Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Former comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch dies at 86

by Maureen Foertsch McKinney

Dawn Clark Netsch, the first woman to hold constitutional office in Illinois and the Democrats’ 1994 straight-shooting gubernatorial candidate, died early Tuesday. She was 86.

The former state comptroller was also a long-time state senator and champion of such diverse causes as tax reform, good government, gay and lesbian rights and the Chicago White Sox. In January, the professor of law emerita at Northwestern University announced that she had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. She spoke out about having ALS, hoping her disclosure might spread information about the disease.

Her biographer, Cynthia Grant Bowman, a Cornell University professor of law who worked with the former comptroller in the law school at Northwestern, described Netsch as a “warm and charming woman of many contradictions — a schoolmarm who drinks and smokes, a powerful woman who has never learned to drive, a feminist who thought of herself as one of the boys, a well-to-do woman who is frugal to a fault. As a woman in the legal profession, legal academy and politics, she has also been a pioneer.”

Cindi Canary is former executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, which Netsch helped establish. Canary says of Netsch, with whom she served on the Illinois Issues advisory board: “She worked to build a generation that would pay it forward. I never met someone who was so generous with their wisdom and their time and their support. I think she helped so many – middle-aged now — young men and women, and she continued to help and guide and advise anyone who asked her. “So many people know she had a brilliant policy mind but she also loved her life. She loved her White Sox and she loved her opera and she loved her friends. She was a person who lived life to the fullest and relished it. She loved the city and the state and just loved every minute of her life. That’s a good remembrance for all of us.”

She was praised for being outspoken. 
 “Long before it was the politically safe thing to do, there was Dawn Clark Netsch fighting for LGBT rights and giving voice to those who would be silenced. She was never quiet when she felt her voice could make a difference,” Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois, said in a prepared statement.

Several prominent Illinois political figures issued statements about the loss of Netsch. “More than any other person in our state’s history, Dawn Clark Netsch created the modern era of women in Illinois political leadership. As always, those who open the doors of opportunity must be extraordinarily gifted, determined and patient. Dawn was all of these and more,” said U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan: “Dawn Clark Netsch set the standard for integrity in public service. She led by example with relentless honesty, fierce independence and a passionate belief in civil liberty for all. Her unwavering dedication to the people of Illinois will be missed. She blazed a trail for women and worked hard to make sure so many of us could follow her.”

Current comptroller Judy Baar Topinka: “Illinois lost a true legend and trailblazer today with the passing of Dawn Clark Netsch. Dawn faithfully served Illinois and its residents for more than four decades, fighting for good, honest government that rises above politics. In fact, one of the highlights of my legislative career was partnering with her to co-sponsor the state's Open Meetings Act. She continued her work as state comptroller, establishing the office as an honest broker and credible source of information when it comes to state finances. And she continued her crusade into retirement, regularly speaking out on the need for government reform and accountability. Dawn always remembered that government exists to serve taxpayers, not the other way around. She was a leader who was ahead of her time and our state is better for her service. More than that, she was a consummate professional and a class act. It was my honor to call her a colleague and friend.”

Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon called Netsch a “hero of mine since the early 1980s and a friend and mentor ever since. We served on the board of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform together and collaborated on reform issues for many years. She was straight forward, a straight shooter and great at explaining state issues. She was not just a public servant, but a teacher.”

State Sen. President John Cullerton noted that in 1991, he was appointed to the Illinois Senate to fulfill Netsch's term representing the sixth legislative district: “Dawn Clark Netsch has been a mentor throughout my career. As the first woman to run for governor, she has been a motivator for an entire generation of public servants. That is her lasting legacy.”

Durbin stated: “Her ill-fated run for governor lacked the political polish of many winning campaigns, but her thoughtfulness, candor and blunt honesty about the challenges we faced will be remembered. “The Illinois political scene will not be the same without that pool-shooting Sox Fan with a cigarette holder, but generations of Illinois women can thank the indomitable force of Dawn Clark Netsch for blazing their path.”

Gov. Pat Quinn stated: “As an elected delegate to the Illinois constitutional convention in 1970, she spearheaded the movement to modernize our Constitution. I witnessed firsthand her dedication to honest government when we served together as state treasurer and comptroller. “Most importantly, Dawn was a straight shooter, and not just at playing pool. [Campaign ads for Netsch in her losing race against former Gov. Jim Edgar showed Netsch shooting pool.] She always told the people of Illinois what they needed to know. Throughout her life, Dawn Clark Netsch taught us all about the right way to move forward in our democracy. We are all better off because of her purposeful life.”

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