Dawn Clark Netsch dies at 86 after Lou Gehrig's battle

March 5, 2013 3:22:22 PM PST
A longtime Illinois Democratic lawmaker, Dawn Clark Netsch, has passed away. Netsch was 86.

She enjoyed champagne and loved beer. She was a feminist who saw herself as one of the boys. She was a lakefront liberal and a fiscal conservative.

Last month, Netsch announced that she was battling Lou Gehrig's disease. Netsch served in the Illinois State Senate for 18 years beginning in 1972 and won the Democratic primary for governor in 1994, beating then-Ill. Attorney General Roland Burris and then-Cook County Board President Richard Phelan. Netsch lost the general election to Republican Jim Edgar.

"I had the greatest deal of respect for her. We didn't always agree, but always knew if she had a different position than mine, it was something she truly believed. It wasn't just politics," Edgar said Tuesday.

She remained involved in Illinois politics, supporting David Hoffman for Senate in the primary against then-State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias - Hoffman lost - and Toni Preckwinkle in her winning bid for Cook County board president.

"She was a sophisticate who smoked cigarettes from a cigarette holder but who could shoot a mean game of pool, loved the White Sox, loved to talk baseball. She was an original. She was an original but the most important thing is she was a trailblazer," the Director of the University of Chicago Institute of Politics David Axelrod said.

Netsch also served as state comptroller. She endorsed Dan Hynes in the Democratic primary against current Illinois governor Pat Quinn. Netsch was once appointed by Quinn to serve on the Governor's Reform Commission.

The Ohio native was a Northwestern alumna and served as a law professor there. She was one of the first female law professors in the country.

She was married to architect Walter Netsch for 45 years until his death in 2008.

A longtime fellow Northwestern law professor released a biography of Netsch's life and career in 2010, including details on how Netsch fought to integrate NU's dorms in the late 1940s as a student.

Netsch's former chief of staff and longtime friend Wendy Cohen says Netsch died early Tuesday.

During her career, 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.

Her family calls her a towering intellect. Few would disagree.

"She knocked down barriers to women in state office, to women who aspired to be governor, l without calling attention to herself in any way, she was a towering figure in Illinois political history and one who opened the door for generations to come," Axelrod said.

When she ran for governor, the Netsch campaign slogan was "Not just another pretty face."

"I didn't really think of myself as opening doors or whatever. I was just doing what I wanted to do and I thought that's what all people including women should be allowed to do," Netsch said. DURBIN DELIVERS TRIBUTE TO DAWN CLARK NETSCH ON US SENATE FLOOR

U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) spoke on the United States Senate floor Tuesday after learning of the death of Dawn Clark 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," Durbin said. "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."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.