As accustomed as we are to seeing our politicians in prison stripes, we're surprised when Illinois' culture of corruption can still shock us. But this did:|
When Chicago voters go the polls April 9 to replace the prison-bound Jesse Jackson, Jr., they'll find a new convicted felon on the ballot. GOP 2nd Congressional District voters, chose ex-con Paul McKinley to run against Democrat Robin Kelly. Mr. McKinley, who served nearly 20 years in prison for crimes that included pistol whipping a man, might be forgiven for believing a criminal record is an advantage in a district that has seen its last three congressmen leave in scandal.
"I'm the ex-offender trying to save the next offender," he told the Chicago Tribune. While he's right that those offenders were Democrats, his record, along with the recent release of GOP ex-Gov. George Ryan, reminds us that in Illinois political corruption is deep, abiding and bipartisan.
It might make one wonder why anyone of integrity would choose a path of public service today?
Because of people like Dawn Clark Netsch.
Trailblazer, pioneer, straight-shooter are some of the ways friends and fans described her in the wake of her death Monday at 86. They are apt descriptions for this dedicated intellectual who believed that public service was every citizen's duty.
In a sense, the politics and personality of this political leader who could as often be seen juggling her ever-present cigarette holder with a plastic cup of beer and a slab of ribs, as a glass of wine and plate of caviar, mirrored a Chicago district that included the infamous Cabrini Green and the Gold Coast.
She might have seemed an unlikely combatant in the rough and tumble world of Illinois politics. But she signed on early as an aide to Gov. Otto Kerner. She relished fighting for what she believed in. She took on a Chicago machine-backed incumbent to win a state Senate seat she held for 18 years, and did battle -- along with other of the Crazy Eights, including Rock Island's Don Wooten -- with Mayor Richard J. Daley and Gov. Jim Thompson. As comptroller, she became the first woman elected statewide in 1990 and she was the first woman nominated for governor. She lost to Jim Edgar, but never relinquished her battle for ethics reform, active to the end despite the rapid onset of the amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
"Dawn Clark Netsch fought for fiscal integrity -- and integrity -- in state government. That is likely her legacy," said Porter McNeil, a Q-C political consultant. "Many worked to emulate her leadership on fiscal integrity and honesty, including my former boss, former Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes."
She always made time to advise fresh-faced, eager idealists whom she met along the way. Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon was another of them. She said Tuesday, "Dawn Clark Netsch was a hero of mine since the early 1980s and a friend and mentor ever since. ... She was not just a public servant, but a teacher."
It's vital that the legacy of people like Sen. Netsch does not die with them. Fortunately, some will live on via the Oral History Project of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. A dozen recordings tracing her life in her own words can be found at http://www2.illinois.gov/alplm/library/collections/oralhistory/illinoisstatecraft/legislators/pages/netschdawnclark.aspx. In them you'll find the woman Cynthia Grant Bowman describes in "Dawn Clark Netsch: A Political Life."
"Dawn is a warm and charming woman of many contradictions -- a schoolmarm who drinks and smokes, a powerful woman who has never learned to drive, a feminist who thought of herself as one of the boys, a well-to-do woman who is frugal to a fault," Ms. Bowman said. "As a woman in the legal profession, legal academy and politics, she has also been a pioneer."
To that list, we'd add role model in an ethically challenged state. Indeed, we urge current and future leaders to remember, as GOP state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka said her friend Dawn Clark Netsch always did: "that government exists to serve taxpayers, not the other way around."