CHICAGO
03/05/2013 11:40 am ET Updated Mar 05, 2013

Dawn Clark Netsch Dies: Iconic Illinois Politician With Six-Decade Career Has Died At 86

Iconic Illinois politician Dawn Clark Netsch, who served the state for more than six decades in roles as Comptroller and Senator among others, has died at 86 in Chicago.

The history-making politician died peacefully in her sleep at 12:30 a.m. Tuesday from complications of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, NBC Chicago reports.

In January, Netsch announced she had the disease, calling the diagnosis "a tough one." The Springfield-Journal Register reported Netsch partially revealed her diagnosis to help raise awareness about the disease. "Might get more people thinking about what is ALS," she said. "I'm going to be straight about this also."

That directness was a hallmark of Netsch's long career during her more than sixty years in Illinois politics.

Netsch began as a top student at Northwestern — where she would later become one of the first female law professors in the country — and nursed her dedication to racial justice on campus. According to her biography "Dawn Netsch: A Political Life," Netsch campaigned against racial segregation of the hotels in Evanston, where Northwestern's campus is located.

According to the Sun-Times, Netsch, a liberal Democrat, defeated the Machine-backed incumbent in 1972 to win a seat in the state Senate she would go on to hold for 18 years.

Sharpening her political acumen as Gov. Otto Kerner Jr.'s advisor, Netsch helped rewrite the Illinois Constitution in 1970. After her run in the state Senate where the Associated Press reports she was "known as an expert in state finances, argued against the death penalty and sponsored the Equal Rights Amendment," Netsch was elected state comptroller in 1990.

As a groundbreaker in the political arena, Netsch was also the first woman to win the Democratic nomination for governor, according to the Tribune; she ultimately lost to incumbent Gov. Jim Edgar.

Though Netsch said she “never ran as a woman,” the Sun-Times said she argued, “More women are needed to make a difference in public policy.”

Toward the end of her career, Netsch was named a professor emeritus at Northwestern University School of Law where the Tribune reports she was known for her support of the gay and lesbian community.

She was married to the late architect Walter Netsch, who died in 2008.

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