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Thursday, Feb. 23, 2006 07:04 am

Leader of the pachyderms

Why Judy Baar Topinka says she should be your next governor

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With her short red tresses, sturdy build, raspy voice and forthright manner, Judy Baar Topinka could easily be mistaken for a favorite aunt who happily dishes to her nephews about the birds and the bees. Like that same aunt, Topinka doesn’t let anything, be it lunch or smokes, go to waste. Don’t let her forget that salad that she purchased earlier when she travels to Chicago tomorrow, she reminds a staffer. “If I bought it, I’m gonna eat it,” Topinka says. As for the cigarette burning in an ashtray on the table in front of her, “it’ll be out in three shakes,” she says, “but since they cost so much, I do want to finish it.” Judging from the odor in the windowless conference room at her Springfield campaign headquarters on Monroe Street, it’s not Topinka’s first smoke of the night, nor will it be the last. It’s hard to tell whether it’s the cigarettes calming her nerves these days or the fact that before Topinka formally announced that she’d run, she was pegged as the favorite to take the party’s nomination in the 2006 Illinois gubernatorial race — but she hasn’t looked back since. Part of Topinka’s job as Illinois’ banker is to educate the public about financial matters, a task that the treasurer seems to be devoting more and more time to, judging from the flood of news releases from her press officers. She also invests and keeps tabs on the piggy bank to get the most bang for the state’s tax buck. By most standards, she’s doing a fine job of it. First elected treasurer in 1994, Topinka is the last Republican hanging on to a constitutionally elected office in a once-red state that’s getting bluer with each election. That she weathered the political storm of George Ryan’s downfall, the election of Rod Blagojevich as the first Democratic governor in a generation, and the election in 2004 of ultraliberal Barack Obama makes Topinka the state party’s dream candidate to take (back?) the governor’s mansion this year. With his poll numbers sagging under the weight of potential scandal, Topinka may also be the worst nightmare of incumbent Blagojevich, who lately gets about as much love in downstate Illinois as St. Louis’ boys of summer do in the North Chicago neighborhood where Blagojevich grew up. Nonetheless, ousting Blagojevich won’t be easy, even for the battle-tested Topinka, who celebrated her 62nd birthday in January. In light of the governor’s $15 million war chest, Topinka has some serious ground to make up in terms of fundraising. At the end of the year, Topinka had amassed $1.4 million, some of which she’s used already to fend off attacks levied by fellow Republicans. With the March 21 primary less than a month away, Topinka — who jumped into the fray after popular former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar opted not to go after the party’s nomination — enjoys a comfortable 21-percentage-point lead over her nearest rival, milk baron Jim Oberweis, according to a recent Chicago Tribune poll. The poll also shows Ron Gidwitz, who held posts as head of the state Board of Education and as CEO of shampoo maker Helene Curtis, is in third place; state Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington and Andy Martin, a perennial candidate, round out the field. On the Democratic side, Blagojevich’s only challenger for the Democratic Party’s nod is former Chicago Councilman Edwin Eisendrath. Although a quarter of likely Republicans haven’t made up their minds, leaving the contest statistically wide open, the safe money says that unless disaster strikes, it’ll be Topinka locking horns with Blagojevich next fall, even if she isn’t quite the poster girl for the Grand Old Party.
It was difficult when she was growing up in Riverside, Topinka says, to find books about successful women outside the field of social services. “You talk about Jane Addams or Clara Barton, Florence Nightingale — all very fine women, but they didn’t do things the way I did them,” Topinka says. “I didn’t really find a sort of heroine until I read about Amelia Earhart, and we all know how she ended up,” she jokes. In addition to what she learned from the famous aviatrix, who disappeared in 1937, Topinka, who spoke Czech before she learned English, learned a lot by studying her maternal grandparents. “I had the benefit of a couple of people who had gone through the Depression, who knew how to save money, who knew how to be thrifty, who knew how to make a little go a long way — and that was of great help to me in understanding life,” Topinka says. Her mother, who started a realty company where her father also worked after he returned from serving in World War II, was also a source of inspiration and education. “I would help with the business in terms of looking for tips, even when I was a kid,” she says. “‘Hey, Mom and Dad, Johnny’s parents are gonna sell their house’ And I learned very early — and it helped me in my journalism career — to always get the name, address, and phone number.” In 1962, she left Riverside to attend Northwestern University, where she majored in journalism. After more than a decade as a reporter and editor in the Chicago suburbs, Topinka became a state representative and, in 1984, a senator. A decade later, as her heroine Earhart had done in the aviation field, Topinka would begin a string of firsts in Illinois as the first woman elected and re-elected state treasurer and the first person to hold the job three times. She decided against running for the U.S. Senate in 2004 after GOP nominee Jack Ryan bowed out amid scandal, instead considering the possibility of a run for governor. However, former Gov. Jim Edgar, her friend and ally, indicated that he might take a shot at Blagojevich’s job in 2006. “I’m not gonna run against Jim Edgar,” Topinka says. “To me, that would be absolutely stupid because, philosophically, we’re pretty much the same. There’s a mutual liking there; we get along just fine. “We could even bracket the whole ticket and make the ticket even better. I really thought he was going to run, or else he would not have made himself a factor in this.” One last “straw that drove the camel forward,” she says, came from a reporter who, during an interview, used “some slurs” about another candidate. “It made it apparent to me that I needed to run,” Topinka says. When Edgar announced last fall that he would not run, Topinka gathered her crew and asked, “‘OK, can we do this?’ — because I’m also not one to just have a hot flash and just decide I’m gonna run for governor and then do it haphazardly. “We would have an organized, thorough ‘What are the positives and negatives’: ‘Can we win? Can we beat this guy? It’s not gonna be a slam-dunk,’” she recalls. “We thought about it and said, ‘Yeah, we can do it. Let’s do it.’”
As popular as Topinka is and as unpopular as Blagojevich has become in some parts of the state, dislodging the incumbent governor will be no small feat. It helps that in Illinois, which tends to be more progressive than other Midwestern states, Topinka, the former chairwoman of the state Republican Party, is a self-proclaimed social moderate. On fiscal issues, however, she calls herself a “bedrock conservative.” “I don’t demonize people,” she explains. “I’m not a hater. I don’t discriminate, and I’m not about to start pandering to get votes.” And she’s an independent thinker. Thinking in terms of her prospective role as commander in chief of the Illinois National Guard, Topinka says that President George W. Bush’s decision to activate the National Guard to active duty in the Iraq War was not a “wise course.” “I would prefer that the guard stay at home where it can be helpful in terms of natural disasters or any other problems that we may have,” she says. “You can see one of the problems that existed in Louisiana when their guard was overseas and they were needed there.” On the subject of affirmative action, Topinka says that she supports the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2003 decision that race can be a factor in college admissions, just not the sole determinant. “I thought [former Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor] said it pretty well in terms of trying to accommodate all sides so that there would be fairness,” Topinka says. The recent appointment of Samuel Alito to fill O’Connor’s seat on the court has led people on both sides of the abortion issue to believe that the Roe v. Wade decision’s days are numbered, clearing the way for states to restrict or even ban abortion. Still, Topinka says, she firmly supports Roe with some “common-sense restrictions,” such as spousal consent, parental notification, and bans on third-trimester and “partial-birth” abortions. “Ultimately the health and the life of the mother trump any of that,” she says. “That is always preeminent, and there are no constitutional amendments that would seek to eliminate abortions. “Nobody is happy with abortion, but it is with us, so let us regulate it in as commonsensical a way as we can just to find a way that we can all live together with this issue.” Though Topinka believes in civil unions, has participated in Chicago’s Gay Pride parade, and applauds the Legislature’s passage of the sexual-orientation-nondiscrimination bill, she doesn’t like the idea of gay marriage — but she cringes at the thought of amending the state Constitution to ban the practice. “Oh God, no! It’s in the law,” she exclaims. “What do we need to gunk up the Constitution for?” Topinka even backs Blagojevich’s move to require pharmacists to fill certain prescriptions, such as Plan B, the morning-after pill, with a physician’s referral. That’s a hard pill to swallow for many conservatives, who say that they won’t vote for Topinka even if she gets the nomination over her more right-leaning opponents, Oberweis and Brady. Choosing more conservative DuPage County State’s Attorney Joe Birkett as a running mate was certainly a step in the right direction for her, though many on the hard right have threatened to stay home in November if the party selects Topinka as the nominee. If enough Republicans snub her, Topinka may need to call in reinforcements from the Republican National Committee, but the extent to which the party will go to bat for Topinka, who is more than a bit outside the conservative mainstream, is unclear. Christopher Z. Mooney, professor at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Springfield, notes that national parties rarely get involved in gubernatorial races, choosing to instead to concentrate on congressional races. Mooney believes that as a woman from a major state, Topinka might give the RNC reason to become more involved in the race than they would ordinarily.  Topinka says that she has chatted with presidential advisor Karl Rove and twice talked to RNC chairman Ken Mehlman, who, she says, has pledged the party’s support after the primary. If Rove and Mehlman do trek to Illinois, Mooney speculates, it won’t be to stump for Topinka so much as to raise some cash and energize conservatives, who certainly won’t vote for Blagojevich but could stay home in November. “I think they feel I can win,” Topinka says. “Granted, they’re promises. I have not taken anything to the bank, and I’m hoping that promises are fulfilled as they said they would be, because I take promises seriously.”
If hanging the “liberal” tag on Topinka has been unsuccessful, so have opponents’ attempts to link Topinka with George Ryan, who’s facing racketeering charges. “George Ryan was always nice to me on the campaign trail. I appreciate people who are kind to me. I am kind in return,” Topinka says. “I was never intimate — I mean, I didn’t go out to eat or vacations or do any of that. Did we get along? Yes. But I’ve gotten along with all other governors with the exception of this one, because I can’t find this one.” Topinka says that she doesn’t consider herself a Springfield insider, not with Democrats or with fellow Republicans. “I’ve always been pretty independent,” she says. “Insiders gotta play the game, and I don’t play the game. I’ve got my own game.” Topinka’s most vehement critic to this point has been fellow moderate Gidwitz. In a recently unveiled TV ad, the Chicago businessman accuses Topinka of favoring bigger government, prompting the state party to tell Gidwitz to back down. Until this week, when she rolled out a plan to end so-called pay-to-play politics, Topinka had been markedly silent on ethics-reform issues, instead choosing hammer away at Blagojevich’s many social programs, which, she says, the state just can’t afford. However, she stops short of promising to slash them en masse if elected. “We want to do right by our kids,” she says, suggesting that she will take a close look at Blagojevich’s new preschool program and All Kids, his proposal for comprehensive health insurance for children. The way the programs are configured, she argues, the state cannot pay for either of them, no matter how well-intended they appear. Among other concerns, she’s worried about how to pay for extra teachers and the brick-and-mortar costs of building new facilities. “Common sense says that if you’re not paying your bills now, how can you add these programs on?” she asks. “That’s just irresponsible, and it’s creating expectations in people that cannot be met, and that’s not fair. “As my grandmother always said, ‘Don’t ever pet a dog you can’t take home.’ ”
If she wins, Topinka says, she looks forward to making a home in the Executive Mansion next winter. An actual occupant of the governor’s residence would be a change — Blagojevich and his family are seldom there. “That’s the people’s house, and it’s such a symbolic thing for the governor’s office, the state, and state government, which, frankly, belongs and is and should be in Springfield; it shouldn’t be hijacked to Chicago. Topinka, who is divorced, looks forward to holiday visits with her son, Joe, and his family, who reside in Washington state. The rest of the year, her dogs Mollie McDoo and Raggedy Andy will keep her company. “If a mom is there, everybody comes to the house and feels like it’s their house, and they feel the warmth and hospitality of that house because it will be open to the public. To pass it at night, as I do, and it’s just this big dark structure, is very sad.” A bill before the Legislature proposes to ban smoking in all indoor public workplaces, including the Executive Mansion. If elected, expect Topinka, who quit once for 79 days but gave up during a legislative battle, to light up — no matter what. “If I’m gonna be living there, that’s my house — I expect that accommodation. I won’t smoke where the people are, but at least give me a little roam room.” “It’s my only bad habit, other than a tad bit of swearing every once in a while.”

The rest of the herd
The four men seeking the Republican nomination

JIM OBERWEIS, Sugar Grove The Milkman. Oberweis, 59, works as chairman of Oberweis Dairy and Oberweis Asset Management. A multimillionaire and social conservative, Oberweis made bids for the U.S. Senate in 2002 and 2004, finishing second in the GOP primary in both attempts. He wants to crack down on illegal immigration and has joined the chorus of Republicans vowing to pass ethics reform in Springfield. Statistically, he is within striking distance of front-runner Judy Baar Topinka, according to a recent Chicago Tribune poll, but the gap between them appears to be widening.
RON GIDWITZ, Chicago The other millionaire. Running on yet another reform ticket, Gidwitz recruited state Sen. Steve Rauschenberger of Elgin to join him as his running mate after Rauschenberger initially sought the nomination for himself. Gidwitz, 60, formerly headed up Helene Curtis, a personal-care-products company founded by his father, as well as the Illinois State Board of Education under Gov. George Ryan. Though long active in Republican circles, the 2006 gubernatorial campaign is Gidwitz’s first foray into politics as a candidate. He was the first to air TV ads and the first Republican to attack Topinka, whom he trails almost 4-to-1.
BILL BRADY, Bloomington Not the former Knick who ran for president. Representing Bloomington in the state Senate, Brady is the only candidate for governor on either side who hails from south of Interstate 80. At age 44, he is also the youngest candidate in the field of Republicans. Brady served in the Illinois House of Representatives from 1993 to 2000 and was appointed to the state Senate in 2002. In his “Contract with Illinois,” Brady, one of the more conservative candidates, promises to lower property taxes and “defend the moral values that make Illinois families strong, promote a culture that respects life and embrace policies that encourage personal responsibility.”
ANDY MARTIN, Chicago (perhaps) The eccentric one. Andy Martin, formerly known as Anthony R. Martin-Trigona, is perhaps the most interesting personality in the race. In his 30-plus-year political “career” (he has never held public office) since the state Supreme Court refused to admit the University of Illinois College of Law graduate to the bar, Martin has been a conservative and a liberal, railed against Jews and editorialized touchingly on civil-rights pioneer Rosa Parks. During a 2000 presidential bid, Martin ran an ad accusing then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush of having used cocaine. Four years later, he ran for U.S. Senate simultaneously in Illinois and Florida, garnering a third of the statewide Republican vote in the latter state. Whether he actually is a resident of Illinois was the subject of a recent complaint to state election officials [see R.L. Nave, “Crackpot,” Feb. 16].
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