Just weeks after being re-elected into her post by Illinois voters, State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka passed away from complications following a stroke Dec. 10.
"The Illinois political scene lost its Polka Queen last night and I lost a friend," said Sen. Dick Durbin in a statement. "In a political world of cocker spaniels she could be a bulldog taking a bite out of both Democrats and right-wing Republicans without missing a beat. She was a blue-collar, immigrants' kid who lit up the room with her quick wit and boundless energy."
Long a major player in state politics, Topinka held several offices, among them state treasurer, state representative and state senator. She made an unsuccessful bid to be governor in 2006, losing to Democratic candidate Rod Blagojevich. Last month, she defeated Lt. Governor Sheila Simon's bid for her office.
Calling Topinka a "legend in Illinois politics," Simon said in a Dec. 10 statement, "I am deeply saddened to hear of Judy Baar Topinka's passing. People throughout Illinois will remember her for her many years of dedication to public service just as much as they will remember her for her larger than life personality. She truly loved the people of this state."
Topinka's office had the difficult task of paying the state's bills while the state was in a perpetual state of financial disarray. She was known for her brassiness and practicality, and her directness resonated with voters from both parties.
She was both a fiscal conservative and a social moderate. Shortly before her re-election, Topinka told Windy City Times, "I'm a Republican because I think the Republican Party stands for small government. I don't like government spawning all over. The more bureaucracy you have, the harder it is to navigate and the more miserable it is for the public, and the more costly it is. I like the fiscal end of it. I like to make sure we get what we paid for and that it's well handled."
She nevertheless butted heads with Republican colleagues on numerous occasions, often because of social issues such as abortion and gay rights. She supported gay marriagememorably offering to be "flower girl" at gay weddings the evening Gov. Pat Quinn signed marriage equality legislation into lawand spoke at the 2013 March on Springfield for Marriage Equality. Topinka also marched in numerous LGBT Pride parades and took part in other LGBT events.
"I've always been a social moderate and I make no bones about it," Topinka said. "I voted for the Equal Rights Amendment when I was in the legislature, gay rightsI could never understand what the problem was with gay rights. Jeepers, gay people are people. 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.
"If you're a constitutional officer, theoretically you've got some status and you serve as somewhat of a role model," she added. "I know I've always tried to live my life as somewhat of a role model. When I get that bully pulpit going, I'm out there in the forefront. I [supported] civil unions and marriage equality, and I don't want to see gay people harassed in any capacity, because that's not fair. I'll get down and fight for that cause, because I believe in what's fair."
Numerous other politicians and activists also issued statements Dec. 10 remembering Topinka and praising her career.
Springfield Alderman Cory Jobe, who is Deputy Chief of Staff in the Comptroller's Office, said on Facebook, "Today Illinois lost a true public servant with a heart bigger than the State. Judy Baar Topinka was a friend, boss, and political mentor. She always believed in me and my political career as a local public official. She will be greatly missed by many."
Equality Illinois CEO Bernard Cherkasov elaborated on Topinka's commitment to LGBT rights: "As a Republican statewide officeholder, Comptroller Topinka was a leader in supporting issues important to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Illinoisans and demonstrating that equality and fairness were bipartisan concerns. … When Equality Illinois held its regular lobbying days in Springfield, Topinka and her office opened their doors to the delegation to make them feel that the Capitol was truly our home, too."
LGBT rights activist Rick Garcia said, "Judy Baar Topinka stood out in the Republican party as a consistent and firm supporter of gay rights. Even when attacked by members of her own party for her gay-rights support she never wavered. … Illinois has strong civil-rights protections for gay people including marriage rights and Topinka played a pivotal role in that. During the marriage debate in the House Topinka was on the floor working every Republican member to squeeze out every necessary vote."
Recalling his years in the Illinois Statehouse, President Obama said Topinka "was a fierce advocate for her constituents, which I got to see firsthand when she was State Treasurerthe first woman to hold that office. She was 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. She will be greatly missed."
"Early this morning, Illinois lost one of its all-time greats," added Governor-elect Bruce Rauner. "Comptroller Topinka's magnetic, one-of-a-kind personality brought a smile to everyone she met, and she had a servant's heart, always only caring about what was best for the people of our state. Judy was a tremendous friend, and Diana and I will miss her deeply. We offer our heartfelt condolences and prayers to her family, including son Joseph, as well as her talented and loyal team in the Comptroller's office."
Mayor Rahm Emanuel said, "Judy had a passion for serving the people of Illinois that equaled her passion for life. For more than three decades, she brought a relentless work ethic, a determination to attack our state's fiscal challenges, and a sense of humor and smile that brightened the day of anyone in her path. As the first woman to serve as Illinois Treasurer, she will always have a special place in the history of our state."
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle called Topinka"truly one of a kind" in a statement. "I admired her feisty, outspoken nature and her passion for good government. She had a track record of standing up for what she believed in, regardless of party lines. As the first woman to be elected treasurer in Illinois, she was also a pioneer and an inspiration for other women in public service."
Chicago Urban League president and CEO Andrea Zopp shared Preckwinkle's sentiment: "Topinka was and will remain an inspiration to all women who aspire to lead and will be remembered for her humor, wit, and her support of equality and fairness for all communities. In an era where polarizing partisanship often rules the day, Judy Baar Topinka's indomitable spirit and down to earth approach empowered to cross party lines and have a significant impact of the lives of the people of Illinois."
Gov. Pat Quinn said he was "heartbroken" over Topinka's death, adding, "Never without her signature sense of humor, Judy was a force of nature. She left her mark on the state she has called home her entire life. Her leadership improved Illinois and paved the way for countless women in politics."