Judy Baar Topinka remembered as good-humored truth-teller

 
 
Updated 12/11/2014 5:03 AM
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  • Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka met with the Daily Herald Editorial Board earlier this year before her re-election to the office in November.

      Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka met with the Daily Herald Editorial Board earlier this year before her re-election to the office in November. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

In the closing days of her 2006 campaign for governor, Republican Judy Baar Topinka was trailing in the polls despite the already troubled tenure of Democrat Rod Blagojevich.

She was decrying the millions of dollars in TV ads Blagojevich had aired against her, and Topinka displayed the truth-speaking sense of humor she's known for.

"You can make, you know, Jesus Christ himself look bad if you throw $12 million at him in this day and age. I understand that," Topinka said at the time. "But it's not fair, and it's not right, and frankly, it's not true."

Topinka lost that election but bounced back to win two terms as state comptroller, including the one she was to be inaugurated to next month, and enjoyed a reputation as a widely respected financial conservative who spoke her mind and became a GOP mainstay in a state government dominated by men.

Blagojevich went to prison.

As Illinoisans learned Wednesday that Topinka had died suddenly after having a stroke overnight at age 70, top political leaders remembered her as a blunt, independent voice for Republicans.

"Never without her signature sense of humor, Judy was a force of nature," Gov. Pat Quinn said in a statement. "She left her mark on the state she has called home her entire life. Her leadership improved Illinois and paved the way for countless women in politics."

Spokesman Brad Hahn told The Associated Press Topinka reported discomfort Tuesday morning and was admitted to a hospital in Berwyn. After undergoing tests she appeared to be doing well overnight before suddenly losing consciousness Wednesday morning, Hahn said. She was pronounced dead shortly after 2 a.m.

Republican Governor-elect Bruce Rauner issued a statement Wednesday about Topinka's passing:

"Early this morning, Illinois lost one of its all-time greats. Comptroller Topinka's magnetic, one-of-a-kind personality brought a smile to everyone she met, and she had a servant's heart, always only caring about what was best for the people of our state. Judy was a tremendous friend, and Diana and I will miss her deeply. We offer our heartfelt condolences and prayers to her family, including son Joseph, as well as her talented and loyal team in the comptroller's office."

Topinka won a second term last month in a tough race against Democratic challenger Sheila Simon, the former lieutenant governor.

"This was not going to be an easy race, and that's the way it turned out," Topinka said after the election results came in. "We were watching right to the end. I'm just happy because I have four more years to get things done."

That would have been her fifth term in statewide office, including three terms as treasurer from 1995 to 2007, lasting through three different governors.

She was well-known for her 2006 unsuccessful bid for governor against the embattled Blagojevich. Topinka had been called a somewhat reluctant candidate who made the bid only to try to oust Blagojevich for the sake of the state.

"I feel it's being hurt and abused," she said. "If I don't stop it, I'd be complicit in watching it go down the tubes, and I don't want to do that. So I'm running."

Topinka returned after her 2006 loss. In 2010, she and Treasurer Dan Rutherford broke Democrats' grip on Illinois' statewide offices when she won the comptroller's job.

Topinka and Rauner were the only two Republicans to win statewide races this year.

"She never became embittered after she lost to Blagojevich," Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont said.

Topinka often used her position as comptroller, which requires her office to cut checks to people who do business with the state, as a sort of bully pulpit from which she outlined her financially conservative principles.

During the comptroller's campaign, Topinka likened her job to being a "skunk at a picnic" -- a reference to the task of writing checks to a state with a backlog of unpaid bills.

"It's sometimes a tad depressing because we just don't have the money," she told the Daily Herald in 2011.

"My gosh," Topinka said. "We owe everybody."

She also served in the Illinois General Assembly. Radogno said Topinka was her state senator in the early 1980s and was one of the first politicians she encountered at a time when Radogno wasn't involved in politics.

"You couldn't help but notice her," Radogno said.

"She never labored for being a kind, honest, tolerant, lighthearted person," Radogno said.

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk said that days after he suffered a serious stroke in early 2012, Topinka met with his staff and made sure they were well-fed.

"When she said everything would be OK, people believed her," Kirk said.

Topinka was a three-time head of the Illinois Republican Party.

Born in 1944 in West suburban Riverside, Topinka graduated from Ferry Hall School, now known as Lake Forest Academy, in 1962. Topinka entered Northwestern University and received a bachelor's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor worked for Topinka in the comptroller's office before he was elected. His first task for her was to coordinate a job fair in Rockford.

Lawlor said Topinka's actions in the following month were a testament that the event wasn't a political stunt.

"Every time she saw me, she'd ask: 'How many people got jobs from our job fair?'" Lawlor said.

• The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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