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Article updated: 3/6/2013 7:43 AM

Netsch broke barriers in 'stalwart fashion'

By Kerry Lester

Just days from the Supreme Court's January 1973 decision on Roe V. Wade, the women's rights movement marked a different advance at a state level.

Dawn Clark Netsch, the iconoclastic Chicago Democrat, was sworn into her first term in the Illinois Senate, a key step in a six-decades-long political career that broke barriers for women around the state.

"She stepped forward and did it in a stalwart fashion when there were many women that were just holding back, feeling the waters," Betty Ann Moore, of Libertyville, a former Lake County Democratic chair and aide to Lake County lawmaker Grace Mary Stern, said. "She set an example and showed the courage of her conviction on all issues."

Netsch, the former Illinois comptroller and first female to run on a major party ticket for Illinois governor, died Tuesday morning from complications from Amyotropic Lateral Sclerosis, a degenerative nerve disorder often called Lou Gehrig's disease.

In the wake of that news, Netsch is being hailed as a trailblazer by those who worked with her, as well as those who came after her.

"I mourn her departure but I am grateful," Moore said.

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Netsch graduated first in her Northwestern University law school class in 1948.

After working on Adlai Stevenson's 1952 presidential campaign and spending several years in Washington, D.C., then in a private law practice in Chicago, she joined the staff of Democratic Gov. Otto Kerner as a chief research assistant. In 1970, she served as a delegate at the Illinois Constitutional Convention and forcefully argued for merit selection of judges and the institution of what she saw as a fairer, more progressive tax system.

Serving in the statehouse at a time when few women had leading roles in politics, Netsch's presence, combined with her direct manner, made sure she was noticed.

Former House Speaker Lee Daniels, an Elmhurst Republican who was first elected to the state House in 1974, noted "if she didn't believe in something, it didn't take long for you to learn about it."

He added, "(While) a lot of her liberal thought processes I didn't agree with, I had a high regard for her."

The two up-and-comers also bonded over the fact that they were both White Sox fans, Daniels said.

Like Mary Ann McMorrow, the state's first female Illinois Supreme Court justice who died last week, Netsch broke barriers without directly reminding others she happened to be a woman. Instead, she championed ethics, gun control, civil rights, school aid and environmental issues. But she also led the fight for abortion rights, the Equal Rights Amendment and family leave.

DeLores Doederlein, an East Dundee Republican state representative from 1985 to 1992, called Netsch "very much at home in the political field."

Doederlein said that while Netsch had very strong opinions, she was "always a lady."

In her unsuccessful 1994 bid for governor, campaigning on the slogan of "not just another pretty face," Netsch proposed a school funding shift toward using income taxes rather than a property tax system to level inequities for children from poor areas, a platform that Republican Jim Edgar successfully portrayed as a tax increase, though he promoted a similar shift after he won election.

Netsch stayed politically active even after she left office, serving on the board for the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform and on the Illinois Women's Institute of Leadership, and she was often present at key political events, including at the governor's signing of civil union legislation in Chicago in 2011.

"Even before I was in politics, she was someone who broke glass ceilings and just carried herself with some dignity and was the kind of public servant we can all aspire to be," state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat who served with Netsch on the Women's Institute board of directors, said.

Netsch's husband, the architect Walter Netsch, preceded her in death.

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