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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Remembering Judy Baar Topinka, a Critical Force in Illinois Politics

The Illinois comptroller died on Wednesday after complications from a stroke.

Illinois comptroller Judy Baar Topinka at a City Club of Chicago luncheon in 2011. The 70-year-old Topinka died early Wednesday from complications from a stroke.  Photo: Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune

Judy Baar Topinka, the comptroller of Illinois, died today. Comptroller is a colorless job, incomprehensible to most people, especially to Illinoisans who live in this state so mired in the winter of its fiscal misery.

But we should care about Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, truly an original, and, I think, an irreplaceable public service. The word colorful is often used to describe her, but it’s such an understatement. That hair of hers that screamed home-dye job (its orange tone existed nowhere in nature); her thrift-shop clothes that were unmistakably second-hand; and her straightforward talk about politics and the people who make a career out of it. About Rod Blagojevich who beat her in his 2006 reelection bid for governor, she said, accurately, “He has little weasel eyes.” She called her opponents in the Republican primary that year—a field that included Jim Oberweis—“morons.”

When I asked her in July, 2010, while she was running for comptroller and her former opponent was on trial, to give me an interview about Blago and what might have been in 2006, she replied, “I have just had enough of him and don’t want to waste any more of my life on him. Not worth it. Very sad for Illinois.”

During a joint WTTW appearance earlier this year with her Democratic opponent for comptroller, Sheila Simon, Topinka—and remember, she’s a Republican—said that if the temporary income tax is allowed to sunset on January 1, 2015, it “will cause the state to have a heart attack.” She added that “You will also cause me to have a heart attack because it would leave us high and dry.”

And now this savvy numbers “gal,” as she would have put it, won’t be here to try to clean up the mess. Topinka, 70, died of a stroke, not a heart attack.

I knew Judy personally from appearing with her on Bruce Dumont’s Sunday night radio/TV show “Beyond the Beltway”—a two hour talkathon interrupted by commercials and news, so there are lots of time to have off-the-air chats that, if the guests aren’t careful, are better and livelier than their on-air segments. We were last on together on June 16, 2013, and she was as delightful as ever, although she was beginning to show signs of age, sporting a cane—she explained she broke her hip when an elevator “ate her leg”—and a hearing aide that didn’t look like one of those expensive models. And it didn’t do the job, so she sometimes answered questions that weren’t asked or made points that were already made, but no one cared because she was still the most entertaining, insightful voice on the panel.

I had watched Judy Topinka for years without really knowing her background; I just figured that, as a granddaughter of immigrants like me, she had gone to a public university and that, as I came up in Rogers Park, she came up somewhere on the northwest side. She played the accordion and danced the polka; she once famously tried to get the stiff Dick Cheney to dance with her. He wasn’t amused.

Actually, though, she was born and reared in the tastefully sophisticated suburb of Riverside. Her parents ran a successful real estate firm. She attended high school at the fancy Lake Forest girls’ school, Ferry Hall, and she graduated from Northwestern in 1966 with a BSJ from the Medill School of Journalism. (At Northwestern, she was a member of the Alpha Gamma Delta sorority.) She worked as a reporter and editor for several suburban newspapers—the Forest Park Review, the Westchester News, the Life Newspapers in Berwyn and LaGrange—before entering politics in 1980 and serving four years in the Illinois House and 10 years in the Illinois Senate. She became the first female state treasurer in 1994, serving three terms, leaving office in 2007.

My husband knew her by telephone for years before he met her, and he used to tell me that from her folksy manner and easy profanity, he imagined her sitting behind a desk smoking a corncob pipe. (She did like to smoke cigarettes.)

She was also a former chair of the Illinois Republican Party, the only woman to serve in that role. Besides Dawn Clark Netsch, a Democrat, Topinka was the only woman to win a major party’s nomination for governor—Judy in 2006, against the already ethically questionable Blago; Netsch in 1994. Both lost in the general election. 

Whenever I called her to ask her opinion on matters political, she answered in a refreshingly nonpartisan manner. After Netsch’s death, in March, 2013, I reached Topinka at her office in Springfield. She called Netsch—who also served as comptroller—“awesome and brilliant.” She told me that she served in the state senate with Netsch, and “when you went to one of her committee meetings, you’d learn something.” She explained that neither she nor Netsch could win the governorship because “the boys still don’t want us. In their minds, it’s still, ‘Women don’t do these things. Politics is a man’s job.’ Suits like to look at other, suits and our suits don’t look like their suits.” (It’s true that her suits, which tended to have a lot of squiggly lines and bright colors, looked nothing like Blago’s $5,000 Oxxford models.)

There was also bitterness in her voice remembering that race against Blago: “They had me in full accordion, thrift-shop mode. My liking for thrift shops didn’t cost them anything. Rod Blagojevich will continue to cost the state for what he did. My little polka cost them nothing.”

After she lost to Blago, she hosted a radio show on WJJC-AM in Berkeley, Illinois, and often invited me on, always by telephone because my mother was dying in the ICU at Northwestern, and I did the show from the hospital lobby. Once after we finished our radio chat, a nurse from Poland walked by and Judy asked me to hand the nurse the phone. She spoke to her in Polish and told her to take special care of my mother. Same went for Henry, my aging Westie, whose significant health problems Judy always asked after. “He’s your fella and cherish the days you have left with him,” she said. (Topinka was a noted dog lover who told me she fed her dogs cheeseburgers from McDonald’s.) During that period, some of her questions and comments skewed right, and before her two successful runs for comptroller, she seemed more embittered than amused by the political circus.

Topinka had a son, Joseph, a major in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps, and, recently, a granddaughter. (She never remarried after her divorce in 1981, the year she entered politics as a state rep.) After feeling ill on Tuesday morning, she was taken to MacNeal Hopsital in Berwyn, where she underwent tests, seem to be doing well, but suddenly lost consciousness and died at two this morning.

While a tough-minded fiscal conservative, she was progressive on social issues, supporting abortion and same-sex marriage, for example, and offering to be a flower girl for any same-sex couple that would have her. In an interview with the State Journal-Register’s Bernard Schoenburg, a local alderman recalled that when the marriage equality bill was in its final hours before passage, “She was on the floor of the House working votes right up to the last minute.”

Topinka emailed me on March 6, 2013—her email handle was “girlpol”—after I interviewed her for a post on why there are so few female governors: “Can’t recall who said it…maybe Machiavelli. Power is never ceded, it must be taken. We also need a larger pool of qualified, aggressive female office holders to make something work. Yes, we can get our first woman president, but the only one who can pull it off is Hillary Clinton. She is truly awesome, but gals like her are rare. I think I will go, dig up my battle-torn copy of The Feminine Mystique and celebrate its 50th anniversary. Feeling sad that Dawn is gone…and Mary Ann McMorrow, ex of the Illinois Supreme Court, the week before. We are losing whatever critical mass we had.”

Judy Baar Topinka was part of that “critical mass” for sure, and boy was she ever critical to politics in Illinois.

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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