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From the Right: Remembering Judy Baar Topinka

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Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka was a true leader in Illinois, providing the blueprint for winning as a Republican in Illinois.

by Justin Shimko

The State of Illinois lost a fantastic woman early Wednesday morning as Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka passed away suddenly after suffering a stroke just the day before. The news shocked the Prairie State as Topinka had been one of the very few Republicans to maintain statewide appeal, winning the conservatives’ hearts with her fiscal conservatism  sometimes the lone voice decrying the sad state of finances amidst tax-and-spenders from both sides of the aisle in Springfield  while also receiving acclaim from liberals for her early and active positions on abortion and gay rights. Sadly, that voice is now silent.

Judy Baar TopinkaI was fortunate to have met Topinka earlier this year. As an on-screen announcer for the Houby Day Parade in Cicero and Berwyn, Topinka joined several other political candidates to march down Cermak Avenue, a ritual known far and wide in this country during election season. For many, it’s a once-every-election ordeal, with parade counts rising as November approaches. But not for Topinka. Her appearance in Houby Day was seemingly as frequent as the parade itself. Part of it, I believe, had to do with Houby Day being a celebration of Czech and Slovak heritage, of which Topinka, like myself, proudly claimed. But another, more important, reason was her dedication to be among the people. She never missed the Bud Billiken Parade in Chicago’s South Side nor the Gay Pride Parade in the north. Her desire to be out among people seen to be on the fringes of the Republican Party is what made her such a great leader for the ailing organization in this state.

During a time when people are trying to figure out if the GOP has a pulse in this state, her loss is greater than ever. Topinka showed that being a true Republican can resonate with voters in Chicago just as much as it does in Fairfield. Her stance on reducing the government’s interference in our private lives while maintaining responsible governance in the public sphere made her the true leader of the state GOP, despite the anger it brought to many conservatives who despised her stances on social issues. That anger, which turned into non-votes in the 2006 election, is probably the biggest reason she couldn’t beat then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich despite all his troubles. It didn’t stop Topinka, however, nor force her to change her position one bit.

Her comeback four years later to the office of comptroller, after four years of parades and her straight talk on the dismal state of Illinois’ fiscal health earned her the unique distinction of being the only woman to hold two statewide elected constitutional offices in Illinois, having been treasurer for two terms prior to her 2006 gubernatorial run. And her honesty gained notoriety almost immediately as she had no problem saying that the two offices she held should really be one, advocating for the elimination of her own elected position.

But Topinka was always outgoing and willing to do the outrageous as long as she was having a good time. She was famous for doing the polka with then-Gov. George Ryan. Her attempts to dance with then-Vice President Dick Chaney still brings a chuckle, if only because of the image of the dour Chaney forced to have a good time with the outgoing Topinka. Her stance on gay rights irked the right wing of the GOP, but was her honest stance.

That focus on fiscal issues is what made her popular among Independents and moderate Republicans. It’s the same focus Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner displayed in his recent victory, a win that proved Topinka-Republicanism is the type of politics that can push the GOP back into competitiveness in Illinois. It’s the type of politics that will be missing one more dutiful servant come January when Springfield comes alive again to try and resolve a punishing fiscal crisis. Rauner’s efforts to repair the state’s fiscal outlook just got a little bit harder.

It just won’t be the same without her.

Justin Shimko

Justin Shimko is an award-winning writer and political analyst. He began as a reporter in his college days at the University of Oklahoma, writing for The Oklahoma Daily (rated as one of the best collegiate newspapers in the nation) and The Oklahoman, the statewide newspaper, winning awards from the CSPA and the Society of Professional Journalists. He later moved on to research and writing work for a number of political campaigns. His email is [email protected]