Like so many Illinoisans, I was deeply saddened to hear State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka passed away early this morning at the age of 70.
Topinka began her career in public service years before I was even born. With a degree from the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism and a background in reporting and editing, she entered public life by running for an Illinois State House seat in 1980. She won that election and went on to serve in both houses of the Illinois General Assembly before getting elected to statewide office for this first time in 1994. She served as Illinois state Treasurer for 12 years, being re-elected twice, before running for governor in 2006, the first Illinois governor’s race I was old enough to vote in. Judy Baar Topinka was the first Illinois Republican candidate I ever supported or voted for. I could even make the case that Judy Baar Topinka and her 2006 gubernatorial campaign is one of the reasons I ended up being a Republican.
My mother and most of the women in my home neighborhood were enthusiastic to finally have the option to vote for a woman as the state’s chief executive. They felt they could identify with Judy, as they called her, and they would finally have a leader of the state that knew what it was like to be a mother, a working woman and a community leader. Topinka’s political style was also very different from what I had seen in other politicians. Where others were stiff, boring and cold, Topinka was charismatic, enthusiastic and warm. I only met her in passing during the 2006 campaign; but, she made an impression on me. This was someone to look up to and aspire to become. Even in defeat, she was clearly the better candidate in that race, a fact the state found out the hard way years later.
I must have met Judy Baar Topinka a dozen times or more over the years of being involved in local media, political action groups and the Chicago Young Republicans. She was always excited to meet young professionals and find out what we thought about the state as well as offer advice for our careers. If you had 5 minutes, she had a story for you and the younger you were, the more she wanted to teach. My conversations with her never lasted more than a few minutes because she was being ushered off to another event or meeting; but, 5 minutes talking to Judy Baar Topinka was more valuable than an hour with most political leaders.
Some state Republicans used to refer to Topinka as a moderate Republican, using the term in a derogatory manner. In fact, she was an inclusive Republican and a winner as opposed to the exclusive wing of the party who have turned into chronic Election Night losers. Where others tried to push issues that kept people out of the party, Topinka threw open the doors and invited anyone with a small government heart to come in. When men in the party were uncomfortable with a woman running for chief executive, she proved them wrong and outdated. Topinka knew how to win with grace and how to govern with compromise once she did.
As Treasurer (the first woman to ever hold the office in Illinois), she managed state investments that earned more than $2 billion and received Standard and Poor’s highest bond rating. She also introduced the Bright Start Program, which helps parents and grandparents invest their dollars in a tax-free savings account for their child’s college education.
As Comptroller, one of her tangible achievements was setting a new standard for transparency by creating the Ledger, an up-to-date, comprehensive online financial database that is available to every taxpayer. Using the Ledger, residents can see everything from daily balances and state bill backlogs to all employee salaries. Everyone from reporters to private citizens has been able to use this database to see what is really going on with state expenses. This is exactly the kind of transparency required to earn back the trust of a doubtful public.
Some complained that Topinka was too old to continue serving, yet she was the one who modernized the Comptroller’s Office, transitioning to electronic payments and record keeping, saving the state millions in paper and postage alone.
Perhaps Topinka was ahead of her time and can only now be appreciated in the context of what Illinois politics has become. Today’s national and state leaders can learn a thing or two from Topinka’s legacy of compromise and treating people (friend or foe) with dignity and respect. Illinois is a better place because she lived and served here. We will all miss her, young and old alike. We can honor her memory by trying to be more like her, showing enthusiasm for public service and kindness toward everyone.
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