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Applause-O-Meter rings for Dawn Clark Netsch

Dawn Clark Netsch during an interview with Carol MarJanuary 15 2013. Phoby DMoseley/NBC5

Dawn Clark Netsch during an interview with Carol Marin on January 15, 2013. Photo by Don Moseley/NBC5

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Updated: April 12, 2013 6:14AM

When I heard that Dawn Clark Netsch died last week, the applause-o-meter was ringing in her honor in my ears.

The applause-o-meter is my highly reliable test of a politician’s popularity in the trenches. Back in February of 2009, I watched as the meter wildly careened at an Equality Illinois gala. Netsch was on stage, taking her star turn in the parade of politicians, a regular feature at the LGBT rights group’s annual fund-raiser.

As 1,100 dinner guests looked on, “Dawn Clark Netsch, the grand dame of progressives, floated by in a billowy green and red gown, reprising Christmas,” I wrote back then. The crowd roared and “the meter went through the roof.”

Netsch died in her sleep Tuesday at the age of 86. In January, she revealed she had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The former Illinois comptroller has a long list of accomplishments, including being the first woman to be nominated by her party for governor of Illinois. I was privileged to cover her for a long time. Most politicians suffer from hard cases of “off the record” disease. If it’s interesting, helpful or important, they won’t say it. Not Netsch. She was always vocal, passionate and honest. No spin. No sound bites.

Especially on gay rights. Her passion for justice vaulted her ahead of her time. Netsch embraced LGBT civil rights at a time when few politicians would even utter the word “gay.”

In the 1970s, as an Illinois state senator, she sponsored the state’s first-ever gay rights bill, according to Rick Garcia, the longtime gay activist and senior policy adviser for The Civil Rights Agenda.

She was also the first Illinois candidate to publish endorsements from LGBT groups in her campaign literature, and, in 1974, Netsch hired a gay man as her campaign manager, according to a tribute at, which covers the LGBT world.

Netsch, a mainstay in Chicago’s annual gay Pride Parade, was inducted into the city’s Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 1995. She was the “Godmother of Gay rights,” Garcia says. “The breadth and depth of her commitment is unparalleled.”

The community returned the love. At every LGBT event, the applause-o-meter rocked. “When she rode in the Pride parade, the crowd would go insane,” Garcia recalled.

Why? In a 2011 interview with the Windy City Times, Netsch explained, simply, that she and her husband, the famed architect Walter Netsch, had gay friends. And, as a “very passionate civil libertarian,” she added, “the idea of discriminating against someone or writing them off because, in this case, sexual orientation was just anathema to me.”

Today, it is hip to be gay-friendly. Politicians nationwide are embracing LGBT rights in droves. Some, because it’s the moral thing to do. Others are trying to catch up with their constituents.

Dawn Clark Netsch led that parade toward justice. Our state Legislature will soon legalize same-sex marriage in Illinois. When it does, the meter will ring again, in tribute to her.

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