CHICAGO – Dawn Clark Netsch, a pioneer of Illinois politics who helped rewrite the state’s constitution and broke ground as the first woman to run for governor on a major ticket, died Tuesday, just weeks after revealing publicly that she had Lou Gehrig’s disease. She was 86.
Netsch, a former state comptroller and longtime state senator, was the first woman to get the Democratic nomination for governor in Illinois. She died early in the morning at home, said her nephew, Andy Kerr.
She announced in January that she had ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a degenerative disorder that weakens the nerves and makes it difficult to walk, swallow and speak, eventually leading to paralysis and death. Near the end of her life Netsch needed assistance to walk.
“It’s a tough one,” she said at the time, describing the challenge of facing down the disease that killed baseball great Lou Gehrig.
Moments later, Netsch was back to politics, explaining in an interview with WMAQ-TV and the Chicago Sun-Times what she thought the state’s biggest priorities should be:
“No. 1, we really need to restructure how we raise money so that it is fair and adequate,” she said. “And then, obviously ... we do have to address the pension problem.”
Netsch had remained engaged in political life throughout her later years, advising candidates at the state and national level and always looking for a new challenge, her nephew said.
“The opportunity to run for governor was an absolute highlight, but if you were to ask my aunt what her favorite moment was she would say, ‘I haven’t come to it yet,’ ” Kerr said. “She was always looking forward. Last night before she went to bed she watched the news, surrounded by newspapers. She wanted to be able to keep up with everything that was going on.”
The Democrat was known for her directness during her more than six decades in Illinois politics. She served as an adviser to Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner Jr., helped rewrite the Illinois Constitution in 1970 and was elected state comptroller in 1990.
“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,” U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said.
During her 18 years in the Illinois Senate, she was known as an expert in state finances, argued against the death penalty and sponsored the Equal Rights Amendment.
As a senator, she represented a district that spanned some of Chicago’s poorest and wealthiest areas: the projects around Cabrini Green and the ritzy lakefront area known as the Gold Coast.
She ran for governor in 1994, losing to Republican incumbent Gov. Jim Edgar.
Netsch graduated first in her class from Northwestern University Law School in 1952, yet Kerr said she could not get a job because she was a woman.
“So it’s entirely possible that she really got the fire at that early age to fight discrimination of any sort,” Kerr said.
“And throughout her career that really was a hallmark.”
Netsch worked especially hard to combat racial and gender discrimination and fight for gay rights.
“She had a spectacular career,” Kerr said. “At her roots she was a very private person, yet she led a very public life.”
Tributes poured in Tuesday from Illinois politicians, including poignant words from female political leaders who said they counted Netsch among their most important mentors and role models.
“Dawn Clark Netsch was a hero of mine since the early 1980s and a friend and mentor ever since,” said Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, who served with Netsch on the board of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform and collaborated with her on many reform issues. “... She was not just a public servant, but a teacher. She will be missed.”
Illinois’ current comptroller, Judy Baar Topinka, said “Illinois lost a true legend and trailblazer today” and praised Netsch as someone who fought for “good, honest government that rises above politics.”
“Dawn always remembered that government exists to serve taxpayers, not the other way around,” she said.
Gov. Pat Quinn remembered her as a straight-shooter in both politics and pool.
Despite her health problems, Netsch worked on two state ethics commissions until her death.
Netsch’s husband, prominent Chicago architect Walter A. Netsch Jr., died in 2008.