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Former Gov. Dan Walker: Illinois "indebted" to anti-patronage lawyer Mary Lee Leahy

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Leahy.jpegMary Lee Leahy

SPRINGFIELD-Mary Lee Leahy, the Springfield lawyer known for taking on the state's patronage-hiring system and who died earlier this week, drew praise Friday for her "great service to the state" from a former boss, ex-Illinois Gov. Dan Walker.

Walker, Illinois' Democratic governor between 1973 to 1977, appointed Leahy director of the Department of Children and Family Services and learned of her Wednesday death from his home in Chula Vista, Ca.

"I named Mary Lee director of DCFS in January 1973, but the Senate Executive Committee tubed the nomination. I then appointed her to run the environmental protection program which did not require Senate confirmation. After we defeated machine candidates in 1974, I renamed her to DCFS and this time the Senate confirmed," Walker wrote in an email Friday to the Chicago Sun-Times, praising her obituary.

"Thank you for your kind words about her; she really earned them. She and her husband Andy both rendered great service to the state," said Walker, who turned 90 in August.

"Andy was an ethics ombudsman in my administration before he died at an early age," he continued. "It was Andy who, as an attorney, won that landmark case in 1972 that held unconstitutional the statute that prohibited those who voted in the Republican primary in 1970 from voting in the Democratic primary in 1972.

"I doubt seriously that I would have won that primary without those crossover votes. Both I and all the people of Illinois are indebted to Andy and Mary Lee Leahy," he said.

Leahy was best known for winning a 1990 case before the U.S. Supreme Court, representing the late Cynthia Rutan, who argued she'd been passed over for a promotion based on political considerations.

In a landmark ruling, the court sided with Rutan and ordered that hiring for non-political government jobs, like toll collectors or child-welfare caseworkers, couldn't be filled on the basis of politics.

Leahy died of pancreatic cancer on Wednesday at age 72.

Visitation will be from 3 to 7 p.m. Monday at the Staab Funeral Home, 1109 S. Fifth St., Springfield. A funeral mass will be at 10 a.m. Tuesday at St. Joseph Church with burial at Calvary Cemetery.

A more thorough obituary for Leahy can be found on the funeral home website.

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