Dawn Clark Netsch, Pioneering Illinois Politician, Dies at 86

Dawn Clark NetschThe first woman elected to statewide office in Illinois has died. Dawn Clark Netsch was 86. In January, she revealed she had ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Netsch was a Democrat, but people on both sides of the aisle are remembering her as a committed public servant. Brian Mackey has more.

Like so many notable women of her generation, discussion of Dawn Clark Netsch’s accomplishments usually includes the word “first.” When she was elected the comptroller of Illinois in 1990, she was the first woman to win statewide office. And four years later, when she challenged Governor Jim Edgar for his job, she became the first woman to receive a major-party nomination for governor. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin hit those notes in tribute to Netsch on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

DURBIN: “More than any person in Illinois’ history, Dawn Clark Netsch created the modern era of women in Illinois political leadership.

But on the occasion of her death, people are saying Netsch and other women of her generation were successful not because of their gender, but in spite of it.

DURBIN: “As always, those who are charged with opening the doors of opportunity have to come to that task extraordinarily gifted, determined and patient. Dawn Netsch was all of these and more.”

MADIGAN: “I think first and foremost, they were smart lawyers and they were smart public officials.”

Lisa Madigan is the attorney general of Illinois.

MADIGAN: “They weren’t necessarily women first, I would say, in terms of how the presented themselves. … They weren’t out there screaming that things were wrong and they were feminists. … But they paved the way for so many of us to follow behind them because of the trailblazing and groundbreaking work that they did.”

Netsch was born in 1926, in Cincinnati, Ohio. She went to college at Northwestern, and stayed for law school, graduating at the top of her class in 1952. She worked on the two failed presidential campaigns of Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson, and in the early 1960s became an aide to Gov. Otto Kerner. She recalled how she got that job in an interview conducted for an oral history project at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. After Kerner was elected, she was sitting around with colleagues from the Committee on Illinois Government, a reform group. They realized they needed to have a representative on his staff to make sure their ideas were implemented.

NETSCH: “It was almost as if everyone looked around the room — and they either were married and had responsibilities, or were at a critical point in their legal careers or something — and they suddenly looked at me and said, ‘She hasn’t got any responsibilities. She’s it.’ “

In 1969, Netsch was elected to the Constitutional Convention, alongside other up-and-comers, like future Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and future House Speaker Michael Madigan. She wrote the constitutional provision that gives the governor the power to not just veto legislation outright, but to rewrite it with whatever changes he sees fit. She was elected to the Senate in 1972 and stayed until she became comptroller in 1991. Less than four years later, she was taking on Jim Edgar, making education the centerpiece of her campaign.

NETSCH: “It’s time for the state to live up to its constitutional responsibility to fund education. …”

This is from a debate with Edgar, Oct. 21, 1994, in Champaign. Netsch would have raised the state income tax in order to shift school funding away from local property taxes.

NETSCH: “… Jim Edgar has failed the state’s responsibility to fund our schools. And he’s failed our property taxpayers. That’s the Jim Edgar legacy.”

EDGAR: “You know I always had a great deal of respect for Dawn Clark Netsch.”

Former Gov. Jim Edgar.

EDGAR: “We didn’t always agree. But I always knew whatever her position was, it was based off what she thought was the right thing to do, not just the political thing to do.”

Edgar went on to beat Netsch in that election, ending her career as an elected official. But not her involvement in politics. Netsch remained active behind the scenes, serving on government commissions and with reform groups. Her nephew told the Associated Press that, the night before she died, she was watching TV news, surrounded by newspapers. Kent Redfield — a political scientist at the University of Illinois Springfield who, like Netsch, worked on campaign finance issues — says her very presence in office was symbolic of a positive change in the state’s history.

REDFIELD: “That Illinois did not have to accept its legacy of corruption, that you could bring ethics to politics.”

But beyond her public accomplishments, Redfield — getting emotional — says Netsch was a dynamic and inspiring person.

REDFIELD: “Not everybody that’s a great leader is also a great person.”

Dawn Clark Netsch, he says, was both.

— Brian Mackey

PHOTO: Dawn Clark Netsch hoists a pool cue after winning the 1994 Democratic primary for Illinois governor. She was seen shooting pool in campaign ads. (via Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library)

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