March 05, 2013
The Chicago Tribune
Dawn Clark Netsch: 'Straight shooter' was first Illinois woman to hold statewide office
By: Rick Pearson, Liam Ford
Dawn Clark Netsch was a political pathfinder for generations of Illinois women, the first to hold statewide office and the first nominated by a major party for governor.
Mrs. Netsch, an unabashed liberal who decades ago championed social causes that only recently have become the focus of state and national political debates, died Tuesday. She was 86.
"More than any other person in our state's history, Dawn Clark Netsch created the modern era of women in Illinois political leadership," Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said in a tribute on the Senate floor. "As always, those who open the doors of opportunity must be extraordinarily gifted, determined and patient. Dawn was all of these and more."
To the unfamiliar, Mrs. Netsch often presented herself as a politician of contradiction. A law professor at Northwestern University, she enjoyed opera but saved her biggest cheers for the White Sox.
She and her husband of 45 years, the late, noted architect Walter Netsch, amassed wealth even as she pushed legislation to help the downtrodden. Her unsuccessful 1994 campaign for governor against Republican Jim Edgar was, in part, funded by the $2 million sale of a Roy Lichtenstein painting bought decades earlier for $600.
The couple met in 1962. She was organizing a Democratic fundraiser and got a recommendation of Walter Netsch as someone who had moved into a Lake Shore Drive apartment and could host the event.
Mrs. Netsch, confident in her knowledge and secure as a policy wonk, eschewed the modern era of quick sound-bite politics to spend hours explaining the intricacies of legislation. She also could talk the politics of the street as she smoked cigarettes and displayed self-deprecating humor.
Before one debate in what turned out to be an unsuccessful run for governor, her camp unveiled the slogan "Not just another pretty face" to contrast her studious and elderly visage with that of Edgar and his perfectly coiffed look.
Netsch is perhaps best remembered by the public at large for a TV ad that is widely credited with helping her win the 1994 Democratic gubernatorial primary against then-Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris and then-Cook County Board President Richard Phelan.
Harking back to the pool-playing days of her youth, Mrs. Netsch was shown at a Lakeview pool hall running the table with some tricky shots as a narrator described her as a "straight shooter."
"If I had known the effect the commercial would have, I might not have made it," Netsch said afterward of the "wow" effect it had on the public. "It's completely opposed to everything that I stand for. I want my campaign to be about substance. Government is not about fun."
Patricia Dawn Clark was born Sept. 16, 1926, in Cincinnati, throwing herself into her studies and becoming a New Deal Democrat and strong supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt, in contrast to her father, who was an ardent Republican.
After high school she sought out a Democratic town for college and enrolled at Northwestern, where she graduated in 1948 with a major in political science. She graduated law school there in 1952, finishing first in her class.
Mrs. Netsch volunteered for the late Adlai Stevenson's 1948 campaign for Illinois governor and later was a researcher and speechwriter for his failed presidential bids in 1952 and 1956.
She worked for Otto Kerner's 1960 gubernatorial campaign and was appointed his legal counsel, another first for a woman, before joining Northwestern's faculty.
In 1970, Mrs. Netsch served at the convention that drafted Illinois' Constitution. Two years later she was elected to the state Senate, defeating a Democratic machine candidate, and used her lakefront independent mantle to also help elect maverick Dan Walker as governor.
During her 18 years in the General Assembly, Mrs. Netsch was part of a group of independent Democrats known as the "Crazy 8," formed to gain concessions out of the regular Chicago Democrats, headed by the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, who set the orders for the chamber.
Former Illinois Senate President Philip Rock of Oak Park used to joke about the uncertainty of heading an agenda with characters like Mrs. Netsch as part of his majority caucus. "Sometimes when I'd get up in the morning and look in the mirror, I didn't know whether to use the razor to shave or to cut my throat," Rock once said.
As a lawmaker, Mrs. Netsch was an ardent supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion rights, time off work for medical care of family members, banning handguns, gay rights and eliminating the death penalty.
She also was a leader in pushing ethics reforms and once chastised her then-Senate colleague, Richard M. Daley, as "dirty little Richie" for killing one of her proposals. Later, however, she reached accommodation with Mayor Richard M. Daley — despite the opposition to him by many progressives.
In 1990, in a matchup of two women, Mrs. Netsch defeated Republican Sue Suter for state comptroller and used the post to cast a watchful eye on the spending practices of newly elected GOP Gov. Edgar.
Four years later, she challenged Edgar for governor. But her liberal leanings quickly became fodder for the Republican who went up early on TV to attack her. Edgar criticized her opposition to the death penalty as being soft on crime. He also pummeled her push for a state income tax hike to offset some of the property taxes used to fund public schools — though he later unsuccessfully sought a similar approach.
In a heavily Republican year, locally and nationally, Edgar won with 64 percent of the vote to 34 percent for Mrs. Netsch.
"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," Edgar said Tuesday. "I had the greatest respect for Dawn. She was a brilliant and thoughtful trailblazer and an honest advocate for the best in our government."
After leaving state government, Mrs. Netsch continued to mentor numerous candidates as she resumed teaching at Northwestern and took up ethics causes, including serving on the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform and, most recently, on Chicago's ethics task force.
"She broke practically every glass ceiling in the book, and she was a reform-minded person who gave her life, gave herself to public service," said Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago. "Illinois is the better for all that she has done for us."