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Dawn Clark Netsch, One-Time Candidate for Illinois Governor, Dead at 86

By Ted Cox | March 5, 2013 12:06pm
 Dawn Clark Netsch was a longtime fixture among the state's political progressives and the first woman nominated to run for Illinois governor by a major party.
Dawn Clark Netsch was a longtime fixture among the state's political progressives and the first woman nominated to run for Illinois governor by a major party.
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Northwestern University

CHICAGO — Dawn Clark Netsch, a prominent figure of the progressive wing of Illinois' Democratic Party for decades, died Tuesday after suffering from Lou Gehrig's Disease. She was 86.

In a tweet Tuesday morning, political strategist David Axelrod called her "a towering figure in Illinois history: a trailblazer, an impactful leader, an absolute original."

Netsch revealed in January that she was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. It causes paralysis by attacking nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord and has no known cure.

She was a towering political figure among Illinois progressive going back decades. An adviser to Gov. Otto Kerner in the '60s, Netsch served at the state's Constitutional Convention in 1970. She was an 18-year state senator as a Chicago Democrat starting in 1972 and was elected to statewide office as comptroller in 1990.

Netsch was the Democratic nominee for governor in 1994, but lost to incumbent Republican Jim Edgar. She famously appeared in a commercial playing pool, touting her "straight-shooter" approach.

Netsch had sponsored the Equal Rights Amendment in the General Assembly and argued forcibly against the death penalty and in favor of civil rights throughout her political career.

"Dawn Clark Netsch set the standard for integrity in public service," Attorney General Lisa Madigan said in a statement. "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."

 U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Chicago) called her "a true trailblazer and a political icon."

"Dawn leaves behind a long path paved with the shattered glass from the ceilings she broke for women in leadership, as well as a proud history of fighting for the gay community and standing up against public corruption," Quigley said. "Dawn was a friend and professional mentor, whose fierce honesty and sharp wit I will deeply miss."

Mayor Rahm Emanuel cited her work for equality, opportunity and justice.

"For decades, Dawn was a powerful and plain-spoken voice for those whose voices were not heard in our city and state. She refused to allow underrepresented residents ... whether they were women, immigrants, or gays and lesbians, be denied a seat at the table. Their struggle was Dawn’s struggle and, because of it, our city and state are more equal and just."

Emanuel cited her most recent work as part of the city’s Ethics Task Force last year.

"I saw first-hand her commitment to a government that is accountable and responsive to all people," he added. "Whether she was fighting for equal rights, a fair, open, and accountable government, or painful illness at the end of her life, Dawn was a fighter until the end. We will honor her life by carrying forward her fight for greater equality and opportunity for all in the months and years to come."

Gov. Pat Quinn called her "a strong advocate for education and a pioneer for equal rights for all people. As the first woman elected to a statewide constitutional office in Illinois, Comptroller Netsch blazed a trail for women in public office.

"I witnessed firsthand her dedication to honest government when we served together as state treasurer and comptroller," Quinn said. "Most important, Dawn was a straight shooter, and not just at playing pool. She always told the people of Illinois what they needed to know."

Netsch was also known for her interest in Chicago's art community as wife to architect Walter Netsch, who died five years ago. They were longtime Lincoln Park residents.