Interview: Judy Baar Topinka

By Karl Klockars in Miscellaneous on Jul 24, 2008 7:10PM

topinka072408.gifShe's the woman who could have been Governor. But in 2006, Judy Baar Topinka, longtime Illinois politician and State Treasurer under Jim Edgar and the not-convicted-yet George Ryan, was defeated in the Gubernatorial race by incumbent Rod Blagojevich. And just look where that's gotten us. While most of our day-to-day political thoughts right now are focused on the presidential election, we're also in the beginning of the race for Illinois Governor in 2010. So what does Topinka think about how the state is being run? No surprise here - she isn't much of a fan of Blago - but what about beyond that? Who's going to step up for the Republican party in two years? Who's going to try to replace G-Rod in the Democratic party? And is there any shot at getting him removed before 2010? All these answers after the jump.

Chicagoist: When someone wins a gubernatorial race, all the focus is on the victor and what their plans are for the near future … I wonder, what’s it like the morning after one loses a statewide election like the one you raced in?

Judy Baar Topinka: Well, needless to say, one is disappointed. And one is disappointed probably more so than on an ego level – I mean, there’s a wound on that front for sure – but nevertheless, the sad part is [that] you look at the woulda-coulda-shouldas. Which are all the woulda-coulda-shouldas we could have done for the state. Because we had really put together a program for all the access that the state would have to go through.

It was a very well thought out campaign. And it was a straight-up, by the rules, clean campaign. The money was clean. I mean, I’m not “public official A.” It’s a little distressing to lose to someone who is being investigated by the Feds on a regular basis, whose name you see being brought up every day in the Rezko trial, and things of that sort. But you have to go on, and you just hope for the best, and you hope that some of your ideas will be usable, and that people will go forward with them.

C: Blue-sky a bit for me: how do you think the state would be different if you had won?

JBT: I don’t think we’d be seeing this deadlock down in the state, where you’ve got no one talking to anybody, and as a result nothing happening. No one would have had a question in terms of trusting me, because my word is always good. I always worked with the legislature – the legislative leaders would not be balking at talks with me or meeting with me. The problems, obviously, would be the same, but we would be working on them. And we’d be getting solutions to them, because there would be the trust factor among everyone who was involved. And that is so basic.

Not to mention that I’d be living in the mansion. I would be around the legislature on a regular basis. There would have been probably no special sessions. Because we would have just gotten the job done, because we know what the job is that has to be done, and that would have gotten done.

C: In retrospect, would you have done anything different in your campaign?

JBT: No. Absolutely not. Ran straight up, ran on the issues, ran on the facts, ran with programs, ran with how we were going to do it and how to make it happen, made those programs public, never ducked. No, I would do it exactly the same.

C: During the ’06 campaign, there seemed to be a real “Anyone but Ryan” feeling and by proxy a real “Anyone but a Republican” feeling around the state. Now that there's a tangible “Anyone but Rod” mindset nowadays, are you considering jumping back in and running again?

JBT: Nothing is ever a “no” as far as politics goes, but more than likely not. I think I had that run, and I think I did a good job, and laid some good groundwork for someone to build on. That particular election was very much involving George Ryan, anti-Republican – there was not a Republican who won anywhere! Nationally! Even in the Watergate years, Republicans did break through and win certain elections. But here, they did not. There were none. And as a result, it’s kinda sad, because you really need a two-party system to keep everybody honest.

C: If you’re not planning a run, who do you think is the Great Hope of the Republican Party in Illinois in 2010? Is it a Bill Brady? A Christine Radogno? Maybe a Joe Birkett?

JBT: All of those folks are probably considering running. They’re all very fine people. Dan Rutherford is also showing some signs of interest, Ron Gidwitz again showing interest, you never know if Jim Oberweis will come out of the woodwork again. We have good people who are there…obviously after this last election, it’s has been proven – at least to me – that it’s not about character, it’s not about integrity, and it’s not about good management skills or anything like that. It’s all about money. And that’s sad, because I think it undermines democracy, and it also pulls the plug out on folks who would be meritorious and who would do a good job.

All those folks are very, very good – all of them would have to make sure that they’ve got millions of dollars. I lost with 27 million dollars tossed at me. And those are dollars that we hear about at the Rezko trial from a lot of people. But the damage has been done. Whether they were tainted, whether they were got through ill means, they were used. They were there at the appointed time, they got Blagojevich elected, and now we’re stuck with him. And we are stuck with him – I’m not saying anything that anyone else isn’t saying.

C: Give me a Judy Baar Topinka Cliff’s Notes-style rundown of some of the candidates on the Democratic side, starting with Lisa Madigan.

JBT: Lisa’s very, very good at what she does. I think people sometimes beat on her because her father [Michael Madigan is] the Speaker [of the of the Illinois House of Representatives]. She seems good in her own right. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have your father as the Speaker either. She will probably be running, I hear Bill Daley’s name – he’s got a very nice [resume] as well.

You’ll see all the constitutional officers – Dan Hines, Alexi Giannoulias, they seem very restless where they are, and would like to move forward. You’re going to see a lot of activity over on the Democrat side. They are kinda fed up with Rod Blagojevich and you see that on a daily basis. There’ll be a lot of Democrats trying to take out one of their own.

C: Do you see Pat Quinn as governor before 2010?

JBT: It’s always a possibility. He certainly has distanced himself from Blagojevich to prove that he is different, and frankly, he is different. Blagojevich doesn’t talk to him or include him any of his doings. But whether or not Blagojevich will be indicted and convicted – because you can be in office and be indicted, you have to be convicted before you’re out – any efforts to do a recall, to move an amendment like that to the Constitution was bottled up by Blagojevich’s little friend, the President of the Senate, Emil Jones, so that didn’t work.

The only option you have now to get rid of him, other than a heads-up straight up election, is a constitutional convention. It will be on the ballot in November. It is being opposed by all the entrenched powers. I would encourage everyone to vote “yes.” It is time for a Constitutional Convention, it is time for some major house cleaning in this state.

C: Most people probably think of you as a politician first, but your background is really in journalism. How do you think that’s affected how you dealt with the press in your campaigns and your public life?

JBT: I think it’s kinda neat to have a journalism background first, then go into politics. Do your journalism first, do your reporting first, then do your politics, rather than the other way around as so often times is what we see. Because it makes you sharper in what you ask, and what you see, which is the who, what, when, where, why and how. You ask questions. And that’s very healthy in what could very easily be a closed political system. And you see it in Cook County government, which is just another disaster. You see it in the state of Illinois – closed system – disaster.

Also, I think you respect what reporters do. You respect the fact that they have a time deadline. You have to be there on time. Blagojevich is traditionally, discourteously late. I mean, upwards of hours. You just don’t do that to people who have deadlines. That really just makes them sick. So you don’t do that. And you respect the fact that they’re out there to try to get facts. So give them facts! Don’t just dance around things, give them facts to the best of your knowledge! I think it’s been very helpful.

C: You're a fairly vocal person - do you ever just scream at newscasts nowadays when you see all the coverage of what’s going on in the state?

JBT: Oh, I do, and I do when I read the paper…I find it upsetting and heartbreaking to me to watch something I’ve taken a lot of time with – over 26 years – and I think it’s a good run. As one reporter told me, “Hey – you’re the only one not going to jail!” So I mean, that says something right there. We did not have a scandalous background here. The house service has been good, the Senate service has been good, the treasurer’s service – we made one of the foremost treasurer’s offices in the United States, and it was clean, and it was noteworthy, and it was progressive – and it played by the rules. When you see all of that and juxtapose it against what you see on a daily basis, everybody should be heartbroken. Because it makes our state look terrible.

It’s embarrassing when you go outside of the state and people ask about it, and you’re embarrassed to be from here. You’re embarrassed to be from Cook County, when people call it Crook County – when you look at the State of Illinois with it now in such a muck like Louisiana or New Jersey, both of which have very bad reputations. Illinois should be better! It’s the Land of Lincoln, for god’s sakes! We should have something that we can hang our hat on, and say “boy, are we good.” We’re a big state, we’re a prominent state, and we can’t do that. And it’s just embarrassing. And I do feel bad about it.