When Susana Mendoza walked out onto the stage to make her acceptance speech on Nov. 8 after being elected Illinois comptroller, she did so wearing a fire-engine red suit with brass buttons.
It wasn’t just any old suit. It had belonged to one of the state’s pioneering female politicians who also happened to be a predecessor in the comptroller’s office – Judy Baar Topinka, who died in office in December 2014.
The suit was given to her by Topinka’s son, Joseph, several weeks before the election during a visit by Mendoza to Topinka’s former home on Herrick Road in Riverside. That Joseph Topinka offered the jacket-skirt ensemble to Mendoza, a Democrat – his mother was a Republican – says as much about what he thinks of Mendoza as it does about his feelings about the Illinois GOP these days.
“Ms. Mendoza is very much like my mother,” Topinka said in a telephone interview last week. “I think she has the opportunity to bring a new perspective on what state government is all about in an era of fog and darkness.”
Mendoza was traveling and was unavailable to comment for this story.
For the past two years, Joseph Topinka has been trying to convince various government agencies to find a way to publicly honor the legacy of his mother, who served as a state representative, state senator and state treasurer before making an unsuccessful run for governor in 2006.
He first approached the Riverside Township Board, asking them to rename the township hall in honor of his mother. The board declined to do that, but agreed to dedicate the second-floor auditorium in her name and erect a plaque outside the room.
Topinka said he’s also been unsuccessful in getting a reading room at the Riverside Public Library named in his mom’s honor.
In the meantime, Topinka’s been embroiled in a lawsuit, now waiting to be heard by the Illinois Court of Appeals, regarding money left in his mother’s political campaign committee fund. Topinka sued in January, claiming he was entitled to more than $300,000 remaining in the fund and that a former close political ally improperly received payments from the fund.
Topinka said he wanted the money to go toward the Judy Baar Topinka Charitable Foundation, which he created after his mother’s death. However, a Cook County Circuit Court judge dismissed the suit in April.
Between his frustrations with the GOP-controlled Riverside Township Board and the lawsuit against two of his mom’s former GOP allies, Joseph Topinka has not been a fan of Illinois Republicans lately.
“The Republican Party and the treatment of the Topinka family since my mother’s death have been absent,” Topinka said. “There’s been nothing. The absence of attention of the Republican Party toward my mother’s legacy is astounding to me.”
On the other hand, said Topinka, the comptroller-elect has expressed interest in advancing his mom’s legacy.
“She has advocated for my mother’s memory with the township and shall continue to do so,” Topinka said. “I’m grateful she’s advocating for my mother’s legacy as much as I am.”
So when Mendoza came to visit, Topinka gave her a tour of his mom’s home and showed her his mother’s wardrobe. She found the red suit ensemble.
According to Topinka, he said, “It’s yours. My mom would want you to have it.”
Topinka said he gave Mendoza some other items to display in the comptroller’s office after she takes the oath in January.
And when she takes the oath, Topinka said, she’ll be doing it with her hand on a Bible given to his mother by her parents in 1960.
“[Mendoza] was a supporter before she knew she was running for comptroller,” said Topinka. “It’s not about politics. It’s about friendship, respect and role models.”