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Evolution of a Challenger: How Netsch Rose up Ranks

IN one of her earliest, defining political acts, Dawn Clark Netsch recalls how, as a high school newspaper editor in the 1940s, she drew fire from the school board in Cincinnati, Ohio,for her radical proposal for desegregation.

``I was very civil-rights oriented,'' Ms. Netsch told the Monitor as she shuttled between campaign stops. ``I was convinced that we would never do anything about segregation and the low quality of education in black schools ... unless the federal government took over.''

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Today, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate laughs over her pitch for federal government control of education, calling it ``a horrible idea.'' But her concern for social justice and fairness in education continue to motivate her 50 years later.

``Heaven knows, I am not shy about standing up for what I want to do,'' she says.

Netsch left her native Cincinnati to attend law school at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. As the lone woman, she outranked her male peers to graduate first in her class in 1952. Since 1965, she has served on Northwestern's law faculty.

After law school, Netsch plunged into Democratic politics and in 1961 became the first woman assistant to a governor of Illinois. ``At the time, the Democratic Party was like a private club, and the membership rules excluded women,'' Netsch says. ``That made things very complicated.'' For example, although Netsch's job involved deciding much of the governor's legislative agenda, the party's old-style state lawmakers barred Netsch from their weekly strategy meetings.

Undaunted, Netsch played a key role in revising the state constitution in the late 1960s. A strong advocate for quality public schools, she wrote the constitutional phrase requiring that the state bear ``primary responsibility'' for funding education.

In 1972, Netsch was elected to the state senate, where she served for the next 18 years, emerging as an effective proponent of fiscal responsibility and tax fairness. In 1990, she became the first woman to be elected to an executive post in Illinois when she won a hard-fought race for state comptroller.

Now, Netsch and her running mate, Penny Severns, are attempting to make history by becoming the first women to run the state. Netsch has the bearing of a seasoned professor, not a stereotypical feminist, yet enjoys no special appeal among women voters, polls indicate. Nevertheless, as a woman and independent Democrat, she says she would bring to the governorship ``a willingness to take political chances that a lot of men are not willing to take.''

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Netsch says that as work patterns change and family structure weakens, the government must inevitably play a ``more prominent role'' in peoples' lives. Her goal is to ensure that the government ``is sensitive, and knows what its responsibilities and limitations are.''

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