Judy Baar Topinka is the Energizer Bunny of Illinois politics. She just keeps on going and going.
Topinka, who was born in Riverside and still lives there, was re-elected last week to her second term as state comptroller, defeating Democrat Sheila Simon, the daughter of former Illinois Senator Paul Simon.
She won by nearly 154,000 votes, capturing 49.8 percent of the total to Simon’s 45.4 percent with all but eight precincts reporting.
“I feel very good about it, because I think we earned it [and] we really run a very good, hardworking, honest shop,” said Topinka, a former owner of the Landmark. “We do the job. We don’t just do the talk; we do the walk.”
Topinka ran well in her hometown, capturing 63 percent of the vote in Riverside. She won 56 percent of the vote in North Riverside and carried Brookfield with 54 percent of the vote.
Was this the last race for the 70-year-old Topinka?
“Oh jeez, I don’t know. I haven’t even thought about that at all,” Topinka said.” I’m just trying to figure out all the things we want to do this term.”
Topinka is known for her feisty and freewheeling style. She speaks her mind. As a moderate, pro-choice Republican who has long had a following in the gay community, Topinka is a Republican who has now won five of six state-wide general elections in Illinois and is popular among many Democrats.
But that one loss still stings.
In 2006 after serving three terms as state treasurer, Topinka decided to run for governor. She won the five-candidate Republican primary and faced off against incumbent Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
In that race Topinka was badly outspent and was buried under a blitz of negative attack ads from the well-funded Blagojevich campaign. The ads tied her to former Gov. George Ryan, who was convicted on corruption charges that year. Topinka never found her stride losing to Blagojevich by 10 percentage points.
Blagojevich would suffer the same fate as Ryan. In 2011, he was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison after being found guilty of a raft of corruption charges.
That loss left a bitter taste in her mouth, but after a few years out of the public eye, Topinka, who is also the longtime Republican committeeman for Riverside Township, decided she would seek public office again. In 2010 she ran for comptroller and won.
“I was not going to let somebody like the ilk of Blagojevich run me out of town,” Topinka said. “I was glad to come back in, especially as comptroller, because that is the fiscal officer. I like those fiscal offices; I’m good at those fiscal offices.”
That’s also the assessment of Riverside Township’s Democratic committeeman, state Rep. Michael Zalewski.
“She’s as whip-smart as anyone in state government,” said Zalewski following Topinka’s re-election last week. “We’re blessed to have her in that specific job. She makes common sense decisions. She’s as good as it gets.”
Topinka said she was proud that her advertising was positive in this campaign. One ad showed Topinka clutching a lamp at one of the rummage sales she loves to attend.
“Our ads were not nasty,” Topinka said. “I think everybody had it up to their ears in terms of some of the brutality that went on in terms of the governor’s race. I don’t think any of us liked it.”
Topinka called the current campaign climate “too money-conscious,” and blamed the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision for making that climate worse.
“I really resent the Supreme Court decision that just said go for broke, and anybody can spend what they want to spend when they want to and don’t even have to put their name to it,” Topinka said. “I think that it was one of the worst decisions that the Supreme Court ever made.”
Topinka has lived her whole life in Riverside except for time away at school and a short time as a very small child when she lived in Berwyn.
“I’ve lived in five precincts in Riverside,” Topinka said.
Topinka says that she hopes to work well with incoming Gov. Bruce Rauner, who will be the first Republican governor of Illinois since 2002.
“It’ll be different and we’re all going to kind of have to help, because he has not been in government before,” Topinka said. “Being the fiscal officer, I’m offering my assistance wherever I can.”
Topinka says that the state income tax, which is scheduled to fall from 5 percent to 3.75 percent in January, should be reduced gradually.
“If it stops suddenly it will give the state a heart attack, so I have asked that it be incremental, much what like Toni Preckwinkle did with the Cook County Board and that 1-cent sales tax that that goofy Todd Stroger put on,” Topinka said.
She said that she hopes she can be a bridge between Rauner and the Democrats, who will retain veto-proof control of the state legislature.
“People are going to have to work together to get something done, which means compromise is not a bad word so long as things come out fairly,” Topinka said. “I will offer to be that bridge, because that is the way I operate.”
Bob Uphues contributed to this report.