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Remembering Judy Baar Topinka: "Judy Had No Rival"

CHICAGO (CBS) -- The people who knew the late Judy Baar Topinka best gathered Wednesday to share stories and celebrate her life, a week after the longtime Illinois politician died of complications from a stroke.

Topinka, 70, served in state government for more than three decades, becoming one of the most successful Republican politicians in the state. Irrepressible, bluntly honest, and passionate, Topinka was admired and beloved on both sides of the political aisle.

Appellate Court Judge Joseph Birkett, who was Topinka's running mate in the 2006 race for governor, conducted a memorial service Wednesday morning at the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 hall in Countryside.

It was standing room only inside the hall, as more than 1,000 people came out to pay their respects to a woman who, in many ways, transcended partisan politics.

The choice of a union hall for Topinka's memorial service showed her bipartisan reach, as a Republican who was adamantly pro-labor, pro-choice, and pro-gay rights.

Her appeal, though, stretched far beyond political issues. Birkett spoke of Topinka's famous love for playing the accordion and dancing the polka.

"As you all know, Judy also loved music and she loved art. She could play four instruments, and spoke four languages fluently. She would have made a great ambassador. As a politician, and a vote-getter, Judy had no rival. She was comfortable in any setting, because she knew the issues, and she spoke the truth," he said.


Birkett said Topinka loved Illinois, and Illinois loved her back.

Topinka was the first woman in Illinois history to be elected to two statewide offices, the first woman to receive the Republican nomination for governor, and the first woman to run the Illinois Republican Party.

She served three terms as state treasurer, and in November had won her second term as state comptroller. Last week, she suffered a stroke, and though she seemed to be recovering quickly, she died a day later, when a blood clot dislodged and entered her lung.

No less than three governors paid tribute to Topinka at Wednesday's memorial -- former Gov. Jim Thompson, incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn, and Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner.

Thompson served as governor for all four years Topinka was in the Illinois House, and six of the 10 years she served in the Illinois Senate, before she became the second woman in Illinois to hold statewide office in 1994, winning the first of her three terms as state treasurer.

Thompson said she got better and better with each election victory.

"Imagine a politician whose name was never in the headlines for scandal or corruption; but we don't have to imagine that. We had her for too few years, and now today we honor her," Thompson said.

Topinka's memorial also included reflections from Capitol Fax publisher and Crain's columnist Rich Miller and longtime radio host Roe Conn. Before she entered politics, Topinka began her career as a journalist, earning a degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.


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