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Illinois State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka Dies At 70

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Illinois State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, a brash pioneer for women in Illinois politics, died early Wednesday, less than a day after suffering a stroke.

Topinka, 70, had been elected to her second term as comptroller in November, and was preparing to be sworn in next month. She was the first woman to serve in two statewide offices, and the first female Republican to win her party's nomination for governor.

Governor Pat Quinn ordered flags at state buildings lowered to half-mast until her funeral.

"She was one of a kind," former Gov. Jim Thompson said.

Spokesman Brad Hahn said Topinka was hospitalized Tuesday, after feeling discomfort. After undergoing tests Tuesday at MacNeal Hospital in Berwyn, she appeared to be doing well, but then lost consciousness overnight, and died around 2 a.m. Wednesday, according to Hahn.

Topinka was also the first woman to serve as chair of the Illinois Republican Party.

Thompson called Topinka the "ultimate retail politician."

"She was a smart, tough, blunt, plain-talking person that the voters in both parties responded to," he said.


Thompson said Topinka was respected and liked by everyone.

"I never saw her down," he said. "She did have a wonderful, sunny disposition, and if you weren't careful, she'd grab you and pull you out to polka."

Topinka served three terms as Illinois state treasurer, the first woman to hold that post, before she ran for governor in 2006. She then became the first woman to win the Republican nomination for governor. A lover of playing the accordion and dancing the polka, Topinka was never afraid to speak her mind, and called her three Republican opponents "morons."

A video of her doing the polka with former Gov. George Ryan, who was later convicted and imprisoned for corruption, was used against her in her bid for governor, before she lost to Rod Blagojevich, who later would be removed from office in disgrace, and convicted of corruption himself.

Ryan called Topinka "a special person."

"One thing about Judy, you always knew where she stood on any issue you wanted to talk about; and she had an opinion, and she wasn't afraid to express it, and that's part of what I liked about her," Ryan said.

Former Gov. Jim Edgar said, in the bluest of blue states, Topinka was a rare Republican who could win virtually every election in which she ran.

The only election she lost was her 2006 campaign to unseat Blagojevich.

"She was one public official that people respected, and liked, and even though she lost that one race, I think there was a lot of buyers' remorse after that election was over," Edgar said.

A champion of her party's moderate wing, Topinka was a longtime advocate for abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

Equality Illinois CEO Bernard Cherkasov called Topinka "a true original," and praised her for her support of gay rights.

"Judy Baar Topinka brightened every room she entered with her engaging laugh, and LGBT Illinoisans were included in her warm embrace," he said. "As a Republican statewide officeholder, ComptrollerTopinka was a leader in supporting issues important to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Illinoisans and demonstrating that equality and fairness were bipartisan concerns. She endorsed the freedom to marry during last year's debate and civil unions before that. At the signing ceremony for the marriage bill, she even offered to serve as a flower girl at any same-sex wedding that would have her."

"Judy Baar Topinka demonstrated that political labels should not be a barrier to reaching out to all citizens. We will miss her," he added.

In November, Topinka won a hard-fought race against Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon in the race for state comptroller.

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

Topinka and Governor-elect Bruce Rauner were the only two Republicans to win statewide races this year.

"Early this morning, Illinois lost one of its all-time greats. 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," Rauner said in a prepared statement Wednesday.

Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White called Topinka "a great leader and a straight shooter who served Illinois with dignity."

"I'm shocked and deeply saddened to learn of the passing this morning of my friend Judy Baar Topinka. Judy committed her professional life to public service. She served the citizens of Illinois honorably and with distinction for decades," White said. "This is a sad day for Illinois and for me personally. She will be dearly missed."

Before she was elected to her first term as state treasurer in 1994, she served ten years in the Illinois Senate, and four years in the Illinois House.

Gov. Pat Quinn has the sole authority to appoint someone to fill Topinka's seat as state comptroller until the end of her term in January.

Quinn said Topinka "was a force of nature."

"We're going to miss Judy Baar Topinka; her commitment to public service over many years, in many different positions. She cared about everyday people. I think we all know that, and we ask God to bless her immortal soul," Quinn said. "We're going to really miss Judy Baar Topinka. She was one of the very best."

Quinn said Topinka was a "people person" who understood the importance of talking to people all over the state.

Once Rauner takes office in January, it appears the state constitution grants him the authority to fill her seat for a full four-year term, though he also might have the option of scheduling a special election.

Ben Gates, who lives across the street from Topinka in Riverside, was shocked at her sudden death, calling it "very disappointing news."

"Down-to-earth; always would be talking to the kids, helping with the kids, and talking to the neighbors, and just always a delight on the block," he said. "It's sad news."


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