Topinka Remembered For Sharp Tongue, Common Touch

Dec 10, 2014

Judy Baar Topinka in her Statehouse office on May 22, 2013.
Credit Amanda Vinicky/WUIS

Illinois state Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka has died from complications following a stroke. She was 70.

Topinka’s career spanned more than three decades in Illinois government. It was not without controversy, but her distinctive personality won the support of voters time and time again.

Topinka worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter before first running for office in 1980. She served in the Illinois House and Senate until 1995, when she was sworn in as treasurer.

She would hold the office for a dozen years, but even on day one showed a sense of humor about it’s relatively low standing in the hierarchy of Illinois politics.

“The office of state Treasurer, which nobody then, nobody now, and probably nobody in the future will ever care about," Topinka said.

Topinka was part of the 1994 Republican wave that captured all six statewide offices, the state Senate, and even the Illinois House. Topinka talked about that during her inauguration speech. But she never took herself too seriously, even making time for a joke about flatulence.

“You cannot believe what it’s like to campaign for 22 months, especially in those areas that specialize in ham and beans," Topinka said. "It was a small van.”

State Rep. Tom Cross, a Republican from Oswego, campaigned around the state with Topinka in November. (She won a second term as comptroller; he lost the race for treasurer.)

"In this day and age of being politically correct and the soundbites, she just said it like it was. And people in the public would go, ‘That’s exactly what I’m thinking,’ " Cross said.

At every stop on their fly-around, he said, Topinka knew supporters well enough to ask legitimately personal questions.

“She had this genuine concern for people that I don’t think ... that doesn’t happen in the political world. So much of it is just superficial — ‘How ya’ doin’,' tell somebody hi — but she went deeper. And ... that’s what should be part of her legacy and what people should know about," Cross said.

Topinka’s loyalty, however, also got her into trouble. During her 1995 swearing in, she spent much of her speech thanking family. She also thanked one of her top aides, Martin Kovarik. Topinka named him deputy treasurer, but by the end of the year, she would publicly disavow Kovarik.

The trouble began when Topinka tried to forgive $30 million in state loans made to politically connected hotel developers. That deal was nixed by the attorney general at the time, but not until a staffer alleged Kovarik ordered him to shred a list of the investors.

Topinka later mortgaged her home to help Kovarik pay overdue taxes. But by the end of December, she took the money back and “cut all ties” to her confidante.

I'm not a hater. I have a really big tent. I want everybody in here.

Topinka weathered that series of mini-scandals and was re-elected twice, even as Illinois politics shifted. By 2003, she was the only Republican in a state office, and a moderate in an increasingly conservative party.

"I'm not a hater," Topinka said at that's year's Illinois State Fair. "I have a really big tent. I want everybody in here. I'm not letting anybody off the hook. We're going in here like Star Trek, (where) no people have ever gone before, man. We're not letting any group get past us."

Topinka decided to run for governor in 2006, losing to a significantly better-funded Rod Blagojevich. Nevertheless, she was back in office four years later, this time as comptroller.

Topinka continued her independent streak, embracing causes such as same-sex marriage. She also continued her personal touch, resuming an annual tradition of handing out free cheesecake at the state Capitol. She’d sit in her office, greeting hundreds of politicians and state workers.

“I didn’t know if you saw these, but I do have my cheesecake day house slippers on today," Topinka said to a visitor. "I got skunks. Because with the fiscal news that I bring, I’m sometimes the skunk at the picnic, so I got skunk feet today."

Of course, the reality is Topinka was just the opposite of a skunk at a picnic. The tributes that have followed her death show she was well-liked across the political spectrum.

Her absence from the political scene leaves that unique attribute in considerably shorter supply.