Tuesday, March 5, 2013

EXTRA: Netsch, the educator

NETSCH: Too detail-oriented?
For a reporter-type person, dealing with a press conference is usually a mind-numbing experience. Whoever is conducting the event usually is trying to spin a specific point -- and is trying to avoid talking about anything else.

In fact, I can only recall one exception to this rule of thumb.

IT INVOLVES DAWN Clark Netsch, the one-time state senator from the Old Town neighborhood who later went on to be Illinois comptroller and ran an unsuccessful bid for governor in 1994.

I was one of the regulars at the Illinois Statehouse back in that era, and I can recall the press conferences that Netsch used to like to hold on a once-a-month basis.

Her intent each month was to provide an update on the state of Illinois government finances (which she was in a position to know as head of the agency that actually cut checks to pay state government bills).

Unlike a lot of officials who would have come up with some trivial nugget and gone out of their way to highlight it, she used to throw out the details and leave it to us reporter-types to try to figure out what, if anything, was actually significant.

WHICH WASN'T EASY! It usually amounted to a series of fiscal details that told a gradual story that was only of interest to the most intense of government geeks.

Made more mind-numbing by Netsch's pedagogic tendency to prattle on like the law school professor she once was (and went on to become once again after leaving state government).

I remember that my colleagues in the Statehouse press corps used to joke amongst ourselves that Netsch was the equivalent of a deadly dull college professor, and that her monthly press conferences were the equivalent of a government finance course, or perhaps constitutional law (which she would occasionally delve into).

Like I wrote, it was a private joke, and not exactly complimentary. Yet when Netsch herself found out about it, she took it as praiseworthy.

SHE ENJOYED THE idea of herself as an academic who was trying to present potentially complex and detailed information about public finances. She took to addressing the press corps as her "class," and there were times we felt that she treated the stories we'd write about her events as our "pop" quizzes.

At least it would feel that way when her press aides would call the next day to nag about the nuance of some point -- as though "Professor" Netsch thought it made us worthy of a failing grade.

Before one gets the impression of Netsch as being overly full of herself, I'd have to say her concern was about trying to get information out to the public. She was more capable of answering a question without political spin than many other government officials I have encountered as a reporter-type person.

I also remember how she wound up disliking the campaign ad that made her '94 gubernatorial bid -- her playing pool, making a trick shot and being a "straight shooter." She hated the way people would ask about if she really made that shot (she did!), instead of about government finances.

THIS REMINISCE WAS inspired by the fact that Netsch died early Tuesday in her sleep. For her sake, it is fortunate that she passed on as quickly, and painlessly, as possible.

For she is the official who announced earlier this year that she had been diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis -- which saps away one's physical strength and could have made her a virtual invalid had she lived any longer.

It definitely would have been an ordeal for her to try to attend any more Chicago White Sox games. Yes, she and her late husband -- the famed architect Walter Netsch -- were big fans.

Yet that didn't stop her from trying to look objectively at the ball club's business dealings -- particularly the 1988 legislative deal that saw approval of what is now U.S. Cellular Field.

AT THE TIME, the state approved construction because the White Sox were threatening a move to St. Petersburg, Fla. It was all about keeping the ball club in Chicago, and Netsch was among the state senators who voted "yes" to approve the deal.

Yet Netsch the fiscal nitpicker came to see the deal that built the architecturally-uninspired building at 35th Street to be not in the best interests of the state's financial picture.

She went so far as to call it, "one of the five worst votes I ever made."


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