responsibility and blamed her — plastered the Loop with posters sniping at Netsch’s appearance, once described as “schoolmarmish,” declaring “Dawn Clark Netsch is a tax cheat. The truth is as ugly as she is”— she deftly replied with buttons and a TV commercial declaring that she was “Not Just Another Pretty Face.”

The “pretty face” line was a jab at Edgar and his chiseled good looks. “Some say that I don’t look like a typical candidate, that I’m not polished enough, that I don’t talk in 10-second sound bites,” she told Edgar, in their debate. “I’d rather take some political risks and tell the truth than look and sound like every other politician. It’s time for a governor who’s more than just a pretty face.”

Tall, patrician, she was pretty enough to snag Walter Netsch, the noted Chicago architect, whom she met when she commandeered his art-crammed apartment for a Democratic fund-raiser in the late 1950s. I was never a particular fan of Walter — nobody ever accused him of being fun, and his buildings tend toward the hideous — but she obviously liked him, and that was always a redeeming point in his favor.

A bit of Chicago trivia — she not only clerked for Judge Julius J. Hoffman, who later presided over the Chicago Seven trial, but Hoffman performed the ceremony when she wed Walter Netsch in 1963.

Dawn Clark Netsch is a reminder of how far we’ve come with rights for minorities and women. When she first campaigned to integrate student housing at Northwestern University in 1947, there were no campus residences for black students, and the school said integration would be impossible — 72.8 percent of the students said they’d refuse to live with a black roommate; even more felt the only solution was separate black dorms.

Netsch wrote, in a paper at the time, that the denial of political equality for African Americans was “merely part of a much greater problem, one that is embedded in every phase of American culture.”

She was the only woman in her class at Northwestern law school in the spring 1952.

“As we used to fondly say, there were only two faces that stood out: Harold Washington and mine,” she later recalled. “He was the only black, I was the only female.”

In 1974, her campaign manager was an openly gay man, Glynn Sudbery. She was the first Illinois politician to list an endorsement from a gay and lesbian organization on her campaign literature and was inducted to the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 1995 as a “Friend of the Community.” On turning 85, she sat down with the Windy City Times and talked about her life:

“Number one: You have to decide for yourself where you want your life to go,” she said. “You shouldn’t be pushed in a direction that you’re not comfortable with, no matter who’s doing the pushing, whether it’s family or friends or whatever. You want to enjoy what you’re doing with your life.”

And she did.

Book notes

If I walk out my kitchen door, go directly across the backyard, cut between the Rose of Sharon and the Burning Bush, up the pine-needle-strewn berm, through the fir trees, around the neat patchwork quilt of the public garden, through the Village Hall parking lot, veering left to avoid the soccer field, I walk directly into the Northbrook Public Library.

It’s a lovely place, all glass and comfortable chairs, trying to keep up with the times, not only by offering electronic resources but by being a social center — offering movies, art exhibits, concerts. I visited a few weeks ago and two classical guitarists were playing to a small audience, which I joined for a few songs, an unexpected interlude carved out of the day.

They also bring in local experts: chefs, gardeners, and writers, such as myself. I will be appearing at 7 p.m. Thursday , talking about my book “You Were Never in Chicago” and maybe reading a bit from it.



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