Michael Dropka

The son of the late Judy Baar Topinka has pitched to Riverside Township officials an idea to name the township hall in honor of his mother, the longtime Riverside resident and former state representative, state senator, state treasurer, state comptroller and onetime Republican nominee for Illinois governor.

Joseph Topinka, who lives in Texas and serves as the executor of his mother’s estate, proposed the idea at the March 10 meeting of the Riverside Township Board of Trustees.

“We don’t do a very good job of honoring people from our town, and then we forget about them,” Topinka said during a phone interview last week.

At the township board meeting last month, Topinka said having his mother’s name on the building would remind residents in the future of her contributions to the village and state.

“I’m hoping kids, parents walking by this building, that if they didn’t realize or know Judy Baar Topinka, they might say, ‘Who was this lady,’ and may look back into time and be inspired by what she did,” Topinka said.

In addition to serving as a longtime state legislator, Topinka was the longtime Republican committeeman for Riverside Township. After 2000, as the area’s voters increasingly voted more Democratic, particularly at the state and national levels, the township government remained firmly in the hands of the local GOP, typically running unopposed by local Democrats.

From November 1995 until August 1997, Topinka was the owner and publisher of the Riverside Landmark. She wrote a column in the paper for many years after selling it to Oak Park-based Wednesday Journal, Inc. She died at the age of 70 on Dec. 10, 2014 after suffering a stroke. She had been re-elected to a second term as Illinois comptroller a month earlier. 

As a politician, Judy Baar Topinka was a consensus builder and avoided rigid political ideology. As Republicans moved further right nationally, she remained moderate on many social issues, though she maintained her reputation as a fiscal conservative. 

While her more liberal takes on social issues, such as gay rights, received solid support from Democratic voters, it was her outgoing, vivacious personality that connected with so many voters across the political spectrum.

“I can’t think of another leader or politician from Riverside Township who has done so much as my mother has done,” her son told Riverside Township board members on March 10.

Speaking in support of Joseph Topinka’s request on March 10 were Gretchen Reyes, the wife of Judy Baar Topinka’s longtime lieutenant and deputy Riverside GOP committeeman, Jay Reyes, and Michael Dropka, a North Riverside resident  who served as Topinka’s spokesman when she was comptroller.

“She did a lot for each and every one of us in this building,” said Dropka.

Reyes said her children, like all school children in Riverside, take tours of the village and learn about important buildings, such as the Arcade Building, library and the township hall.

“Wouldn’t it be great that all of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren came back, and they grew up in Riverside and North Riverside, they came to this building and learned what a wonderful and great woman Judy was?” Reyes asked.

Joseph Topinka suggested that a plaque could be affixed to the building to provide information about his mother and that the glass panel above the front entrance could be repainted to add her name.

The township board agreed to form a committee, chaired by Trustee Mary Rob Clarke, to explore whether or not to move ahead with the plan and, if so, how to mark the building as a memorial to Topinka.

“I think right now we need to have more information and other options before we decide to rename this building or dedicate it to her,” Clarke said. “Because we want to do the best thing for her, and this might not be the best thing.”

If the township does agree on a commemorative plaque for the building, the matter would have to also get the approval of the Riverside Preservation Commission, since the township hall is designated a local landmark.

“We’d want to take a look at it,” said Charles Pipal, chairman of the Riverside Preservation Commission. “That’s not to say we wouldn’t look on it favorably, but that falls within our wheelhouse.”

The township’s committee, which will also include Joseph Topinka, Reyes and Dropka, will convene later this spring. 

Dropka named township GOP committeeman

In addition to serving as Illinois comptroller, Judy Baar Topinka was the longtime Republican Party committeeman for Riverside Township. She was last elected to the position by GOP primary voters in March 2014.

When Topinka died late last year, she still had three more years to serve on her term. To serve out the remainder of her term, Cook County Republican Party Chairman Aaron Del Mar appointed Topinka's former spokesman, North Riverside resident Michael Dropka to the position.

He will serve until the next committeeman election, which will be part of the GOP primary in 2018.

Topinka had served as Riverside Township GOP committeeman since 1994. The office of committeeman is a purely political one; committeemen are elected by those pulling party ballots during the primaries.

Committeemen are tasked with helping identify and slate candidates for election and can sometimes have the authority to fill positions that become vacant through the death or resignation of an elected official or candidate for office.

In the city of Chicago and Cook County, committeemen often also have the authority to dole out jobs and favors. At the township level, however, particularly in small townships like Riverside, that's not so much of factor.

Riverside Township's Democratic Committeeman is Michael Zalewski, who also serves as a state representative. 

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