My brother Rich’s column on JBT and her death mentions me in it, so of course I’m going to post it here.
Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka had a stroke the morning of Dec. 9, but that’s not what killed her. In fact, by that afternoon, she announced she was going to walk to the restroom. Her chief of staff Nancy Kimme told her not to try because she was paralyzed on her left side. In mocking defiance, Topinka started kicking her no longer paralyzed leg.
By early evening, medical staff told Topinka that she’d be out of the hospital in a few days and would then need three weeks of rehabilitation. The indestructible Topinka appeared to have won again, just like she did after she fell and broke her hip and badly injured her back after giving a speech in 2012. The accident slowed her down, but it never stopped her, never silenced her, never broke her spirit, never stopped her from running for re-election.
What finally felled Topinka was completely unexpected. Hours after her speedy recovery, Topinka fell asleep. A massive blood clot somehow withstood her blood-thinning medication and got around a clot trap installed beneath her rib cage and entered her lung.
The end came quickly.
In a matter of seconds, we lost not only one of our state’s strongest voices for financial prudence, its most consistently successful female statewide elected official, its most pro-union, pro-gay rights Republican, but also its most human politician.
My brother Doug met Topinka when he was with me at an event. Doug posted this on his Facebook page the day she died: “She was the first statewide elected official I ever met that I thought ‘Hey, she’s just a regular person like the rest of us.'”
Judy only talked down to dunderheads. Everyone else was treated like an old friend, and she just had that way about her that you knew she meant it.
I once had lunch with Judy in her west suburban state Senate district. She took me to a local Bohemian place and I barely got to talk to her. She knew, by name, just about everyone at that restaurant. People literally lined up to shake her hand and chat with her the entire time we were there. She’d hug them, ask about their children, their aunts, their cousins, mostly by name. She never lost that smile, even while she was eating.
‘LET THEM PRAY’
She often told stories about when she served in the Illinois House of Representatives during the height of the Equal Rights Amendment debate. Ultraconservative women, she’d humorously recall, would often grab her arm, fall to their knees and pray for her.
What did you do? I asked.
“I let them pray!” the ERA supporter hooted. She thanked them for their prayers and continued on her merry way.
Topinka was elected to the Illinois Senate in 1984, after first building a House constituent services program unlike almost anywhere else. Her phone number was always public, and she would get calls at her home at all hours, once from a constituent during the middle of the night with a cat up a tree. She served not only her own constituents, but also those who lived in the neighboring district represented by former Democratic Senate President Phil Rock, who was often too busy with the affairs of state to handle mundane constituent requests.
Born to immigrant parents, Topinka graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. She went on to write a column called “Let’s Talk” for the Berwyn-Cicero Life newspaper. Former state Rep. Jack Kubik, who once represented half of Judy’s Senate district, said it was the most-read column in his family’s newspaper. It was all about political stuff that nobody else was writing about. The two of us were a natural fit.
I first encountered Judy not long after I was hired as Hannah Information’s Statehouse columnist in 1990. She was fascinated by the company’s “new wave” technology and my “alternative” form of journalism. Her Senate office quickly became my second home.
Few would talk to me back then because I wasn’t anybody. We were both “nobody what nobody sent” and we reveled in it. Topinka was elected to her first House term over the opposition of the local party bosses. I started writing about Statehouse politics for a little technology startup.
Judy helped teach me how to be successful in this crazy business. She also taught me to treat strangers and acquaintances like old friends, because one day they could be.
I loved that woman.
A contributing columnist to Crain’s, Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.