- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 10, 2014

CHICAGO (AP) - Judy Baar Topinka built a pioneering political career on a salty sense of humor and penny-pinching personality, making a name for herself as a moderate Republican unafraid to break party lines as she endeared herself to Illinois voters for more than three decades.

Just weeks after being re-elected to watch over the state’s checkbook as Illinois comptroller, Topinka died early Wednesday from complications of a stroke. She was 70.

Her victory in November became the last chapter in a political career like few others in state history. Topinka was the only woman to hold two different statewide offices, having also served as three-term state treasurer after several years in the Illinois Legislature. In 2006, she was Illinois’ GOP chairman and nominee for governor, but lost her bid to become the state’s first female chief executive to Democrat Rod Blagojevich.

Her moxie even helped her remain popular - and in office - during a period in the 2000s when she was the lone Republican statewide officeholder in a Democratic stronghold.

“There’s never going to be another Judy Baar Topinka,” former GOP Gov. Jim Edgar said. “State treasurer, comptroller - for the most part people don’t know those offices (but) Judy had a personality that people knew her and remembered her.”

President Barack Obama, who knew Topinka when he was a state senator, issued a statement calling her “blunt, pragmatic, unfailingly cheerful and energetic, and always willing to put politics aside to find commonsense solutions that made a difference for the people of Illinois.”

Topinka accomplished it all with a style that made people smile and cringe - sometimes simultaneously. Outside of office, she treated her dogs to McDonald’s cheeseburgers, played accordion and loved to dance to polka music.

She was known to refer to opponents as “morons” and when she ran for governor, she accused Blagojevich of having “weasel eyes.” At her first inauguration, Topinka famously told a joke about flatulence.

Not one to toe the party line, she supported abortion rights and gay marriage, once offering gay couples her services as a flower girl - free of charge.

“In a political world of cocker spaniels she could be a bulldog, taking a bite out of both Democrats and right-wing Republicans…” said U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, who called her Illinois’ “polka queen.”

Topinka, who would have been sworn in for a second term as comptroller next month, reported discomfort Tuesday morning and was admitted to a Berwyn hospital, spokesman Brad Hahn said. She appeared to be doing well in the evening before losing consciousness. She was pronounced dead shortly after 2 a.m. Wednesday. Her son, Joseph Topinka, was with her.

By law, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn has the authority to appoint a replacement. But Quinn leaves office next month, raising a question about whether he can fill the post for the next four years or just the next month.

Topinka was born in 1944 to William and Lillian Baar, the children of Czech and Slovak immigrants. They lived in Riverside, near blue-collar Chicago suburbs that were centers for Eastern European immigrants. Lillian Baar ran a real estate business while William served in World War II, and continued to do so after his return.

Topinka’s father hammered home the message that she could pursue any career she wanted.

“He would always tell me, ‘Don’t be a clinging vine. A man neither needs nor wants that,’” she once told the AP.

She also brought to public office a work ethic she learned from her parents and neighbors, who saved up and didn’t buy what they couldn’t afford, said Jack Kubik, a friend and a former state representative from the western suburbs. She frequently bragged about finding great deals at yard sales and thrift shops.

“She was very careful with other people’s money and balancing budgets was not just a punch line with her,” he said.

She earned a journalism degree from Northwestern University and became a reporter for a suburban Chicago newspaper chain. She married and had a son, but divorced in 1981 after 16 years.

The same year, she began a four-year stint in the Illinois House, which she sought because she said corrupt officials were ignoring the community’s needs. She later spent 10 years as a state senator before running for state treasurer.

As state party chairman in 2006, she stepped forward to run for governor amid a mounting political scandal involving former Gov. George Ryan, a fellow Republican who eventually was convicted of corruption. During the campaign, Blagojevich ran ads showing Topinka and Ryan dancing the polka together.

Topinka described her job as comptroller as being a “skunk at a picnic” - a reference to the task of writing checks for a state that was billions of dollars on its bills. But she wore her reputation for being tight-fisted proudly.

“I was just on a hunt (in thrift stores) for a can-opener for my house in Springfield,” she told the AP during her final campaign.” If I don’t have to go out there and spend a lot of money, I won’t.”


Associated Press Writer Caryn Rousseau contributed to this report.

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