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'A meat-and-potatoes type of person'

October 29, 2006
Chicagoan Maureen Karlowicz had her first face-to-face encounter with state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka last week in the swank Cadillac Room at Soldier Field, where the Shannon Rovers bagpipe band was feted for its 80th anniversary.

"I'm a nobody, and she all of a sudden started talking to me about the evening and what a nice place it was. She seemed very likable," said Karlowicz, 49, a Niles high school employee who voted for Gov. Blagojevich in 2002 and now is strongly leaning toward Topinka. "She wasn't like the person they portray on the negative ads. She was really down-to-earth, outgoing."

Treasurer hopes to be first female gov
That brief chat probably earned the cash-strapped Topinka a vote in her long-shot bid to unseat the incumbent Democratic governor, who by her own estimate has aired 19,000 commercials against her.

Topinka, 62, is finishing her third term as treasurer after a legislative career that dates back to 1981. The daughter of Czech and Slovak immigrants, the former newspaper reporter served four years in the House and 10 years in the Senate before ascending to statewide office in 1995.

She is the longest-serving female statewide officeholder in Illinois history and is vying to become the state's first female governor.

"I think her political education has come about the hard way, as it has for most women who run in Illinois and elsewhere," said former state Rep. Diana Nelson, a Republican who entered the House the same year as Topinka.

Politically, Topinka has charted a moderate path on social issues, backing abortion rights, gay rights and stem cell research, but she opposes gun control.

Topinka's tenure as treasurer has been relatively quiet, apart from a controversial 1995 deal she proposed that would have forgiven much of the $40 million in state-backed construction loans owed on a pair of Downstate hotels built by clout-heavy investors, including political powerbroker William Cellini. The deal eventually was blocked, though to this day Topinka insists the state would have been better off under her deal than it is now with investors still deeply in hock to the state. Topinka says she hasn't spoken to Cellini in years.

Blagojevich's campaign, which has relied on Cellini for fund-raising, has not exploited the hotel deal, instead opting to link Topinka to corrupt former Republican Gov. George Ryan. Blagojevich has called her "George Ryan's treasurer" for failing to speak out against Ryan's wrongdoing. Topinka denies a close relationship with Ryan.

A caffeine addict who carries coffee everywhere, Topinka plays the accordion, takes her dogs Peggy Sue and Molly McDoo with her most places and smokes Marlboros, though she won't say how many packs a day she goes through.

'I'm not fancy. OK?'
The former state GOP chairwoman and suburban Riverside native is known for her blunt style, claiming the governor has "weasel eyes" and once leaving a political audience with its jaw on the floor after cracking a joke about flatulence. "This is the way people talk," she said. "I'm not fancy. OK? I'm just a meat-and-potatoes type of person."

GETTING PERSONAL1. Last movie you felt like walking out of? If I pay money for a movie, and it's not good, I sit there in hopes that it will get better.
2. iPod, CD player or radio? Radio.
3. TV show you try not to miss? NY Times Discover Channel -- I like the archeology segments.
4. Weirdest trick you can do? Make a face like a Sharpei dog.
5. Food you wouldn't eat on a bet? Monkey brains or cockroaches.
6. Worst punishment you got as a kid? Making me sit quietly.
7. Book all Americans should read? 1984

Ties to Ryan, donations from banks questioned
Some fancy footwork with George Ryan, some checks from banking interests and a luxury Springfield hotel make up Judy Baar Topinka's greatest political baggage.

By now, most are familiar with the ad from earlier this year showing her doing the polka with the convicted former governor -- a decision she says is not out of character for her. "Frankly, that polka didn't cost the taxpayers one dollar. Rod Blagojevich's ways of doing business have cost the taxpayers considerably more," she said.

No-bid contracts cited
Blagojevich has tarred Topinka for not doing more as treasurer to persuade Ryan to reduce spending when state revenues were in a free fall after Sept. 11, but Topinka said she had no authority to stop Ryan.

Topinka also has faced criticism for the ethics package she has proposed, which would end no-bid contracts and limit state contractors' political donations.

Since 1993, Topinka has accepted nearly $600,000 from banking interests. About $80,000 of that amount came from banks where Topinka deposited $365 million in state funds, the Sun-Times reported last year.

She also has been hit for awarding 300 no-bid state contracts while treasurer. Her office said that is a distortion and that she has sought bids for all contracts over $20,000 for personnel and $25,000 for goods and services, as state budgeting laws require.

Finally, the move that has dogged her most as treasurer is her 1995 plan to allow a group of clout-heavy investors to forgo paying all but $10 million of $40 million in state-backed construction loans used to build a pair of Downstate hotels.

Idea: City casino would fund schools
Go anywhere with Judy Baar Topinka and you'll hear her talk about trying to improve things in Illinois: education, the economy and ethics in government.

The splashiest of her proposals involves building a Chicago casino, the cornerstone of a $10 billion plan to boost school spending, freeze property taxes for two years and fully fund the state's burgeoning employee pension costs.

Proposals aim to boost economy, ethics
The deal, embraced by Mayor Daley but criticized by Gov. Blagojevich, would require legislative approval. And while Topinka is confident she could win the General Assembly's backing, past efforts to bring casino gambling inside the city limits have collapsed.

On the economy, Topinka has proposed new state tax credits for manufacturers that create new jobs, a new tax credit for other companies that bring new jobs to the state and limitations on where out-of-state litigants can file class-action lawsuits.

Finally, on ethics, Topinka has a platform that she says will restore confidence in state government after corruption scandals rocked the last three administrations.

She would end the awarding of no-bid state contracts, prohibit state contractors with more than $25,000 in contracts from contributing to the officeholder responsible for the deal and reduce by two-thirds the number of politically appointed state hires.

A complete rundown on Topinka's proposals can be found at her Web site: /judys_vision_illinois.php.

Dave McKinney