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Dawn Clark Netsch, icon of Illinois politics, reveals she has Lou Gehrig’s disease

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Updated: March 5, 2013 9:34AM



Dawn Clark Netsch, an iconic Illinois political presence for more than six decades, had something to say. And time was of the essence.

“I have ALS — Lou Gehrig’s disease,” she said in an interview, making public her recent diagnosis with the incurable, ultimately fatal disease. “It’s a tough one.”

Facing ALS is her biggest challenge yet — and her most ironic: The lifelong White Sox fan has a disease named after a famed New York Yankee.

ALS — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — is a degenerative nerve disorder that gradually steals a person’s ability to speak, move and swallow, even as the intellect remains intact. Typically, that happens over a span of three to five years.

Netsch, 86, has begun to experience some symptoms. She can still walk, though with the help of a cane or on the arm of a friend. And she still engages in animated conversation, as she showed in an interview in the modern art-filled home on the Near North Side that was designed by her late husband, the renowned architect Walter Netsch. But her normally strong voice is somewhat weaker.

Dressed in a bright orange jacket, Netsch sat at her dining room table, on which rested her new iPad, an invitation to President Barack Obama’s second inauguration and summaries of ethics proposals under study by the two government commissions on which she serves.

Though she never had children, she is surrounded by a family that includes a nephew and a cousin and dozens of women and men, some of them her former law students, whom she has mentored and who carry on her legacy of public service. They include Wendy Cohen, her former chief of staff, who now works in the Illinois attorney general’s office, and Cindi Canary, former executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

Netsch made Illinois history as the first female nominee for governor, paid the state’s bills as comptroller and battled for civil rights and ethics and fiscal responsibility in government. She served as legal adviser to Gov. Otto Kerner in the 1960s, when no woman had held such a post, and was an architect of Illinois’ current state constitution.

She has made a career of shattering a succession of glass ceilings in what was, not so long ago, a man’s world of law and politics.

She was one of the first female law professors in the United States. A liberal Democrat, she defeated the Machine-backed incumbent state Sen. Danny O’Brien to win a seat in the Illinois Senate in 1972 that she held for 18 years. Elected comptroller in 1990, she was the first woman elected to statewide office in Illinois and, four years later, the first to run with the backing of a major political party for governor, losing to incumbent Gov. Jim Edgar.

Netsch said she “never ran as a woman” but always argued, “More women are needed to make a difference in public policy.”

Her sense of humor is undiminished. She remembers a campaign commercial she made during her run for governor that played on her reputation as a straight shooter. It featured the professorial Netsch wielding a pool cue with the ease of a Minnesota Fats as she effortlessly knocked a ball into a side pocket.

“It may have been one of the best political ads ever,” she said, laughing.

Also undiminished is her strong sense of what needs to be done to fix state government. “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.”

A fiscal conservative but social liberal, Netsch will be honored next week with a lifetime achievement award by Planned Parenthood on the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade ruling.

Former senior presidential adviser David Axelrod, a close Netsch friend, will deliver the keynote speech at that event.

“Few people I have met in 40 years of politics have had more impact than Dawn,” Axelrod said Wednesday. “She was a path breaker going back to Gov. Otto Kerner and the Constitutional Convention of 1970. And what I love about her is that on the one hand, she is this prim, proper law professor and on the other hand, she is this pool-playing, baseball-loving pol . . . who doesn’t sacrifice her principles but is pragmatic on behalf of progress.”

Some of Netsch’s friends know about her illness, but she said she thought it was important to let others know now, too. Netsch said she knew people were wondering why they hadn’t seen her at recent political and civic events.

More than that, she said that by letting the world know, “It might get more people thinking about: What is ALS?”

Also, she said, if she’s true to her reputation as a straight shooter, “It is a way to say I’m going to shoot straight about this also.”

Don Moseley is an NBC5 news producer.



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