Political Icon Reveals Battle With ALS

Dawn Clark Netsch was the first woman elected on a major ticket to run for governor in Illinois

By Carol Marin and Don Moseley
|  Wednesday, Jan 16, 2013  |  Updated 10:59 PM CDT
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Dawn Clark Netsch says she's speaking of her disease because it's always been her nature to be a straight shooter. Carol Marin reports.

Dawn Clark Netsch says she's speaking of her disease because it's always been her nature to be a straight shooter. Carol Marin reports.

An icon of Illinois politics, Dawn Clark Netsch has befriended presidents, run for governor, served 18 years in the state senate and paid the state’s bills.

Now she faces her greatest challenge.

”Basically it’s ALS; Lou Gehrig’s disease,” Netsch said in an interview.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a degenerative nerve disorder, is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the famed New York Yankees baseball player.

"And my first reaction was I’m not even a Yankees fan. I’m a White Sox fan,” she said.

ALS robs a person of some of life’s most basic functions and normally can be deadly in three to five years. ALS weakens the nerves and makes it difficult to walk, swallow and speak.

"It’s a tough one," she said sitting in the kitchen of the near north side home she shared with her late husband, famed architect Walter Netsch.

Asked why it was important to speak of her disease, Netsch did not hesitate.

"Might get more people thinking about what is ALS,' she said, noting, "I’m going to be straight about this also."

That was her slogan -- straight shooter -- when she ran and lost to Jim Edgar in the 1994 governor’s race. She was the first woman elected on a major ticket to run for governor in Illinois.

In 1990 she broke the glass ceiling, elected State Comptroller, the first woman to win a statewide race. Netsch helped rewrite the state constitution in 1970 and shortly after won a state senate seat.

A native of Cincinnati, Netsch attended Northwestern University where she fought for the school to integrate its dorms. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1948. In 1952 and again in 1956 she worked on the unsuccessful presidential campaigns of Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson.

Her 1994 race for governor helped forge a new and lasting image for Netsch: the prim and proper senator/Comptroller/law professor shooting pool. She learned to play in high school.

"And I was doggone good at that time," she said with a wide smile.

When it came to filming the commercial, there was one rule: every shot was true. She would not let them fake it.

"It may have been one of the best political ads ever," she said.

Today, Netsch needs assistance to walk and her voice can be raspy at times. But she undeterred and continues work on two state ethics commissions and has a ready answer about the state’s fiscal crisis.

"We really need to restructure how we raise money in this state,' she said. "We have a horrendous, high sales tax."

And a state income tax, she says, that should be more progressive.

And about the state’s $96 billion unfunded pension liability?

"Most public employees are still not getting rich off of it," she said, adding an adjustment is needed.

Next week Netsch will be honored at a dinner by Planned Parenthood for a lifetime of work for equality. Former White House advisor David Axelrod will be the keynote speaker.

"Few people I have met in 40 years of politics have had more impact than Dawn," Axelrod said. "She was a path breaker."

Not surprisingly, Netsch said she will attend that Wednesday night event.

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