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Naming successor to Topinka could prove a bumpy road

Just hours after learning state Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka had died, politicians on Wednesday were wary of saying too much about choosing her successor — one called it “ghoulish.”

But the carefully chosen words and muted conversations suggested a noisy and very political battle could lie ahead.

Republican Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner declared that the appointment to fill the vacancy caused by Topinka’s death was his to make.

But state lawmakers were considering whether to return to Springfield to enact legislation calling for a special election to fill such constitutional office vacancies.

A proposal under consideration would call for a special election in 2016 – two years earlier than the next scheduled election for state comptroller.

The question over how to fill the position was headed for a political quagmire just hours after Topinka’s sudden death. The veteran Republican politician died early Wednesday from complications after suffering a stroke.

Topinka was elected to a four-year term in November, but the term she is now completing does not end until January.

Rauner agreed that lame-duck Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn held the power to make the immediate appointment to fill what is left of the current term — and said it should go to Topinka’s top aide, Nancy Kimme.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Rauner said it was too early to discuss the possibility of a special election. But he also threw cold water on the idea, making it abundantly clear that he believed he had the power after taking office to appoint someone to Topinka’s full four-year term.

“I don’t think right now is the time to talk about that. I’m sure the lawyers will want to fight about it.” Rauner said, referring to a special election. “I’m not an attorney, but I believe it’s common sense that I would have [the] ability” to make an appointment.”

Then he called on Quinn to appoint Kimme, Topinka’s longtime chief of staff, for the remaining days of Topinka’s term, which is about a month. Kimme is a member of Rauner’s transition team.

“She’d serve the people well,” Rauner said. “And then we can take our time and pick the right person to serve out the four-year term starting in January.”

The death of a constitutional officer post-election, but pre-inauguration has raised a new predicament in Illinois.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is researching a legal opinion on the questions surrounding an appointment.

“To our knowledge, there has not been a vacancy like this, post-election, pre-inauguration, in Illinois,” said spokeswoman Maura Possley. “What we know now is, as of today [Quinn] must appoint.”

Some lawmakers believed the constitution allowed Quinn to appoint for the remainder of Topinka’s current term and Rauner to make the appointment to the full four-year term that is to begin in January.

“This is a day of great sadness and loss for the state. We should take some time to remember her contribution to the state even as we face some unprecedented challenges in the wake of this loss,” said Rikeesha Phelon, spokeswoman to Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago.

However, Cullerton’s office points to the unprecedented nature of a future statewide appointment that could last four years without voter approval.

Lawmakers had adjourned for the year earlier this month. Part of a Wednesday discussion was whether a special session is in order to consider legislation that would trigger a special election to fill a vacancy for constitutional officers.

Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, called talk of a special session “absurd.”

“This was a seat that was won by a Republican. Gov. Quinn has the ability to make an appointment until his last day. I believe then Gov. Rauner has the ability to fill that vacancy following Jan. 12. To do anything otherwise is just an insult to the voters of Illinois,” Durkin said. “We don’t need to return to session to change the law. It’s absurd to even consider that right now.”

One of the considerations for possible legislation is to allow Rauner to appoint in January and hold a special election the following year, in 2016.

That would arguably benefit Democrats, who in Illinois traditionally come out in larger numbers in presidential election years.

The Illinois State Board of Elections said a 2016 special election for Illinois Comptroller could be easily executed at low cost.

“If they integrated that into the 2016 elections, that would be pretty simple to do. That would be a fairly seamless way of doing it,” said Ken Menzel, deputy general counsel with the Illinois State Board of Elections. “There would be a minimal cost factor to that.”

Illinois Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, said the law is clear, in her opinion.

“On Inauguration Day, Bruce Rauner will be sworn in before the comptroller, so that vacancy comes after the governor. So it’s pretty clear that Bruce Rauner will have the power to appoint for the full term,” Radogno said. “To honor Judy’s memory, let’s look at common sense. I think the legalities support that.”

A spokesman for Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan appeared to agree with Radogno’s interpretation.
”That’s the law, I don’t have to agree with it. I’m in the agreement with the law. The law is the law,” said Madigan spokesman Steve Brown. “Both governors will have an opportunity to fill the vacancy,” Quinn in the near-term and Rauner in the long-term, he said.

The Illinois Constitution says if the comptroller office becomes vacant, “the governor shall fill the office by appointment. The appointee shall hold office until the elected officer qualifies or until a successor is elected and qualified as may be provided by law and shall not be subject to removal by the governor.”

The names of possible replacements are already swirling. They include Republican Tom Cross, who narrowly lost his bid against Mike Frerichs for Illinois Treasurer, and Democrat Sheila Simon, who lost to Topinka in the November election.

Durkin called the quick jump to politics “ghoulish.”

“Judy Baar Topinka died this morning. The fact that people are already jockeying and talking about her succession, to me is disrespectful and a bit ghoulish,” Durkin said. “The woman served for decades in the state. I think it would be better off reflecting on her contribution to the state of Illinois rather than … a convoluted selection process.”

Meanwhile, Republican Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford said his staff is working “hand in glove” with the comptroller’s office and “there will not be a hiccup in regards to operations of the finances of the state. We’ve had a very dramatic good working relationship in the two offices. I’m very sorry for the loss of Judy, but we are going to be able to continue the operations and have our staffs work together.”

Rutherford said there are certain things — such as dealing with payrolls — that the treasurer and comptroller need to both sign off on to advance the financial responsibilities of the state. He said he attended meetings Wednesday morning at the Thompson Center to sort out how legally to move forward with state business until a replacement comptroller has been named.

Contributing: Mitch Dudek