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Fiery Topinka had common touch, could cross partisan divide

Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka died Wednesday morning. | Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times

Judy Baar Topinka was your friend, almost your relation, “a kooky old aunt” in the words of one-time opponent Rod Blagojevich, nailing the 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 issues.

Topinka died at 2 a.m. Wednesday according to Sun-Times reports. 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 to hold the office 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.”

RELATED: Twitter pays tribute to Judy Baar Topinka

Governor-elect Bruce Rauner early Wednesday issued a statement 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.”

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. Venomous 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.

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

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 also was immensely quotable. How could you not love a politician who in 2006 called her Republican opponents “morons” and referred to Blagojevich’s “little weasel eyes”?

She was raised in Berwyn and lived in Riverside. Her parents, William and Lillian Baar, were the children of immigrants, and Czech was spoken in her home growing up. 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 are a reporter but, aghast at the political 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, the first Republican treasurer in Illinois since 1962. She was re-elected two times 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 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 was divorced, and is survived by a son, Joseph, and a granddaughter, Alexandra Faith Baar Topinka.