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Judy Baar Topinka: Life of the Party

By most measures, Jude Baar Topinka, the state treasurer and sometime accordion player, is the most successful Republican politician in Illinois.

Illinois State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka in 2005   Photo: Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune

She may be the last standing Republican elected to state office, but right now Judy Baar Topinka is sitting behind her desk in the treasurer’s office, smoking one Marlboro after another. Never mind that the James R. Thompson Center is supposed to be a smoke-free zone; Topinka has just had surgery for a bunion, so is she supposed to schlep herself outside, cane and all, every time she wants a cigarette? Besides, to the victor belong the spoils, and smoking at her desk is Topinka’s perk of choice.

“Why am I still here and some other Republicans got voted out of office?” she asks rhetorically. “I genuinely enjoy the job. Obviously, since I’ve run for it and been elected three times now, I’m not using it as a launching pad. Traditionally, no one bothered with the treasurer’s office because everyone was just passing through to a higher office. ‘Let it ride; let it float.’ That used to be the motto around here. When I first came to this office, there were things floating all over the place. We’ve trimmed this office into something worthwhile.

“On the Republican end, I’m a social moderate. I don’t hate Democrats. I am a tolerant person who believes in keeping government out of people’s lives.” [As Chicago went to press the Tribune revealed that federal authorities were investigating whether employees in Topinka’s office had done campaign work for her on state time. A Topinka spokeswoman denied any improprieties.]

Now 59, Topinka is selling herself short by not mentioning her almost unerring ability to connect with voters, whether it is playing the accordion on the campaign trail (something she lately does less of because of a bad back) or the funny television commercials that portray her as a bargain hunter who shops at garage sales. “She has never put on airs,” says Charles Wheeler, a former political reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times who is now the director of the public affairs reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “Part of the reason she is so popular is she comes across as someone you already know, like a neighbor or an acquaintance in a coffee shop.”

Whirling around the ebullient Topinka these days are rumors that she will be the next Republican candidate for governor or even for the U.S. Senate, rumors that she downplays (she has recently ruled out a run for the Senate). “Look, when you’re the only Republican left, what else are they going to talk about?” she says. “I don’t know about the future; I’m too busy doing my job here.” The Hotline, an insider newsletter based in Washington, D.C., however, claims that the Illinois governor’s nomination is hers if she wants it.

“No matter what office she chooses to run for in the future, she would be very tough for any candidate to beat,” says Kitty Kurth, the president of Kurth Lampe, a Chicago based public relations and political consulting business. “She is smart, likable, and a gifted campaigner. She doesn’t take herself too seriously, even though she is a serious person. And she does a very good job of talking about her moderate views and not dwelling on other things, like how her voting record in the state legislature was definitely conservative.

“She is not pro-choice,” says Terry Cosgrove, the president and chief executive-officer of Personal PAC, a bipartisan pro-choice group. “As a state legislator, she voted for spousal consent for abortions, for teenagers’ being required to get parental consent for birth control, and against high-school sex education/birth control programs.” Cosgrove admits that Topinka’s votes were years ago, but he adds that during the past state election campaign, in the fall of 2002, Personal PAC asked Topinka to fill out a new questionnaire on her positions. “We always give people room to grow,” he says, “but she never filled out the questionnaire.”

 

Topinka grew up in the western suburbs as the only child in a Czech family. When her father went overseas in Word War II, her mother opened a real estate office. “I was six weeks old and real estate was a totally male world at the time,” Topinka says. “Even my father’s mother thought it was unseemly of my mother to be out showing houses,” But when Topinka’s father came home, he had a ready-made job; for 45 years, her parents worked together, with her father handling sales and her mother taking care of the management side. “She was like Auntie Mame, and my father was very handsome and told wonderful jokes,” Topinka remembers. “It was a great beginning to life.”

As a girl, Topinka was always writing petitions and, she says, trying to organize things, so it’s not surprising that she ended up in politics. First, though, she attended Northwestern University and graduated from the Medill School of Journalism. She married an accountant and had a son, Joseph, now 35 and an army major with the Judge Advocate General’s School in Charlottesville, Virginia. Then, in 1981, she got divorced and for 12 years worked as a suburban reporter in the western suburbs for Life newspapers and the Forest Park Review. Stories that she covered in that job finally led her to politics. “I just kept finding so many people who needed help, or were not being treated fairly. And I was ending up begging public officials to do their jobs.”

In 1980, she ran for the Illinois House of Representatives in a primary with six men. “I wasn’t supposed to win,” she says. “Heck, I wasn’t supposed to run. It was an ethnic area, and women were supposed to be pregnant in the winter and barefoot in the summer and nothing else no way, no how. But my running helped open the door, and now women hold offices all over the place and that has helped change the quality of issues and discussions.”

Even later, as a state senator, Topinka wasn’t free from sexist scrutiny. She once gave a talk to a medical group about health care issues. Afterward, a woman doctor asked her how she kept her house clean. Topinka answered, “Ma’am, I open the front door and the back door and I let the wind blow the tumbleweed out.”

As the state treasurer, Topinka has introduced a flurry of well-packaged programs: Bright Start, a college education savings and investment program; Smart Women Smart Money, an educational seminar for women about financial matters; and Cash Dash, Topinka’s computerized program to return “lost” money (such as abandoned bank accounts and safe-deposit boxes) to the public. But not everyone has been so enamored of Topinka’s programs. Tom Dart, a former state representative who ran against her last November, contended that the treasurer’s office paid $2.4 million for commercials touting the programs that essentially increased Topinka’s visibility. (Topinka’s spokesperson, Carolyn Berry, says that the commercials were funded privately.) And the Champaign News-Gazette, which endorsed Dart, wrote an editorial complaining that Topinka saw no conflict of interest in accepting campaign contributions from banks - the same financial institution that get millions of dollars in state funds through her office.

“We have made this office into a tight, monkeymaking place,” says Topinka, shaking off criticisms by citing that investments on behalf of the state have made more tan $2 billion.

For the immediate future, Topinka has work to do as the recently named head of the Illinois Republican Party. “I had under a rock as long as I could,” she says, “but now I’ve agreed to take this position for two years only. When I leave, the party will have had a major overhaul: It’s going to be younger, more diversified, more expansive. I want people who have felt in the past that they weren’t invited or welcomed. Now the welcome mat is out, and if they can act even remotely Republican, I want them.”

Meanwhile, Topinka plans to continue to take her treasurer’s show on the road, as she has for years, packing her two dogs and several staff members into a van and meeting constituents. “We have computers the van and luggage tied on top of the roof, and if a baby duck or a turtle crosses the road, I’m out there stopping traffic until it gets to the other side. Honest to God, we look like the Clampetts traveling around the state. I think people feel sorry for us, so they’re nice to us. But it’s fun in a crazy way. It’s a way to continue to do good deeds, because that’s what I’m about. Really. It just gets as sappy as that.”

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