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Thursday, Oct. 29, 2009 11:55 pm

Familiar name wants back in the game

Topinka calls for transparency in state contracts

Pictured here during her 2006 run for governor, longtime Illinois politico Judy Baar Topinka announced Oct. 25 that she would run for comptroller.

She is practically a household name in the Illinois political scene, and now Judy Baar Topinka is throwing her hat into the political ring once more in her bid for state comptroller.

Topinka announced Oct. 25 that she would seek elected office for the first time since her failed 2006 gubernatorial race against now-impeached governor Rod Blagojevich.

Why would a former candidate for governor turn her eyes toward becoming chief financial officer instead?

“The state is so messed up financially,” Topinka said in a telephone interview Monday. “You can do a lot with a fiscal office. I know what we were able to do with three terms in the treasurer’s office. Needless to say, you have to want to do it. It’s an administrative post; it’s not glamorous, but it’s a job I enjoy doing.”

The 65-year-old Riverside native started out as a print journalist in Chicagoland, but she says she soon got fed up with corruption in her district.

“I just couldn’t stand it as a news reporter, so I figured I could do better and run it cleanly,” Topinka says.

She ran for the Illinois House of Representatives in 1980 -- where she served four years -- then served in the Illinois Senate for 10 years. She left her 12-year stint as state treasurer to run against Blagojevich in 2006, headed the Illinois Republican party from 2002 to 2005, and has served on the state’s Regional Transportation Authority board since 2006.

If voters pick her as comptroller, Topinka says she’ll take a closer look at state contracts to expose corruption and promote cost-effectiveness. She also advocates combining the offices of treasurer and comptroller.

“There’s a lot of slop over from the treasurer’s office into the comptroller’s office,” Topinka says. “We could save the cost of one bureaucracy, but you’d have the functionality of both offices.”

Her time as treasurer made Topinka the longest-serving female statewide officeholder in Illinois history and the first woman to be re-elected to statewide office.

It also gave her a front-row seat to watch Blagojevich “raid the state,” as she puts it.

“Anyone with half a brain knew what was going on,” Topinka says. “It was horrible, and I wanted to stop it.”

But Blagojevich won the 2006 gubernatorial election, primarily by linking Topinka with former governor George Ryan, who had just been convicted of corruption for acts that occurred mostly before Ryan became governor.

Topinka herself has largely managed to avoid such controversy, though her record isn’t perfect.

In 1995, she proposed a deal that would have forgiven a chunk of debt on two state-backed hotel construction projects. One of the debtors was Illinois GOP insider William Cellini, who now faces federal charges for allegedly attempting to extort campaign donations for Blagojevich from an investment firm that wanted to do business with the state.

Topinka is a moderate in comparison to many Republicans – supporting gay rights and abortion rights, for example – and it sometimes means she must take some criticism.

“I think the right wing of the party gets a little perturbed with me,” Topinka says. “But they also understand that I have those issues well thought out, that they’re fair, that equity is always kind of my bottom line. I want everybody in Illinois to be treated fairly. I don’t care who they are.”

Though Topinka says she’d still be running for comptroller even if Dan Hynes wasn’t leaving that post to run as a Democratic candidate for governor, she declined to criticize Hynes’ service as comptroller.

“I think he’s done a pretty good job,” Topinka says. “Having worked with him as the treasurer, he was always receptive to my calls, and I was always receptive to his. Yes, we were in different parties, but we also knew we had to work together for the good of the other. I certainly can’t complain.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.
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