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Dawn Clark Netsch on Politics

" It is probably going to be a pretty good year for Democrats."


Sitting in her Northwestern School of Law office, overlooking Lake Michigan, Dawn Clark Netsch reflects on a life in politics and the upcoming elections. With her signature bob swept back in two barrettes and in a crisp blue and white shirt with two wooden bead necklaces, Netsch rests her elbows on the desk and speaks with deep certainty. In her 80 years, she's been known as state senator, comptroller, gubernatorial candidate, professor emeritus, art collector and activist. Netsch's nonstop schedule has barely waned. In fact, the lifetime liberal still seems to be running.

What are your thoughts on the race for governor between Rod Blagojevich and Judy Baar Topinka?

I think the conventional wisdom is that the current incumbent, Rod Blagojevich, is likely to win for a lot of reasons, one of which he is an incumbent. It is probably going to be a pretty good year for Democrats, and from my perspective, hopefully even better than that. The advantage that's probably mentioned most often, which always hurts me, is that he's got a ton of money to spend on the campaign. I think clearly he'll have a lot more than Judy Baar Topinka, whether that's good or bad. I happen to hate what's happened to the cost of campaigns, the fact that they seem to turn totally on fundraising these days, but there's no question that it is an advantage. Finally, he's done some good things, no question about that. He's also gotten himself into some difficulty. The media keeps suggesting that there are going to be some indictments having to do with the hiring practice. I think if it happens it clearly would hurt him.

After initially suggesting a dozen debates, the gubernatorial candidates have yet to debate (at press time). What are your thoughts on the lack of discourse?

I am not the world's greatest fan of debates. They are clearly an accepted part of our political landscape these days, and they've gotten a little bit better at how revealing they are, but my feeling was that they were so artificially contrived. The standard advice used to be, it doesn't make any difference what question they ask you, answer the point you want to make and stay on message. The more debates there are the more likely it is that they'll be a useful part of the process because there isn't that terrible tension of one debate and who will make a gaffe.

What should the candidates be discussing?

The state of the state's finances, and closely allied to that is how we fund public education in the state, which of course has always been my major issue. I'm really worried about the extent to which we have gone into debt. I probably reveal my bias. The Netsch Plan was my plan for both putting a pretty firm major source of funding into public education at the state level, not pushing it off to property taxes, and then providing some absolutely direct, measurable property tax relief. We are still also looking for short-term ways out of what are really some long-term problems. That bothers me a great deal because what it means is that those who are in office right now are not willing to face up to reality and their immediate responsibilities and tend to put things off to future generations. It's actually probably the major problem of American politics. Especially with the way the world is going these days, we better develop some long-term points of view. Now it's obviously not quite as critical for a state like Illinoiswe're not going to file for Chapter 11, but it does make a difference in terms of what kinds of services we're going to be providing for people for the long term.

You reportedly told Judy Baar Topinka to watch her back. What did you mean by that?

That was over a year ago at a meeting for the Chicago Network. I was asked if I had any advice. I was thinking how in both parties the powers that be urge you to run for office, saying they'll be right there, supporting you all the way, and then somehow they mysteriously disappear when the time comes to put up or shut up.

Topinka said that coming out of the primaries "bloodied and broke" is the "Dawn Clark Netsch scenario." What do you make of the "Dawn Clark Netsch scenario"?

She is the one who knows whether she was bloodied and broke. She had a primary in which the heavily right wing part of her party was pretty rough. That's where the promises of help and support either mean something or do not. If she characterized my coming out of the primary that way, I think that's a pretty fair statement. Heaven knows I was broke and I guess pretty bloodied.

Why were you bloodied?

Negative advertising happened in both the primary and really big time in the general election. I know people find it hard to believe that nice old Jim Edgar would run a nasty campaign, [but] it was really pretty bad.

Had you become governor, what do you think your legacy would have been?

I obviously have no way of knowing that for sure. One legacy clearly would have been that I would have tried harder on a lot of things than my opponent. Hopefully I would have been able to do something very constructive about the whole school funding and financing part of it, and with that, start to build in accountability. I'm not a great fan of the accountability that we have now built into it, which seems to me is almost totally aligned with the results of standardized test scores. Of course the funny part of it is that the very people who have always touted local control of education passed No Child Left Behind, which is the most intrusive interruption of public education that has existed. The other thing I would have liked to leave behind is a more honest accounting of our state's finances. They were really in horrible shape, and I just don't think that's fair to the electorate. People might complain about me that I'm willing to spend too much of the taxpayers' money for social programs, health care and education, and from some people's perspective, that's true. The one thing I would not do is lie to people about how much something's going to cost.

What qualities make for an effective public servant?

There have to be things you feel really strongly about and want to accomplish. I finally realized I was never going to be able to make a dent in things unless I was the boss, the governor. Being intelligent helps, but you don't have to be a rocket scientist.

Did you ever think about running for national office?

Not since I was in high school or the early days of college. That's what I had planned initiallythe U.S. Senate. But I really got terribly interested in state government and realized it was a way in which you could realize more and have more of a direct impact. If you're a member of Congress, you're one of 435 or one of 100, and it takes a long, long time, unless you're a Barack Obama or a rock star. And he doesn't really have that much impact yet, except that he's got the charisma and the platform.

Who have you admired?

I supposed the one I've most admired of all was Governor [Adlai] Stevenson. I worked on his campaign several times. I was a pure volunteer the first time because I was still in school, and then I worked in the campaign in '52 and '56 and worked on some of his speeches. He was, to me, an absolutely admirable person. As a matter of fact, his son, whom I still call "Young Adlai", was a doggone good U.S. senator. He didn't have his father's charisma, I think it's fair to say, but he was way ahead of the pack on a lot of issues. And for all of his problems, I think Bill Clinton was and still is incredible. He can reach people in a way that almost no one [can].

Who was your role model?

The most normal thing would be to have a woman role model, and there weren't any women around doing what I was trying to do. I never had anyone who was my mentor in politics, partly because I was always an outsider.

What is your motto?

I suppose the only thing that might come close would be the tagline in the famous television ad in my gubernatorial campaign"a straight shooter," which was what the pool ad was really all about. I also keep thinking of some of the marvelous things that occurred in Governor Stevenson's speeches, which I've occasionally used in my own. They don't really come off as mottos, but I'm thinking of "the stark reality of responsibility."

You were the only woman to graduate in the June, 1952 Northwestern School of Law class. Now you teach classes in which half the students are women. How has that change affected you?

It's a very different world, but I'm used to it now. In the early 1970s, I made a speech to the alumni association. I decided to talk to them about the growing number of women in law school because we were already at Northwestern up to about 14 percent. What I was trying to tell them, and the room was obviously predominantly male, was that they ought to relax and enjoy it, that if they wanted good lawyers in the future and they believed that we graduated good lawyers from Northwestern, which we do, that they better just get used to the fact that some of them are going to be women and get over any of their silly little prejudices. One of the sessions that's always scheduled at the beginning of each year is an orientation for the women law students. In the past, they often had some of us come in and make informal remarks to them, and I always tried to suggest to them not to get too self-conscious. You're not going to be a woman lawyeryou're going to be a lawyer.

How did you develop your love of the arts?

The visual arts were not a heavy part of my life until I married Walter Netsch. That's the major part of his life. I've known opera for most of my life and always loved it.

Do you have a favorite artist? No, not a single favorite. That's impossible.

With an architect husband, were there any commonalities in your work? I was not an active participant in his world because that's its own specialty, just as he was not an active participant in my world of law teaching. I think you can say we both shared an interest in politics. We could talk and argue about it. And I can't not mention the Chicago White Sox. He grew up on the South Side of Chicago as a Sox fan. Happily I had adopted them long before I met him because I don't know if we ever could have survived otherwise. We were probably at 15 to 18 games this year, and yesterday we were at the last game of the season here in Chicago.

What else would you like to do?

I guess what I really wanted to do was have the opportunity as governor to change the climate of politics in Illinois and change the direction of some of the issues I did and still do think are important. Obviously I don't have that opportunity now, so the only thing I can do is work with some of the groups that have some of these same goals. I guess if I were really a world dictator, I would somehow figure out how to solve the Israel and Palestine issue, which I think would help to begin to quiet down some of the ugliness that's taking place around the world. I regret to say I think we have contributed enormously to that. That's why I'm not so sure if it can be helped now, but someone ought to keep trying.

Published: August 01, 2006
Issue: November 2006