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Is This Any Way to Run for Governor?

The Unconventional Candidacy of Dawn Clark Netsch


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On a balmy evening in late October Dawn Clark Netsch opens her gubernatorial headquarters on the sixth floor of a near north-side office building and brings the revolution to Chicago.

It's hard to imagine Netsch as a revolutionary. Eccentric, perhaps, or professorial, or smart--an Illinois version of Lacey Davenport, the aristocratic congresswoman in Doonesbury. But not radical. She's the state's comptroller, for goodness sakes: chief keeper of the books, an expert on fiscal policy. Before that she was a state senator from Lincoln Park and a law professor at Northwestern University. She's been a liberal and loyal Democrat going back to the days of Harry Truman, when real radicals rooted for Henry Wallace. In this campaign she presents herself as a fiscal conservative who knows better than anyone else how to trim fat from the budget.

And yet from her opening remarks to a crowd of well-wishers bunched around three tables piled high with pizza, pasta salad, liver pate, and salmon mousse, it's clear she's making the most radical deviation from conventional wisdom any mainstream politician can imagine: she's endorsing a state income-tax hike.

Oh, it won't be a huge hike--no more than one or two percent. The fine details haven't been worked out. And, as she quickly points out, it would be joined, like one Siamese twin to another, to a property-tax cut.

Still, this is a path few politicians dare tread. Those who do--former governor Richard Ogilvie, unsuccessful presidential candidate Walter Mondale, and recently defeated New Jersey governor Jim Florio--usually lose. Apparently most voters prefer to believe government can run on nothing.

Certainly Netsch is singing a different song than the incumbent Jim Edgar or Attorney General Roland Burris and Cook County Board president Richard Phelan, her main rivals in the March 15 Democratic primary. They're mouthing conventional refrains, promising to erase the state's multimillion-dollar deficit and pump more money into the schools through shrewd fiscal management. Netsch calls such promises nonsensical gobbledygook only charlatans would utter and fools believe. "Anyone who says that you can fix the fiscal crisis and provide more money for schools without raising the income tax is either a liar or he doesn't know anything about state financing," she tells the crowd at her office opening.

They cheer, and she smiles, a gold necklace jangling around her neck. Her voice, raspy from a lifetime of cigarettes, reaches the far corners of the room as she goes on a few minutes more, coming dangerously close to one or two tangents on complicated state finances. Sound bites are apparently a foreign concept. She's an unlikely candidate, selling an unconventional plan. "I will prove," she says, "that you can get elected by telling the truth."

Netsch grew up during the Depression in Cincinnati, then a heavily Germanic bastion of Republican politics. Her father, a businessman, despised the New Deal and its policies of redistribution; her mother, a social worker, was more moderate, though not very politically involved. But by the time she was a teenager Netsch saw herself as a liberal Democrat.

In those days Netsch was Patricia Dawn Clark, attending a large, racially integrated public high school, getting all As, and writing editorials for the school newspaper. "My high school counselor wanted me to go to a smaller, local school, but I wanted to go to a large, coed one. I would be spending a lifetime in careers dominated by men, and I knew I'd better get used to it."

In 1944 Netsch enrolled at Northwestern, where she majored in political science. She worked summers as an office clerk for the League of Women Voters. She graduated near the top of her class and went on to Northwestern's law school--the only woman in her class.

Other women then starting their careers in law--most notably U.S. Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg--tell stirring tales of the condescension and prejudice they overcame. Not Netsch. She was a trailblazer, yet she makes no attempt to embroider the story of her life for political expedience. "I don't doubt for one minute that many women faced discrimination. Later in politics I felt there were times when I wasn't slated for an office because I was a woman and the boys in the back rooms didn't think I could win. But in my early career, no, I never felt that kind of pressure. I was a very confident young woman. When I was a girl I wanted to be president. It never occurred to me that I couldn't do it just because it had never been done."

In law school she carried herself with the same rigid formality she does now; each word was loudly and distinctly enunciated. "I wasn't exactly a shrinking violet in law school. My classmates thought I had a phony accent. People sometimes think I'm British. I could never understand that. I think I sound quite midwestern. Perhaps it's that I speak distinctly. I do not drop my endings."

Harold Washington was a law-school classmate, but Netsch has only vague recollections of the young man who would be mayor. That's typical Netsch--she's no raconteur. "I'm not a good storyteller. I forget a lot of the details. If I don't have stories I'm not going to make them up."

She graduated at the top of her law-school class and signed on as an aide in Adlai Stevenson's 1952 presidential campaign, working with such establishment heavyweights as Porter McKeever, George Ball, Arthur Schlesinger, John Kenneth Galbraith, John Hersey, and John Bartlow Martin, the brilliant speech writer and journalist. "I was responsible for accuracy. If Adlai was going to give a speech on cutting military spending, I was the one who would have to find out how much cutting a single aircraft carrier would save."

Her model was Stevenson, the quintessential cold-war Democrat: compassionate on social issues and tough on foreign policy. She never flirted with the left. "I was always very realistic--I strongly believed in making the system work. When I was in high school I met Harris Wofford, who would go on to be elected senator from Pennsylvania. He was organizing an international student movement. I spent some time thinking about that, and decided, nope, not for me--too idealistic."

After Stevenson lost, Netsch went to work for Covington & Burling, a starchy law firm in Washington, D.C. "I had no social life. I worked all the time--days, nights, weekends. I'm not complaining. I loved that job. We specialized in antitrust cases, and I found it very challenging. One Sunday morning my boss called and said, 'Come into the office.' I said, 'Terribly sorry, sir. I can't come today. I have a croquet match.' That may have been the only time I turned him down.

"It was a predominantly male firm, but I never felt any discrimination. Maybe it was there and I was too dumb to know it. I remember once hearing someone say about me, 'She's all right. She thinks like a man.' That didn't particularly bother me. I was more amused than angered. I was never a feminist in the conventional sense. I was never consciously blazing a path. This is what I wanted to do, and I did it. The thing that makes me angry is the notion that women who wanted to work at home or had to work at home are lesser human beings. I feel that if I wanted to go to law school that should be my choice, just as staying at home and having a family should be my choice."

In 1954 she returned to Chicago and clerked for federal judge Julius Hoffman (the same Julius Hoffman who presided over the Chicago Seven conspiracy trial). In 1956 she worked on Stevenson's second presidential campaign, then returned to corporate law.

She always stayed close to politics, drafting position papers, helping on campaigns. In 1960 Otto Kerner, Illinois' newly elected governor, named her as his chief research assistant. She was the first woman to hold such a high-ranking position in state government, an honor that prompted a raft of fawning articles. "New Day Dawns in State Capital!" reads the headline over a Chicago Daily News article, which went on to describe her as "tall, lithe, and vivacious. . . and a personality of considerable brilliance and charm."

A headline over a column in the Chicago American called her a "Phi Beta Kappa Girl." "[Netsch] modestly disclaims credit for inspiring Kerner's policy," reads the column. "But key segments of his program came almost word for word out of a 50-page document known as the 'Democratic Challenge,' which she helped write." For six years she worked for Kerner--and also taught courses in local and state law at Northwestern's law school.

In 1960 she met Walter Netsch, the man she would eventually marry. "I was a young architect living in the penthouse of a lakefront high rise, and she wanted to use my apartment for a political rally for John Kennedy--that's how we met," he says. "I used to woo her by taking her to White Sox games."

In 1963, at age 37, she married him, and they became prominent fixtures on the social scene, attending theater, art, and opera openings. "We were both professionals with busy careers," says Walter. "I recognized from the start that Dawn's career was every bit as important as mine. Of course, when a woman runs for office many suspect that her husband is the candidate--it's stupid sexism. I can't tell Dawn what to do. She knows much more about politics and government than I do. But I do sound off--not that she listens to me. Once she was making an appearance and after her talk she asked for questions. I started asking them. She said, 'Why do you have to ask these questions in public? Why not wait until we get home?'"

Throughout most of the 60s Netsch remained on Kerner's staff, commuting between Springfield and Chicago. In 1969 she ran for delegate to the Illinois Constitutional Convention. "I couldn't think of anything more interesting than serving on the body that was writing a constitution. Candidates ran on a nonpartisan ticket, but to my surprise the local Democrats endorsed me and I won."

She became a key player at the convention, forcefully, if not always successfully, arguing for merit selection of judges and the institution of a fairer, more progressive tax system. "I was the one who had the delegates insert the famous sentence in the constitution that says the state has an obligation for funding education. I thought the tax system was horribly unfair, though I must admit it was not a major issue at the time."

In 1972 Netsch ran for state senator. This time the local regular organization, headed by George Dunne, backed her opponent, Danny O'Brien. Until then Netsch had stayed out of local party fights. Now, whether she liked it or not, her campaign was considered part of the movement then rattling the great Daley Machine.

"We organized a group called the Dawn Patrol," says June Rosner, a publicist and political activist. "We would hit the streets at 6:30 in the morning to leaflet. It was all part of a larger effort to elect Billy Singer alderman and to oppose the Vietnam war and to change the world. We were young."

Other players in that insurgency personalized the attack, hammering hard at Mayor Richard J. Daley. That wasn't Netsch's style. Instead she released dozens of issue papers, detailing her positions on everything from tax law to consumer protection. "She gave long speeches on economic policy that could put you to sleep, but people liked her," says Rosner. "She was bright, honest, and impervious to charges of chicanery or bribery."

Netsch beat O'Brien in a close race and was never seriously challenged for her senate seat again. In Springfield she quickly earned a reputation as a policy grind, but a good-natured one. She seemed to enjoy some of the General Assembly's wackier traditions--like the end-of-session goofiness when legislative meetings go on into the wee hours.

And her colleagues got a kick out of her eccentricities, which were unique in the General Assembly. She lived in a northside mansion designed by her husband amid a marvelously diverse collection of modern paintings and sculpture. She wore capelike coats dramatically slung over her shoulders, smoked cigarettes from a long holder, and favored audacious gold necklaces, brooches, earrings, and pendants--at least audacious for the time. "She was Mr. T before there was one," jokes one aide. "With the necklaces, Dawn was way ahead of her time."

Netsch could tell a joke and take a joke, and she'd often participate in such rituals as the staff softball games. She also knew how to cut a deal. "Dawn isn't a politician as someone might use that word regarding me," says Phil Rock, the former senate president. "But let me tell you, she was very savvy. She knew how to hold out for what she wanted."

Throughout the 80s the senate was almost evenly divided along party lines, and Rock could generally count on Netsch's support. But there were times when she pointedly withheld her vote, including denying him the majority he needed to be elected senate president. They would then retreat to private chambers to reach some accord in which Netsch would be appointed to this or that party position, and all would be settled. "She could be a Democratic Party loyalist--if you didn't call her that--and you couldn't take her vote for granted," says Rock. "She took things issue by issue."

She was chairman of the Senate Revenue Committee and a member of the senate's influential Appropriations II Committee. By reputation she was one of the smartest members of the assembly. "Dawn knew more about state finances than anyone down there," says Pete Halpin, a former Netsch aide who now works for the Clinton administration. "Many times you'd see her explaining things to other senators."

As a full-time professional with no children, she could afford to devote more energy to her career. And she did. She was generous with her time, regularly meeting with constituents as well as activists from outside her district. Whenever reporters called for help on complicated issues, she took them through the finer, arcane details, sounding every bit the law professor. And when it came to ethics she was spotless--never even a suggestion of impropriety, as even her opponents had to admit.

She was a major backer of legislation on health care, gun control, civil rights, ethics, the environment, and consumer issues. She led the fight for abortion rights, more school aid, the Equal Rights Amendment, and the family-leave bill. In debate she was generally cordial, though her temper sometimes flared--particularly with Richard M. Daley, who had been elected state senator the same year Netsch was. "Dirty Little Richie" is what she tagged him--a nickname that helped seal his early reputation as a spoiled brat.

Over the years Netsch and Daley came to respect each other as they worked together on several health and tax bills. By 1983 she was ready to support him in the Democratic mayoral primary. That election may seem like ancient history, especially given that Daley has positioned himself as an independent since being elected mayor and stays away from primary fights. But back then most observers were shocked when Netsch backed Daley. They figured she would go for Harold Washington, her old law-school classmate. He was, after all, running as the reformer who would sweep the last vestiges of Bossism from City Hall and advance the cause of civil rights. For most activists, black and white, Washington's candidacy was a crusade, part of a larger progressive movement whose roots reached back to the days when Martin Luther King Jr. brought the fight for open housing to Chicago.

"It was a close race and every vote counted, " west-side activist Richard Barnett said at the time. "And never before were we counting so much on our white, liberal lakefront friends. I won't lie: when we saw them with Daley, it hurt."

It bothered Netsch that after a lifetime in liberal politics her reputation suddenly hinged on a single endorsement. For anyone who asked, she had a simple explanation: she had committed to Daley before Washington entered the race. But she had to have had other motives as well. Daley and Netsch needed each other to break free of their political confines. She gave him credibility among north-lakefront liberals, and he helped her improve her standing with the white bungalow-belt regulars who still mistrusted lakefront liberals because they'd teamed up with Jesse Jackson to kick the old Mayor Daley out of the 1972 Democratic convention. There was also the possibility, never openly mentioned, that if Daley won he might someday slate Netsch for higher office, as his father had helped slate Paul Douglas, Sidney Yates, Adlai Stevenson, and other independents.

Of course such talk faded after Washington won the primary. Netsch endorsed Washington in the general election, taking him around her district, where most voters (not so liberal after all) supported the white guy, Bernie Epton. Washington showed no animosity toward Netsch for having endorsed Daley. On the contrary, he regaled lakefront listeners with funny and wildly exaggerated accounts of their law-school camaraderie. Once in office Washington even named Walter Netsch to the Park District Board. (Walter had supported Washington in the primary.)

But Washington died in 1987, before he had the chance to have Netsch slated for statewide office. She was then 60, and it looked as though her political career might end in the state senate.

She had never made any attempt to hide her ambition--she had, after all, once dreamed of becoming president. But her ambition seemed unfocused. Attorney general, comptroller, treasurer, lieutenant governor--she allowed her name to be mentioned for all of these positions, as though any statewide office would do. "It was embarrassing after a while" says one old supporter. "Like she was trying too hard."

In many ways she was just one in a pack of talented Democrats yearning to advance to higher office. No prominent party leaders supported her. Publicly they paid her lip service, telling reporters how smart she was. Then off the record they got in their digs. Netsch, they said, had no flair, no savvy, no street smarts. She'd gone soft over the years, holding on to a safe seat, running against mediocre opponents. She was too earnest, too issue-oriented to sell away from the lakefront. She didn't generate enough publicity, didn't take charge. She wasn't a charmer.

The press wasn't very helpful either. She was happy to help individual reporters working on complicated stories, but she didn't schmooze with the press. Ask her one little question, and she could go on for hours, not realizing that most people don't worry about the fine points. She was lumped in the category of national politicians like Bruce Babbitt and Paul Tsongas: well-intentioned eggheads who would be better off running governmental departments.

Gender was always an issue under the surface. Until recently political bosses and pundits clung to the myth that women couldn't win a race for higher office. There were many reasons cited: Women wouldn't vote for women because they were petty and jealous and wouldn't want to see another woman advance. Then there was the JFK theory, which depicted women as brainless bimbos who cast their votes for the sexiest hunk. (Remember the Republican strategists who said Dan Quayle's boyish features would woo women voters to the GOP's 1988 national ticket?) And of course men wouldn't vote for women because women weren't manly enough to handle the job. And if they were, men still wouldn't vote for them because no one likes a "bitchy broad." Whatever the reason, when it came time for pundits to evaluate the candidates lining up for higher office, there was always some other Democrat, usually a man, deemed more electable than Netsch.

In 1986 Netsch was set to run for comptroller, but pulled back at the request of party leaders when Roland Burris decided to run for reelection. It irritated her that they would invoke party loyalty. She'd worked in the trenches all her life-let someone else be loyal.

In 1990 she decided to hell with the party leaders and ran for comptroller. What a mess that was. She hadn't even wanted to run for comptroller. She'd wanted to run for attorney general, just as Burris had wanted to run for governor. But at the last minute attorney general Neil Hartigan announced for governor, and Burris decided to run for attorney general. That sent party leaders scurrying to Netsch, begging her, for the sake of the party, to run for comptroller. Again she capitulated. But another lakefront liberal, Woody Bowman, was already running for comptroller. He tried everything he could--even tried to make her feel guilty for spoiling his chances--to get her to drop out of the race and run for something else. But Netsch wouldn't budge. "At some time I'd like to have control over my life," she said. "Maybe some people wish that I should just disappear. But that's not something I'm going to do."

She beat Bowman and crunched her Republican opponent, winning black, white, and Hispanic precincts all over Chicago and running surprisingly strong in the suburbs and downstate. She was the first woman ever elected to statewide office. Suddenly the purveyors of conventional wisdom had a new take on Netsch. Suddenly all the characteristics once perceived as negatives--her smarts, her earnestness, her long recitals of complex matters--were acknowledged as assets. They demonstrated her integrity, showed she wasn't fickle or phony or some consultant's creation. She didn't run from one issue to the next, call needless press conferences, or change her stand to stay abreast with the polls. She never spoke with a drawl to downstate farmers or rocked with uncoordinated rhythm at south-side revivals. She was who she was wherever she went. And that had won her some 1.6 million votes.

Netsch's victory had also showed that women voters were starting to vote for women candidates. "With that win, Dawn demonstrated her appeal," says Pete Halpin, who worked on the campaign. "She showed her strength not just on the lakefront but all over the state. And she also foreshadowed the big turnout women candidates were starting to get."

Once in office Netsch cultivated her image as a relentlessly honest messenger concerning the state's fiscal news, good or bad. Mostly it was bad. From her desk came a torrent of budget reports pointing to the precarious condition of state finances. She assumed, in her words, "the role of a traveling grinch," roving from city to town issuing warnings about the state's $1.4 billion debt. The state was laying out money it didn't have to build prisons it couldn't afford, she said. Its pension fund-assets of $17 billion, liabilities of $30 billion-was a ticking time bomb. Many state departments relied on tricky bookkeeping schemes to camouflage the debt they owed suppliers, providers, contractors, even municipalities, which needed the state funds to buy supplies and pay police. "Bills piled up and unpaid for months," she wrote in one article. "These trouble signs of dysfunctional government are becoming increasingly common as the state of Illinois--beset by its own cash-flow shortage--has been late in making some of its payments to local governments throughout the state."

It was a relatively easy role to play. As comptroller, she could talk tough without having to make tough decisions. The office was her pulpit, and her sermons--issued in newsletters, speeches, and op-ed pieces--were well received, particularly by Sun-Times pundits Mark Hornung and Steve Neal, who by early last year were hailing her as a formidable gubernatorial candidate.

By last spring Netsch had made up her mind to run for governor. "I don't think anyone should be surprised," she says. "I've spent my life in state government. I know as much about it as anyone else--certainly more than the other candidates. Being governor is something I've always dreamed of. It would be the culmination of my career."

On August 9 she announced her candidacy in a series of press conferences held at airports across the state. In her speech she ripped Edgar as a "passive caretaker" who was doing nothing about the state's lingering fiscal and educational crises. "I do not have quick and easy answers for all our problems, but I know where to start," she said. "The first order of business must be to put our state's fiscal house in order."

Later in the speech she described the unfairness of the property tax and indirectly hinted at an income-tax hike. But she never got specific. By and large she tried to deflect attention away from taxes and toward herself as a shrewd, prudent manager of state finances who, unlike Edgar, would boldly enact "an honest and disciplined budget process so that we can live within our means."

Of course, before she can get to Edgar she must defeat Phelan and Burris, two formidable foes. Phelan, a rich lawyer who made millions defending corporations, has the money to launch a glitzy TV campaign. And Burris, a Chicago resident who grew up in Centralia, has built a network of allies throughout the state. But Phelan and Burris have been fuzzy on the issues, and Netsch has a very specific plan of action. After speaking about cutting and trimming, she said she wanted to raise the income tax, cut the property tax, and redirect millions of dollars to education. One of the oldest commandments in politics--never, ever talk of raising taxes--is about to be tested here.

The inequities of the state's tax system haven't disappeared since the early 70s, when Netsch raised the issue at the constitutional convention. In fact, they've gotten worse. In recent years the state's share of school funds has declined from 48 to 33 percent, forcing schools to become more dependent on property taxes, which now account for roughly 58 percent of school funding.

One result is gross disparities. Municipalities blessed with industries, power plants, or shopping malls can generate millions of tax dollars without straining individual residents. But taxpayers in older, more residential towns, such as Evanston, must dig deep into their pockets, paying high property taxes so their schools can stay competitive. It's even worse in Chicago, North Chicago, Harvey, and all the other towns and cities in the state with large low income populations that yield relatively little in the way of property taxes.

The wealthier school districts spend as much as $11,000 per student each year, showering their youngsters with the finest science labs, computers, TV studios, baseball fields, and basketball courts money can buy. Other schools, particularly those in rural areas, make do with as little as $2,200 per student. The per-pupil expenditure is about $5,600 in Chicago, where many schools, particularly the high schools, are falling apart. To have basic supplies such as paper and pencils teachers often must reach into their own pockets.

In addition, the property tax is regressive, bearing little relation to a person's ability to pay. "The classic case is a retired couple living on a fixed income in a community that gentrifies," says Fred Hess, executive director of the Chicago Panel on School Policy, a watchdog group. "Their property taxes go up, but their income remains the same." In a nutshell, rich people in rich towns pay a smaller portion of their income for better schools, while the poor in poorer towns pay a higher percent for much less. And all because the state relies on the property tax to fund education.

Several years ago the state promised to alleviate such inequities by selling lottery tickets and using the money to increase school aid. The lottery dollars do go to the schools, but the state spends less and less on education, even though lottery-ticket sales have increased. In effect, the lottery has enabled the state to take revenue that might otherwise fund education and spend it on everything from roads in Du Page County to Edgar's salary.

In 1990 activists from school districts across Illinois sued the state, hoping to change the way education funds were allocated. They wanted to raise the minimum per-pupil expenditure paid by the state and close the gap between rich and poor districts. But Burris, in his role as attorney general, stymied that suit, arguing that the state has no legal obligation to equalize school funding. A circuit court agreed with him and dismissed the suit, though it's now being appealed.

The same coalition of activists was behind the 1992 statewide referendum that would have added new language to the constitution calling education a "fundamental right" for all children. "Inserting that phrase into the constitution would have forced Burris and the state to deal with the lawsuit," says Hess, who supported the referendum. "It would have defeated his argument that the state has no obligation to equalize spending. Obviously the state has an overriding reason to treat people evenly in regards to educational funding when the constitution says it's a fundamental right."

The referendum won 57 percent of the vote, just shy of the 60 percent it needed to be adopted. Most observers blame the defeat on Edgar, who turned against the referendum after promising to remain neutral.

In the wake of the referendum, it's clear that voters are concerned about school financing. What's unclear is whether voters are willing to pay more taxes to help fund schools outside their own communities (the state income-tax rate is currently 3 percent on individuals and 4.8 percent on corporations).

Most politicians assume voters are unwilling to make such sacrifices, and tend to follow the model mastered by Governor Thompson and President Bush. As candidates they vow to freeze or even cut taxes. Once in office they raise taxes, after "suddenly discovering" the budget deficit is much worse than they'd thought. (Or, like President Reagan, they raise taxes and then deny that they raised them.)

Netsch is taking a risk by even raising the subject of raising taxes. "It's a risk, but if nobody takes any risks in politics nothing ever happens," she says. "I make it clear that there would be three components to any increase: a reduction in property taxes, an increase in the states share of financing education, and budget cuts. No tax is pleasant. But I'd much rather pay my share in an income tax, which at least means I have an income, than see my property taxes go up, which have no relation to my ability to pay. It's a matter of tax fairness and making the state accept the primary responsibility for a strong educational system. I don't want to limit the amount a community is willing to tax itself to pay for schools. But I do want to see more state revenue going to fund education."

So far the other candidates haven't attacked Netsch, perhaps assuming that she can't get anywhere with her income-tax platform. And, to the consternation of her advisers, she hasn't attacked her opponents, because she says that's not her style. "She could hammer Phelan on all the contributions he's taken from lawyers who do bond business with the county," says one frustrated aide. "But she refuses."

Polls vary, but most track her in the low 20s, below Burris and ahead of Phelan. Netsch's deepest support is among women, and her supporters hope she will be swept to victory by the same tide of gender pride that carried Carol Moseley-Braun to the U.S. Senate. "Every time I walk through the Loop and see a bunch of working women, I think that these are Dawn's constituents," says one of Netsch's more fervent supporters. "They should be wearing Netsch-for-governor buttons. We've got to get them fired up about Dawn's campaign. We've got to do a better job of reaching them. If we get to them, we will win."

But so far Netsch has been reluctant to tout herself as a women's candidate. Only reluctantly will she even highlight the remarkable, ground-breaking accomplishments in her career. She's constantly invited to speak before women's groups, but even there she sticks to the basics: taxes, state finances, education. "I'm not comfortable talking about myself, my husband, how I dress--that's not important," she says. "And to tell you the truth, I've never been comfortable with the sound bite."

If she has any counterpart in politics, it's Connecticut governor Lowell Weicker, a onetime Republican who ran and was elected as an independent. In 1991 Weicker, harping on budget deficits and tax inequities, got the state legislature to adopt a 4.5 percent income tax. "There had never been a state income tax in Connecticut, so the opposition was fueled by bitter anger and raw emotion," says Mark Pazniokas, a Hartford Courant reporter who covers state politics. "They had an antitax rally on the statehouse lawn the first weekend after the withholding took effect. Police estimated a crowd of 40,000 showed up. The protesters hanged Weicker in effigy, and there were signs comparing him to Hitler."

But to the surprise of reporters and politicians, the backlash was tempered. The Democrats maintained control of the state senate in the next election, even though their votes had pushed the tax through. And one of the leading instigators of the antitax opposition lost when he ran for congress. Weicker decided not to run for reelection this year, but many observers believe he might have won.

"Two things happened: people got used to the tax, and Weicker took charge," says Pazniokas. "He went on television, talking about how we were a new Connecticut, how we weren't paupers anymore, and we could recruit industries because we could offer economic grants. It was classic Weicker, where he said, 'I'm the bad boy willing to say what the others won't.' And 'Look at those sorry people in Washington. They can't do squat on the federal deficit. But up here in Connecticut we did it. We balanced our budget. We got the job done.'"

These are the themes Netsch has been sounding since the beginning of her campaign. "Anytime you talk about a tax increase in this state it's been the kiss of death," she says. "I know that. Most people don't trust folks in public office anymore. But I'm going to lay it on the line. I won't use any euphemisms. I won't tell you something now and change my tune later. And I'll guarantee you that the tax hike is a reality which will come, no matter who's the governor.

"I know my opponents might come after me on this. They might play Chicago against the suburbs or Chicago against downstate and say, 'If we raise income taxes, it just goes down that rat hole in Chicago.' If they want to grandstand and demagogue it, so be it. I can't change that. I'm running on the assumption that if you have the courage to tell the truth, people will make the right decision."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph, Michael G. Matejka.

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