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Gov. Quinn appoints longtime aide as Illinois comptroller

Jerry Stermer, chief of staff to Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, testifies during a House Personnel and Pensions Committee hearing at the Illinois State Capitol Tuesday, May 29, 2012 in Springfield. | AP file

Gov. Pat Quinn on Friday appointed a longtime aide, Jerry Stermer, as the new state comptroller to finish out the late Judy Baar Topinka’s term which ends in less than a month.

The announcement comes one day after the governor called back lawmakers for a special session on Jan. 8 to take up legislation that would set a 2016 special election to replace Topinka long term.

Topinka, 70, died earlier this month from complications after a stroke.

“The people should elect a successor to Judy Baar Topinka as soon as possible,” Quinn said at the news conference. “I truly believe that’s what Judy would want. That the people make the selection to fill out her term. And in the meantime we have to deal with this issue immediately.”

Stermer, Quinn’s budget director, said he would resign Jan. 12, when Topinka’s current term ends. Quinn said he wanted to avoid any protracted litigation: “We want to avoid any kind of constitutional law case. I think that is in the best interest of the people at this time.”

Rauner will be able to choose his own appointment. And a special session in January will determine whether that appointee will be able to serve out a four-year term, something Quinn is trying to stop.

Quinn said he chose Stermer as someone who could work well with the current staff in the comptroller’s office. Topinka’s chief of staff, Nancy Kimme, will remain in her job. When asked if he didn’t choose Kimme, a part of Rauner’s transition team, merely because she was Rauner’s pick, Quinn dismissed the notion and said he chose Stermer as a show of bipartisanship.

Stermer, 71, joined Quinn’s staff in February 2009 and has also served as senior adviser.

Quinn said Stermer and Topinka share similar values, like “valuing every day people.” He called Stermer a “people person who cares about the most vulnerable.”

On Thursday, a spokesman for Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner warned an election to replace Topinka in 2016 could result in “costly litigation.” Rauner’s camp believes he should appoint someone to serve out the entire new, four-year term that Topinka recently won.

“The only route to enact a special election for a statewide officeholder that is absolutely consistent with the constitution is passing a constitutional amendment,” Rauner spokesman Mike Schrimpf said. “Additionally, any major change like this should apply to all future vacancies and be carefully and thoughtfully discussed — not rushed through in a last-minute special session that would look overtly political.”

But Quinn on Thursday said that claims a special election to set an election date for the race is unconstitutional are “absolutely wrong.”

“They ought to read the Constitution. Read the debates of the Constitutional Convention. I think it’s crystal clear that for the people of Illinois, that our elected representatives and senators have a right through the General Assembly to set a special election for this office, to set it as soon as possible in 2016, to let the people make the decision who their comptroller would be,” Quinn said. “I just totally disagree with what I heard yesterday and I was frankly very disappointed in their failure to listen to the people.

Rauner applauded Quinn’s move to fill the short-term vacancy in a statement.

“Appointing a temporary placeholder and keeping Judy Baar Topinka’s staff in place is an appropriate decision and will ensure continuity of services for the people of Illinois – for that I thank the governor,” Rauner said. “I know Jerry Stermer will be well served by Nancy Kimme and the team in the comptroller’s office.”

Earlier this week, Attorney General Lisa Madigan said voters should have a hand in choosing a successor to Topinka, a Republican, with a special election in 2016.

Madigan also said that there were two vacancies — one involving the remainder of Topinka’s current term. The other begins on Jan. 12, which is Rauner’s appointment to make.