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Fiery Topinka had common touch, could cross partisan divide

Judy Baar Topinka was your friend, almost your relation, “a kooky old aunt” in the words of one-time opponent Rod Blagojevich, nailing the sense of kinship but missing the love that Illinoisans felt for her.

With her red-dyed hair and her thrift shop clothing, Topinka was like no other politician in the state. She played the accordion and danced the polka, once with Dick Cheney. She smoked cigarettes, she guzzled coffee, adored her dogs, and at lunch with a reporter was just as apt to pull out photographs of her adored son as to discuss financial issues, of which she had a mastery that sometimes got overlooked because of her folksy demeanor.

Topinka died at 2 a.m. Wednesday. She had suffered discomfort and gone to the hospital in Berwyn where she was undergoing tests when she suffered a stroke. She was 70.

She was Illinois treasurer for 12 years — the first woman treasurer in Illinois — and newly re-elected comptroller, having defeated Sheila Simon in a tough race. She was also the former chairwoman of the Illinois Republican Party.

But her importance as a statewide figure came, not so much from her offices or her duties, as from the force of her personality. She was a brash, colorful, plain-speaking, competent, energetic product of Chicago’s near western suburbs, someone who, in an era of bitter partisan divides, wore her Republicanism easily and staunchly supported gay and reproductive rights.

“I’m just a political mutt,” she said, during the last election, noting that voters could relate to her. “They think I’m straight-talking — one of them. I haven’t forgotten where I came from. They feel a familiar relationship. And I like that. I’ve come up the hard way.”

Leaders from across the spectrum mourned the passing of Topinka.

Barack Obama entered the Illinois state senate three years after Topinka left.

“Judy was an institution in Illinois politics,” Obama said in a statement issued by the White House. “Judy was a fierce advocate for her constituents, which I got to see firsthand when she was State Treasurer … She was blunt, pragmatic, unfailingly cheerful and energetic, and always willing to put politics aside to find commonsense solutions that made a difference for the people of Illinois. She will be greatly missed. Michelle and I extend our deepest sympathies to Judy’s family, friends and constituents today.”

Governor-elect Bruce Rauner issued a statement early Wednesday, mourning Topinka.

“Illinois lost one of its all-time greats,” Rauner said. “Comptroller Topinka’s magnetic, one-of-a-kind personality brought a smile to everyone she met, and she had a servant’s heart, always only caring about what was best for the people of our state.”

“She was a good friend,” said former Gov. George Ryan, who praised her devotion as a “very good public servant … her main programs were ‘How much is it going to cost?’ and ‘Where is the money coming from?’ She was a great watchdog for the taxpayers.”

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When she ran for governor in 2006, Topinka was the first woman to be put up for that office by the Illinois GOP. She lost to Gov. Rod Blagojevich. TV commercials showed a clip of her dancing the polka at the Illinois State Fair with ex-Gov. George Ryan, newly convicted of 18 counts of federal corruption, and tried to tie her to her old boss.

“I dance the polka with everyone,” she explained.

“She was always a lot of fun to be with on the campaign trail,” Ryan said Wednesday. “Occasionally she’d bring her accordion along and play polka music. Occasionally she’d grab me to do a polka dance.”

Topinka constantly sent journalists a string of clippings of their work, which she would scribble over with compliments and observations, tucked into a rectangular paper folder. She had been a journalist herself, writing a regular column in the Riverside/Brookfield Landmark newspaper. She was also immensely quotable. How could you not love a politician who in 2006 called her Republican opponents “morons” and referred to Rod Blagojevich’s “little weasel eyes”?

She was raised in Berwyn and lived in Riverside. Her parents, William and Lillian Baar, were the children of Czechoslovakian immigrants, and ran Baar and Baar Realty for nearly half a century. Topinka graduated from Ferry Hall, a private girls prep school in Lake Forest in 1962, then went to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. She began her career as a reporter but, aghast at the corruption she saw, she ran for the State Legislature in 1980, spending four years in the Illinois House and 10 years in the Senate.

In 1994, she was swept into the treasurer’s office on the coattails of Jim Edgar; Topinka became the first Republican treasurer in Illinois since 1962. She was re-elected twice and served until 2007. She was first elected comptroller in 2010, was re-elected in 2014, and was proud of her efforts to modernize the comptroller’s office.

“We have done some really remarkable things with this office,” she said in September. “We are dealing with a 19th-century office that we have to get into the 21st century.”

She brought a joy to the dry fiscal aspects of her job and stressed the importance of sound management.

“You need people who really want to be in those offices and want to deal with fiscal matters of the state, which I happen to like,” she told the southern Illinoisan during the recent election. “I liked being treasurer, I love being comptroller … we hold the whole place together.”

She was divorced, and is survived by a son, Joseph, and a granddaughter, Alexandra Faith Baar Topinka.