Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka dies at age 70

By Rick Pearson

CHICAGO — Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, long one of the state’s most colorful and outspoken elected officials, died early Wednesday of complications from a stroke she suffered Tuesday, her chief of staff said. Topinka was 70.

Topinka was preparing next month to be inaugurated for her second four-year term as comptroller following a successful re-election in November. Nancy Kimme, her longtime chief of staff, said Topinka died shortly after 1 a.m. Topinka was taken to MacNeal Hospital in Berwyn, Ill., on Tuesday morning after feeling discomfort. She was undergoing testing and observation when she lost consciousness early Wednesday, according to an official statement.

In a public career that spanned more than three decades, Topinka was known for an eclectic persona that coupled her preferences for clothes shopping at resale stores and fondness for dogs with a blunt speak-her-mind attitude largely absent in today’s politics.

Topinka played the piano, guitar and the accordion and once said she would “polka with anyone, anytime.” A video of Topinka doing the polka with former Gov. George Ryan, who was later imprisoned for corruption, was used against her in the 2006 gubernatorial primary, and then-Vice President Dick Cheney was less than enthused when she grabbed him for a dance.

Far from being a politician packaged and presented like a commodity, Topinka displayed an impulsive, candid style. During one of her campaigns, her fliers called it “common sense, straight talk, hard work” — that either drew people in or drove them away.

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During the 2006 GOP governor primary, she dubbed her Republican opponents “morons” and proclaimed that then-Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich has “little weasel eyes.” Her joke about flatulence at her first inauguration is now a part of Springfield lore.

In many respects, Topinka could be considered the matriarch of the moderate wing of the state Republican Party. A fiscal conservative, she was an early advocate of abortion and gay rights, positions that often put her at odds with members of the socially conservative wing of the GOP.

In 2006, she became the state Republican Party’s first woman nominee for governor, but was defeated by Blagojevich, who is now in prison for corruption. She made the bid for the state’s top post after serving as state treasurer for three terms, since 1994.

“I don’t know that I was ever the choice of the party regulars,” Topinka said during her 2006 run for governor. “One fellow told me, ‘You are never going to get anywhere. You don’t run with the big dogs.’ OK, well, you know, now, the big dogs are either retired, dead or in prison. So here I am.”

Her political comeback in winning the state comptroller’s office in 2010 made her the first woman in Illinois history to hold two statewide elected constitutional offices.

Topinka graduated from Ferry Hall High School in Lake Forest, Ill., in 1962 and received a degree four years later from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. After graduating, she worked for several suburban newspapers, eventually becoming an editor. She later served in public affairs for the American Medical Association and also provided public relations advice to local political candidates.

She began her own political career with election to the Illinois House in 1980 and moved to the Illinois Senate in 1984, where she served for a decade until her election as state treasurer. She also was a previous chair of the Illinois Republican Party.

“You can have all the vision in the world, but if you can’t pay for it, what good is it?” she once said, adding, “I am more meat and potatoes, sorry. You want a good-running, functioning state that you can depend on — I am just dependable.”

Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner said in a statement that 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,” Rauner said

Gov. Pat Quinn said in a statement that it is a sad day in Illinois.

“I am heartbroken to hear of the passing of my friend, Judy Baar Topinka,” Quinn said. “As the first female treasurer of Illinois and a longtime public servant, Judy was a trailblazer in every sense of the word.

“Never without her signature sense of humor, Judy was a force of nature. 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.”