Illinois lost a treasure this week with the sudden passing of state comptroller Judy Baar Topinka (R – Riverside), a political institution in the state who never tried to be anyone other than herself.
Once described by incarcerated former Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) as the “kooky old aunt” of Illinois politics, Topinka was certainly known for her flamboyant personality, as well as her unwavering dedication to public service and a willingness to tackle problems in a practical and non-partisan manner.
She was first elected comptroller in 2010, but her political career started much earlier. First, with stints in each chamber of the state house, and then in three terms as the state’s treasurer before running for governor in 2006.
Unfortunately, for all of us, she lost to Blagojevich in that race, despite the Democrat being under federal investigation. We only have ourselves to blame for that result.
She was different, but in the best ways. She was a pro-choice Republican, yet understood the vital importance of living within our means. This is how she acted in her professional life as well as her personal life. A frugal person, Judy often bought her clothing from thrift stores.
An ardent supporter of gay rights, Judy was present last year when Gov. Quinn (D – Chicago) signed the marriage equality bill into law. When she had her turn to speak at the signing ceremony, she proudly offered her services as a flower girl to gay and lesbian couples. Politicians don’t say stuff like that. Topinka did all the time.
It is rare to find a politician as open and candid as Topinka was. She was a straight shooter who, as NBC’S Carol Marin put it, “worked in a no-BS zone.”
With the problems that this state has, Topinka was a breath of fresh air willing to discuss the mountain of debt and the pile of unpaid bills Illinois has accumulated. Neither Gov. Quinn nor Gov.-elect Rauner addressed the problem directly during the campaign.
To honor the memory of a woman who gave so much to the state of Illinois, leaders — Republican and Democrat — need to cut the crap, get out of the BS zone, and get to work. A little blunt? Absolutely. Just like Topinka.
And with regards to the vacancy left in the comptroller’s office, no governor should have the power to appoint a constitutional officer that is elected separately to a full four year term. That would be an injustice to Topinka’s memory and a disservice to the people of Illinois.
As a practical matter, Gov. Quinn should appoint someone to finish out the current term, and then Gov.-elect Rauner should appoint someone to serve in the office until a special election can be held to find a permanent comptroller.
Despite whatever plays out in the legally unprecedented situation that the state is now in, Topinka is someone who will be missed. She was a trailblazer to so many, yet so down to Earth that she could simply be known as Judy.