Archives: 1995 Judy Baar Topinka Profile

Dec 10, 2014

Judy Baar Topinka
Credit Comptroller website

The following article ran in the March 1995 Illinois Issues magazine:

In a convention center filled with thousands of blue-suited, straitlaced Republicans, leave it to Judy Baar Topinka to tell a fart joke.

The elite of Illinois' GOP were gathered in Springfield for the January inauguration of the six constitutional officers. Having swept the state's top posts, the partisan crowd was in a celebratory make that downright giddy mood for the day's pomp and circumstance.

This exuberance, though, didn't prepare the audience for the new state treasurer's quip about enduring ham-and-bean dinners while campaigning in a small van. Even a few veteran reporters, long accustomed to off-color jokes, had to question her timing, if not her taste.

But don't let Topinka's up-front, seemingly reckless manner fool you. In the past, some have tried to write off the political chances of this blunt-speaking Czech, only to watch her surge ahead.

She doesn't look or act like a traditional suburban Republican politician: She whips around the Capitol in spiky auburn hair. She wears athletic shoes, and swears by her wardrobe culled from Goodwill racks. She travels the state with a pet rabbit in tow. She publicly questions the policies and attitudes of her party's leaders. But Topinka is smart and savvy, even calculating when need be. It would be a mistake to underestimate her political potential.

"I think a lot of Republicans look at me as an eccentric, an aberration the king's fool," she says. "What people forget is that the king's fool used to have a major role in making policy.

Judy Baar Topinka may be considered eccentric in some GOP quarters, but she's nobody's fool. The new state treasurer built her suburban political base the old-fashioned way: by making contacts and attending to details. She first won office against the odds, serving terms in both legislative chambers. Last November, she beat the political odds again. She's the first woman to hold the treasurer's post, a traditional launching pad for higher statewide office. So, while some Republicans may see her as the king's fool, she says, "What people forget is that the king's fool used to have a major role in making policy."

But he was never the one who lost his head afterward."

Long before she entered politics, Topinka began building a political base in her hometown of Riverside and in the surrounding western suburbs an enclave of Croatian, Czech and other Eastern European immigrants. Growing up in a Czech-speaking household fostered deep pride in her heritage; she now says she may be the highest-ranking Czech politician in the United States.

Topinka's outspoken nature was fostered early in life. She grew up an only child, and needed a big mouth, she says, to out-shout older and louder family members. She put her gutsiness to use as a frequent guest on her mother's Czech radio show.

After earning a journalism degree from Northwestern University in 1966, Topinka became a reporter and editor for the Life newspaper chain in the Chicago suburbs.

She wasn't one to report on issues and events from a distance. State Rep. Jack Kubik, whose family is part-owner of the newspaper chain, recalls Topinka the journalist as more advocate than observer  someone who wasn't satisfied just to sit on the sidelines.

"Judy was different from reporters today, who tend to be more impartial," he says. "She really got out there and got involved she took a stand on things."

Other legislative colleagues agree that Topinka's reporting days put her in touch with the right people to make a run for office. "She knew everything that was going on and everyone knew her," says former state Sen. Virginia Macdonald of Arlington Heights. "The people at the top of the political organizations and the people at the grassroots. Everybody knew Judy."

After years spent covering park commissions and school boards, Topinka was convinced she could run the public's business better than those who were doing it. "In most cases you had a lot of amateurs who were out there who were fumbling all over," she says. "In some cases they were well-intentioned; in some cases they were openly corrupted."

Her overriding goal was and remains to correct abuses whenever possible. In the Senate she worked long and hard to reform the state's much-maligned purchasing system that allows politicians to reward friends and campaign contributors with public contracts. She was criticized for giving up too easily when it looked as though the reforms were going nowhere; she says she just knew when to quit.

"I don't believe in tilting at windmills," she says. "I'm willing to do the nagging that's needed to get things done, but I also know when something's a lost cause. I don't like wasting my time."

Topinka's first success at the ballot box taught local political powers-that-be they were wrong to dismiss her; she proved herself to be someone who chased her ambitions, against the odds.

It was 1980, and she was the only woman running in a seven-way race to fill a retiring state representative's seat. "I peddled my wares to all my committeemen, but I had one who told me I had no right to run because I was a woman," she says. "And this wasn't even that long ago. He told me basically to go home and bake cakes." Instead of openly fighting him, Topinka recalls, she asked the committeeman to take pity on her cash-poor campaign and leave her alone, since she surely would be crushed in the wide field.

"That was his mistake," she says. "Because he did leave me alone. And out of that field of six males and me, I won by a 30,000-vote margin. Because I got out and worked my tail off. Whenever we saw two or more people, I went over and gave a speech. I courted women's votes. I wanted it, and I went after it."

After two terms in the House, Topinka had become so popular in her district that she was able to run unopposed for the state Senate. Her habit of constantly dashing off notes to people on subjects of interest to them cemented her reputation as someone who pays attention. Often, it was the "little things" that made her memorable to supporters issues that seemed almost comical on the surface, but were important to her. Her recent campaign to move former president Ulysses S. Grant's body from New York to Illinois spurred lots of snickers, but lots of media attention, too.

What stands out most to Kubik, who used to share a district office with Topinka, was the time she convinced Gov. Jim Thompson to schlepp his six-and-a-half-foot frame through a broken-down sewer in her district.

It seems that Topinka made such a long and loud ... well, stink ... about the Brookfield sewer system's deteriorating condition during the early '80s that Thompson decided to take an underground tour. Television crews and reporters were eager to capture Big Jim traipsing beneath Ogden Avenue. But a heavy rain the previous evening flooded the sewer, giving Thompson a reprieve from the fetid journey.

"The idea that the governor of Illinois would be willing to spend time going through a sewer was unbelievable," recalls Kubik, laughing. "Everyone was talking about it. For a long time she was known as The Sewer Lady."

Kind of a funny moniker for a person in public office. Especially one representing suburbia. What wasn't funny was that Topinka's antics helped win a $3 million appropriation to repair the crumbling sewer lines, and the subsequent adoration of local officials and residents who had long complained of the problem. Her means may have been unorthodox, but her end was right on target.

If Topinka caught Thompson's attention, he certainly caught hers. In fact, their styles have been compared: Both are flamboyant, somewhat freewheeling, and know when to glad-hand to get what they want.

"I just loved to watch him operate," she says. "It was a delight. Even on a situation where we disagreed, like on White Sox park, I had to admire his ability to lobby lawmakers, to get down on the floor and do some arm-twisting. That's the way I'd do it if I wanted something.

"He could easily have been a big brother to me. He was very helpful during the treasurer's campaign; he helped us fund-raise."

Her relations with Gov. Jim Edgar may not be as warm. During the 1994 campaign, she angered his camp by saying she feared state revenues would be more than $ 1 billion short of spending in the current fiscal year. Topinka says the press made a bigger deal of that statement than did Edgar, but it remains to be seen if and how her blunt assessment will affect their relationship. Already since her election, she said she would challenge Edgar's policy of avoiding "bidding wars" with other states to bring businesses and jobs to Illi-

Topinka uses treasurer' post to promote orphanages

Several years ago, after she was elected to the state legislature, Judy Baar Topinka had an enlightening conversation with a constituent who worked with abused children.

He told her it seemed these children didn't belong anywhere. The Department of Children and Family Services often lacked places to house them, and the courts usually sent them back where they came from. It was a heartbreaking cycle for him to watch.

"Finally he told me, 'You know. We " never used to have these problems when we had orphanages,'" Topinka recalls. "And you know what? He was absolutely right."

That talk prompted Topinka to find out what others thought about bringing back the orphanage concept. Through the National Conference of State Legislatures, she learned many states' officials were having the same trouble caring properly for a significant segment of young people those whose families didn't want them or whose families were deemed unfit to care for them.

"As we sit here wringing our hands and saying, "Oh, what are we going to do with these kids,' these kids are growing up," she says. "They're not staying in a holding pattern. We're just losing them. There are adults today who went through orphanages a long time ago, and they turned out to be great citizens."

As state treasurer, Topinka wants to help bring more orphanages to Illinois not just in the traditional mode of sprawling buildings housing hundreds of kids, but in small "group homes" too. She's talking with banks and social service agencies like Catholic Charities and the Jewish Federation to set up a linked deposit program, an idea embraced by Topinka's predecessor, former Treasurer Pat Quinn. Under the program, the state would deposit money in banks that agree to make low-interest loans to social groups interested in building orphanages.

"People need money to make this happen, and we've got the money we can invest. By law we're entitled to invest a portion of our money in things that promote the community good. This to me qualifies as 'community good.'

"I'm trying to jump-start this because I see a sluggish attitude toward orphanages," she says. "There's an acceptance that they'll work under the guise of 'group homes.' I don't care what you call them, they're still orphanages. I use the term orphanages because people know what we're talking about.

"And there is a role for the orphanage to play. It's not the first line of defense, because obviously you try to keep a family intact that's still best. Then the extended family. Then you go into potential adoption. If that doesn't work you go to foster care. And if that doesn't work you have to go to new answers. Like orphanages."

Jennifer Halperin

nois a tactic that Thompson used several times.

"Gov. Edgar is more reserved [than Thompson]," she says. "He's a very capable person, but he's more straight-laced, more administrative. Edgar and I do not have a bad relationship. It's not a close relationship, but it's not a bad relationship. It's a good business relationship."

Now that she's won her battle for treasurer one that was expected to be captured by her Democratic opponent.  Topinka wants to live up to her self-proclaimed reputation of "cheapness." In her first several days in office, she bragged about saving the state $90,000 through policy changes. For example, she says the state saved $32,000 in premiums by insuring bonds through the state instead of private insurance agencies.

Yet at the same time, she raised eyebrows by spending relatively big bucks to hire people she felt would convey her message best to the media and public at large. She lured two Statehouse reporters to become her spokesmen with annual salaries of $65,000 each, while her predecessor's press liaison left his post at $49,500.

If Topinka's publicists live up to their paychecks, her generosity could pay off in good will and name recognition with the Illinois voters. Although she doesn't want to talk about future political runs, she is talking about issues that transcend her office. She suggests steering unwanted children into orphanages, an idea that got her interviewed for a lead story on "60 Minutes" earlier this year. Topinka says she's been an advocate of orphanages for years, ever since she concluded there is no alternative for abandoned children in our society.

Hearing such frank talk about non-monetary matters, one can't help but wonder whether she'll use the treasurer's office as a stepping stone. The post has long been a springboard to higher office for Illinois pols. Former governors Len Small and William Stratton each served as treasurer before moving up the constitutional ladder. And Adiai Stevenson III and Alan Dixon each handled the state's money before climbing to the U.S. Senate. So it's not a big stretch for pundits and pals alike to tout her for everything from secretary of state to a run at U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun's seat in 1996.

In the meantime, it appears that Topinka need only stay well-connected with insiders as she builds a name for herself across the state.

Although she calls herself a "glad-hander," she struck close Senate colleagues as more of a diligent worker than one to press the flesh when it wasn't campaign time.

"She's not one for the cocktail circuit," says state Sen. Adeline Geo-Karis of Zion. Topinka honored Geo-Karis by asking her to administer the oath for the treasurer's office. "A million times I'd leave my Capitol office at 7 o'clock, and Judy would still be working. She gives things her all, and that's how she won her current office. She makes sure she does her homework. She doesn't go for the fancy dinners and parties."

Indeed, Topinka says she usually grabs her evening meals off a rack at Hometown Pantry when she's working. And to sustain her during the day: coffee and Rolaids, plus a drawer full of bear-shaped cookie-type snacks left over from her campaign. "Staleness is a listed ingredient on these things," she tells visitors.

In this manner, she eschews the stereotyped "country-club Republican" image. At times, she's shown little patience for some members of her party, whom she has labeled "spoiled brats." Minor things can get under her skin. In her last year as a senator, for example, a freshman colleague raised her ire by repeatedly failing to close the toilet lid on a unisex bathroom in a Senate hallway. Staff members' efforts to convince the senator to change his habits went nowhere, so Topinka stepped in. "I can't deal with this kind of crap," she said at the time. "Some of these [suburban Republicans] are just babies who are used to their mommies and wives picking up after them and wiping their bottoms for them. That's not something I'm going to do."

And yet despite her blunt, unpolished, everywoman image, it is Topinka's political sophistication after all that has gotten her where she is.

State Sen. Penny Severns of Decatur, who ran for lieutenant governor on the Democratic ticket last year, recalls asking Topinka to sign on to a bill allowing people to donate money to breast cancer research by checking their income tax form.

"Her first reaction," Sevems recalls, "was, 'No, I don't like check-offs.' Then I said, 'Oh, that's too bad because you'd be the only woman senator not on board.'"

Not the best political position for a strong woman with ambitions to hold statewide office.

Topinka quickly signed on.

It's all part of the political game: You get your name on the right legislation. You make a name for yourself among your constituents. You travel the state in a small, crowded van. And sometimes, if you're among the very few who can pull it off, you surprise the hell out of your fellow game-players. You can afford to tell a fart joke.