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Joseph Baar Topinka preserves legacy of mother: Pro-gay Republican Judy
by Matt Simonette
2020-09-02

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Riverside resident Joseph Baar Topinka is still impressed with the resolve and stamina with which his late mother, longtime GOP politician Judy Baar Topinka, was able to "slug it out" in the political arena.

"She got into the moment," Joseph said, remembering, for example, how Judy could stand in front of crowds who, from time to time, booed her opinions.

"You can boo me, but you're booing the truth," she would answer.

Judy passed away in late 2014, just weeks after being re-elected to her post as the Illinois state comptroller, and Joseph has spent much time and energy since then fighting to preserve his mother's legacy.

"I don't want my mother relegated to a strange footnote—she was a lot better than that," he explained. Joseph, who is an attorney, published a book about Judy's life story in 2018, Just Judy: A Citizen and Leader for Illinois, and spearheaded an effort to have her included in the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame, to which she was posthumously named a Friend of the Community in 2020 ( and will be honored with other inductees, including Windy City Times, Tuesday, Oct. 13 ).

A former journalist and communications professional, Judy occupied many roles in Illinois politics, among them turns as a state representative and state treasurer. She made an unsuccessful bid for the governor's office in 2006, losing to incumbent Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Judy ran on the Republican ticket, but Joseph said that was mainly because Riverside, where she lived, did not have Democratic party leadership to speak of. Joseph maintains that she was more of a populist than a partisan.

He said, "If my mother were alive today, and you asked her about our binary political system, she would say the same thing I will tell you: It's dysfunctional. It's totally dysfunctional."

Judy often said to Joseph: "I could easily be a Democrat or I could easily be a Republican."

She was fiscally conservative—Judy administered the state's finances during some of its darkest fiscal hours—but was pro-LGBT rights and pro-choice at a time when her colleagues in the GOP were adopting more intolerant, far-right stances on those issues.

"Jeepers, gay people are people," Judy told Windy City Times just prior to her 2014 re-election. "There's rights under the constitution—everybody's supposed to have them—and it bugs me when folks pick on gays or anybody else. I have a lot of gay people working in my office; they're wonderful employees. We don't single them out, or anything; they're just part of the family."

In November 2013, at the ceremony during which Gov. Pat Quinn signed marriage equality into law, Judy jokingly offered to be the flower girl at all the marriage ceremonies that were sure to come the following year, a comment that resulted in her drawing the ire of local right-wing media.

"She was dedicated to [the LGBTQ] community when she didn't have to be," Joseph recalled. "She was dedicated to that community when it was not the 'norm' for a Republican. She was dedicated to that community until her death"

His biography of his mother's life was intended not just as a remembrance of her but also as a tool for civics education.

"Illinois now requires civics training by law, and this fall, elementary schools are being required to have civics training [as well]," he explained. "I want that book in every school. The experiences in that book can help young people."

Now that Judy has been recognized by the LGBT Hall of Fame, Joseph would like to see her named to the Order of Lincoln, which recognizes the accomplishments of notable Illinoisans. He often laments the seeming lack of populists in politics these days.

"Do we even know what 'populist' means anymore, and do we even have leaders like that?" he asked. "If we don't, maybe we should, and maybe my mother is a lesson for others."


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