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Thursday, Aug. 26, 2004 06:36 am

Judging Judy

Why Judy Baar Topinka, the popular head of the Illinois Republican Party, just wants it to be over

Cover photograph by Nick Steinkamp

Just before a Republican rally was set to begin at the state fairgrounds last Thursday afternoon, a cold, steady rain sent people running for cover, splashing mud as they fled.

This proved a fitting image for the Illinois Republican Party, which has spent the last several years seeking refuge from a torrent of messy political scandals.

Federal corruption charges leveled against former Gov. George Ryan, followed by the alleged sexual exhibitionism that torpedoed Jack Ryan's bid for the U.S. Senate, have led to a virtual collapse of the once-dominant state party.

"It has certainly reached a new low in the last 50 years that I've been watching," says Sam Gove, director emeritus for the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at University of Illinois.

At the helm, trying in vain to steer the GOP into calmer waters, is state Republican chairwoman and three-term state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka. Long one of the state's most popular Republicans, she may now have reason to fear that her prominence in the party could ultimately sink her own political aspirations.

In an interview with Illinois Times, Topinka offered a frank look at her rocky two-year tenure as party honcho -- a position she regards with some disdain and one she says she will not seek again. Her job became more difficult when the party picked Maryland talk-radio host Alan Keyes as its U.S. Senate nominee.

For a time, it seemed that nobody wanted the job vacated by Jack Ryan. Former Gov. Jim Edgar and ex-Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka were among many who turned it down.

The Republican State Central Committee ultimately narrowed the selection to former White House deputy drug czar Andrea Barthwell and Keyes, a Harvard graduate and two-time presidential candidate.

Though she presided over the closed-door committee meetings, Topinka did not cast a vote in them. But had she been given the choice, she says, "I would have voted for Barthwell."

As of last Friday, Topinka says, she and Keyes hadn't spoken. "Not one conversation," she says. "He has not called. He has not dealt with the party really at all."

So much for party leadership.

In a phone interview on Monday, Keyes singled out such party stalwarts as state Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson and U.S. Rep. John Shimkus for offering him a "warm and hearty welcome."

As for the lack of communication with Topinka, Keyes says, he does not want "to pick a fight that doesn't exist."

Topinka, a moderate conservative who is an abortion-rights advocate, holds views that are clearly at odds with those of Keyes, a staunch and silver-tongued right-winger who likens abortion to terrorism and warns that the legalization of gay marriage would result in "the destruction of civilization."

State Sen. Larry Bomke, R-Springfield, says that Keyes needs to modify some of his positions to appeal to independents, suburbanites, and women.

"On some issues he needs to come to the center," says Bomke, "although he may be so far out there that he can't."

Keyes -- who, according to a recent poll, trails Democratic nominee Barack Obama by 41 points -- defends his platforms as "mainstream Republican views." He adds that no state party leaders -- including Edgar, who is also pro-choice -- have asked him to tone down his rhetoric.

Topinka maintains that she does not want to interfere with Keyes' campaign.

But some observers speculate that Topinka, who has long been rumored to have her heart set on the governor's office, is trying to keep Keyes at arm's length as a means of safeguarding her own political life.

"It seems to me," says the U. of I.'s Gove, "that Judy Baar Topinka is trying to distance herself from what's going to be a fiasco."

Plainspoken and unpretentious, Topinka has endeared herself to Republicans and Democrats alike during a political career that spans a quarter-century.

Often seen wearing blue jeans and sweatshirts, the 60-year-old Riverside native colors her hair orange, speaks in a raspy voice, and is known for parading through county fairs and rapping about bargain deals.

As Topinka has successfully carved out the image of everybody's favorite aunt, she has also scored an impressive number of political firsts since joining the state Legislature in 1980.

A decade ago, Topinka became the first woman elected state treasurer. She won the seat again four years later and became the first woman re-elected to a statewide office.

In 2002, Topinka earned her current title as GOP chairman and became the first woman to lead a major party in Illinois.

But, she says, that distinction was thrust upon her by party leaders who had nobody else to turn to.

"It was never my dream as a little girl to become head of the state Republican Party, that's for sure," Topinka says. "I took the job reluctantly. I was the only one left standing."

Topinka took the reins of the party in the wake of the licenses-for-bribes scandal that brought down George Ryan's administration. The federal probe stemming from Ryan's tenure as secretary of state has led to a staggering 57 convictions.

Ryan himself was indicted late last year on charges of conspiracy and fraud for accepting payoffs in return for government contracts. The case is still pending.

"There was no semblance of a party when I took over," says Topinka, who now is the sole Republican -- not counting outgoing U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald -- to hold statewide office.

Last summer the feds knocked on Topinka's door as well, issuing subpoenas seeking information on whether employees did political work for her on state time.

But it is unclear whether charges will be brought, and Topinka's office has swatted away any suggestion of wrongdoing.

Instead, Topinka blames yet another Ryan for leaving her, as the most visible face of the GOP, up to her neck in mud.

Insiders claim that Topinka was horrified from the moment Jack Ryan's divorce files were opened to the public, exposing allegations that he tried to persuade his wife to have sex with him in public.

Today she does not hesitate to confirm reports that he misled her about the content of those documents.

Topinka says that the impact of the implosion of Ryan's candidacy -- which she expedited by almost immediately withdrawing her support -- has devastated the party.

"It's tantamount to having a candidate die on you," she says, "but it was even worse because he hung around for five to six weeks," referring to Ryan's inexplicable delay in having his name stricken from the ballot.

The media had a field day with the Jack Ryan flap, and the fiasco was made even worse by the fact that the millionaire investment banker's ex-wife is a Hollywood starlet.

But even with Ryan out of the picture and a new candidate in his place, the beatings continue. And it's not just the Illinois press wielding the whip.

The respected British magazine The Economist ran an editorial on Aug. 14 that excoriated the Illinois GOP for using Keyes as a political token.

"Mr. Keyes's Senate run," the article read, "will produce nothing but disaster -- humiliation for Mr. Keyes, more pie on the face of the already pie-covered Illinois Republican Party, and yet another setback for Republican efforts to woo minority voters."

As a subscriber to the magazine, Topinka says, she read the invective. Responding, she begins to defend her party against its claims. Then she stops, seemingly exasperated, and sighs.

Asked how she would describe her term as party chair, Topinka laughs and asks to go off the record. On the record, she allows that it has been "challenging at best."

Asked to elaborate, she says, "I would not wish what we've experienced in these last two years on any party again. I would not wish it on a Democrat, and I certainly would not wish it on a Republican."

This week, Topinka and more than 140 Illinois delegates will venture to New York City's Madison Square Garden for the Republican National Convention, held from Aug. 30 to Sept. 2. But even the lure of midtown Manhattan and the hotel suite that awaits her on Broadway brings Topinka no cheer.

"If I weren't head of the party, I wouldn't want to go," Topinka says. "I'm just trying to get through this election and convention."

That sentiment, of grudgingly going through the motions, was on clear display at last week's Republican Day, held at the Illinois State Fair. Once a rousing celebration, this year's event suffered from unusually poor attendance and tepid enthusiasm.

Topinka blamesthe sporadic rains.

U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, blames the lack of Republican power now centralized in Springfield.

Bomke, the Springfield legislator, blames "the intimidation factor" -- the idea that state workers feared retribution for openly supporting a Republican ticket while serving under a Democratic administration.

But even several GOP leaders were noticeably absent, including former Gov. Jim Thompson, 2002 gubernatorial candidate Jim Ryan, and most of the party's state lawmakers.

The rains subsided and attendance picked up somewhat at the afternoon rally, at which GOP bigwig Bob Kjellander was the first to speak.

A friend of White House political director Karl Rove's, Kjellander serves as Republican national committeeman of Illinois and is coordinating President George W. Bush's re-election efforts in the Midwest.

He also figures, at least peripherally, in what may become the GOP's next political black eye. Chicago media have linked Kjellander's firm the Springfield Consulting Group to the alleged hospital-construction shakedown scheme, now under federal investigation, that led to the recent collapse of the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board.

On Thursday, Kjellander began his speech with a morbid question: "Who says the Republican Party is dead in Illinois?"

Indeed, the macabre theme of a party not yet overcome by rigor mortis was underscored in speeches throughout the day.

Earlier, LaHood told a crowd, similarly, "Our party is not dead. Our party is alive."

And Keyes, who showcased his reputed oratory skills in a rousing speech, denied the "the sad and sorry condition of the Illinois Republican Party."

Even so, the disunity among party leaders was palpable.

LaHood later rejects Kjellander's claims that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney will tour Illinois after the national convention, saying, "Illinois is not a battleground state; it simply is not."

Sangamon County Republican chairman Irv Smith commends Keyes as "a real actor" but still finds fault with the candidate.

"[Former Gov.] Jim Thompson didn't miss pressing one hand," says Smith. "Alan Keyes does not know how to do it. He didn't even shake hands with people on the stage."

And Topinka, who weeks ago reportedly fled the room when Keyes delivered a speech to the state central committee, seemed to cringe when Keyes denounced abortion at the rally.

During her interview with IT the next day, Topinka neither confirms nor denies her interest in running for governor. But she trusts that voters will not equate her with the tumult that continues to rock her party.

Using language that again evokes a party with one foot in the grave, she says, "People have been very sympathetic to me.

"Many have expressed their sympathies."


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