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Government, Politics & Issues

Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, Trailblazer With Sense Of Humor, Dies At 70

State comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, shown in this state photo, died December 10, 2014 from complications of a stroke at the age of 70.
via Illinois Comptroller website

(Updated 3:54 p.m., Wed., Dec. 10 with more reaction.)

Judy Baar Topinka, a leading figure in Illinois politics for decades, died suddenly Wednesday morning. Topinka, the state comptroller, won re-election to a second term in that office in November. Her office says she suffered a stroke. She was 70 years old. 

Topinka, a Republican, earned a journalism degree from Northwestern University and spent 11 years as a reporter in the Chicago suburbs. Her first foray into politics was in 1980 when she was elected to the Illinois House. She won a suburban Chicago state Senate seat in 1984 and then the state treasurer's post in 1994. 

Though fiscally conservative, Topinka was a social moderate.

"Part of it is me. I just don't hate anybody," she said in 2003. "I'm not a hater.  I have a really big tent.  I want everybody in here. We're not letting anybody off the hook.  We're going in here like Star Trek, (where) no people have ever gone before, man.  We're not letting anyone get past us."

Topink'a stance on gay rights and abortion led to clashes with the conservative wing of the state GOP during her time as party chairwoman and may have sunk her 2006 bid for governor. But she rebounded, winning the 2010 comptroller race over Democratic David Miller and two minor candidates by 23 points. That victory made her the first woman in Illinois history to hold two constitutional offices.

Tributes to Topinka poured in from across party lines.

Gov Pat. Quinn, a Democrat, said he was "heartbroken" to hear the news of Topinka's death, calling her a "trailblazer in every sense of the word."

 "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. My deepest sympathies go out to Judy's son, Joe, daughter-in-law Christina, granddaughter Alexandra, her family, friends and devoted staff. Today the entire state mourns the loss of one of the greats. Judy Baar Topinka will be incredibly missed."

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat:

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, Republican:

“My friend and mentor's sudden passing is a shock and very saddening. Her death is a loss to all who knew her and to our great state. My prayers are with her family today, especially her beloved son Joseph.”

U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-13th District:

"Words cannot express how much Judy Baar Topinka meant to the state of Illinois, how much we will miss her, and how much we will miss her leadership. Her constant professionalism, passion for serving the people of Illinois, honesty, and sense of humor truly set her apart from all other elected officials. Judy was one of those legendary, all-time greats, and will be impossible to replace. Shannon and I offer our deepest sympathies and will keep her family, friends and staff in our thoughts and prayers."

U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-15th District:

“I was shocked and saddened this morning when I heard my friend Judy passed away. Judy is a legend in Illinois, where her charismatic personality and good nature endeared her to both sides of the aisle. Her decades of service to our state shattered a glass ceiling for women in politics and leave behind a legacy of compassion and dedication to the communities she served. My thoughts and prayers go out to Judy’s family, friends and staff during this difficult time.”

Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, a Democrat who lost the 2014 comptroller race to Topinka:

"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. My thoughts and prayers go out to her family, friends and staff as we mourn the loss of a legend in Illinois government."

Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner, a Republican:

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.”

Illinois Republican Party Chairman Tim Schneider:

Her common-sense leadership was a breath of fresh air during some difficult times for our state, and Judy's energy lit up any room she was in. As comptroller, as treasurer, as chairman of the Illinois Republican Party, and as Riverside Township committeeman, Judy was a groundbreaking, one-of-a-kind leader. She had a heart of gold. She cared about our state saving money and families saving money; she was an advocate for animals, for the military. And she loved her family, including the staff and volunteers she treated like family.

The Illinois Constitution gives the governor the authority to fill a vacancy in the office of comptroller. It was not immediately clear if Quinn would make an appointment in his last days in office, if he would negotiate a successor with the Republicans or wait until Rauner is sworn in.

Sean Crawford and Bill Wheelhouse contributed to this reporter

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