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Netsch’s influence lives on

Illinois lost a true trailblazer when former Comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch died. Netsch may have lost the 1994 election for governor, but her influence lives on.

Published: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT

Dawn Clark Netsch, a liberal Democrat from Chicago, former state comptroller, and a longtime state senator, was a generation ahead of her time.

Netsch, who died Tuesday at age 86, won the Democratic nomination for governor in 1994, the first woman to do so for a major party in Illinois.

She campaigned hard against incumbent Republican Gov. Jim Edgar of Charleston.

She strongly supported an increase in the state income tax from 3 percent to 4.5 percent. Such an increase, she said, would help straighten out Illinois’ finances and give more money to education.

Building on her reputation as a “straight shooter,” Netsch filmed a TV commercial where she shot pool while discussing what she would do as governor.

When the Nov. 8, 1994, election rolled around, however, Netsch was soundly defeated by Edgar. She received only 34 percent of the vote.

Things looked rosy for the GOP back then. Republicans captured the U.S. House for the first time in 40 years, harnessing voter backlash against efforts by President Bill Clinton to approve a national health care bill.

Republicans also captured the Illinois House of Representatives. Steve Brown, House Speaker Michael Madigan’s spokesman, said at the time: “We’re obviously surprised by the overall outcome. They [Republicans] are all out of excuses now. They’ll have to produce.”

Having Netsch lead the Democratic ticket did not help Democrats that year, but her party, and her ideas, eventually prevailed.

National health care was approved in 2010.

A state income tax increase was approved in 2011.

Netsch, a supporter of the gay and lesbian community, witnessed the granting of expanded rights, including civil unions, and a current movement to approve gay marriage.

And state government is dominated by Democrats who think a lot like Netsch did.

Gov. Pat Quinn, Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, Secretary of State Jesse White, and Attorney General Lisa Madigan all praised Netsch’s career and leadership.

Netsch has impacted Illinoisans perhaps more than they know.

She helped write the 1970 Illinois Constitution, under which the state is still governed.

She pushed hard for equal rights for women and sponsored the Equal Rights Amendment, which failed to win ratification.

Netsch taught law, served on ethics commissions, supported political candidates, and served as a mentor and role model.

In January, Netsch gave an interviewer her take on what Illinois needs to do to fix its problems.

“No. 1, we really need to restructure how we raise money so that it is fair and adequate. And then, obviously ... we do have to address the pension problem.”

She did not directly mention Illinois’ staggering pile of unpaid bills, annual budget deficits, and huge debt. Those problems must be solved, too.

Netsch was known for her directness, so she would not mind us pointing out that her party has controlled the Illinois governor’s mansion, House and Senate for 10 years now.

Paraphrasing the 1994 words of Speaker Madigan’s spokesman, Democrats are all out of excuses now. They’ll have to produce.

Perhaps now, in tribute to Netsch, they will.

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