August 14, 2002


Being an assertive, aggressive, efficient and competent Illinois treasurer has, over the past half-century, been a ticket to rapid advancement in state politics, but not necessarily to re-election.

Republican Judy Baar Topinka, the current incumbent, has been all of the above, but she has chosen to seek re-election to a third term, and her prospects for victory, and for future political advancement, are precariously entwined with the performance of Jim Ryan in the governor’s race. If Democrat Rod Blaogjevich beats Ryan by more than 500,000 votes in November, that anti-Republican avalanche would likely sweep into office every other statewide Democratic candidate, including State Representative Tom Dart, Topinka’s opponent.

Historically, being state treasurer has been an exceptionally good launching pad into higher office. Two long ago occupants, Republicans Bill Stratton (who served 1943-44 and 1951-52) and Len Small (1905-06 and 1917-18), went on to be elected governor in, respectively, 1952 and 1920; another, Democrat John Stelle (1935-36), became lieutenant governor, and succeeded to the governorship in 1940.

More recently, Republican Bill Scott (1963-66) became state attorney general; Democrat Adlai Stevenson III (1967-70) became U.S. Senator; Democrat Alan Dixon (1971-76) became secretary of state, and then U.S. Senator; and Democrat Pat Quinn (1991-94) is poised to become the state’s next lieutenant governor (after having lost statewide contests for higher office in 1994 and 1998). Dixon’s successor, Democrat Jerry Cosentino (1979-82 and 1987-90), however, lost bids for secretary of state in 1982 and 1990.

Topinka, age 58, from Berwyn, is the first woman to be elected as treasurer. She was initially elected in 1994, after having served in the state legislature for 14 years. In 1998, she was the first treasurer re-elected since Dixon in 1974. If she wins again in 2002, she would be the first three-termer.

Of her 67 male predecessors, most were only eligible to serve a term, so they had to move on. Prior to 1958, the state constitution limited the treasurer to a single, two-year term, and forbade re-election (but they could serve non-consecutive terms). The reason: the treasurer could place state funds in any bank, at any interest rate, and the term limitation tempered greed and dampened the possibility of wrongdoing. In 1958, that was changed to a single, four-year term; and in 1969, the term limitation was removed.

Of Topinka’s  ten immediate elected predecessors, five won higher office (and Quinn would be the sixth). Topinka, who is personable and charismatic, mulled running for both lieutenant governor (with Ryan) and secretary of state (against Democrat Jesse White) in 2002, but opted to be cautious, and to stay put. She is presuming that enough voters now know and like her, and will split their tickets to vote for her. She is on track to run for governor or secretary of state in 2006, but only if she wins in 2002.

“We need to salvage one or two (state) offices,” said one well-placed Republican, who was pessimistic about Ryan’s chances. “We need to keep Judy (Topinka) and win the attorney general’s office with (Joe) Birkett if we (Republicans) expect to remain a political force in the state.” If Topinka and Birkett lose, the Republicans would have no bench for future state elections.

The Republicans’ 1994 state sweep, led by Governor Jim Edgar’s awesome 914,468-vote margin over Democrat Dawn Clark Netsch, enabled the Republicans to win the other five state constitutional offices (lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer, and comptroller). That year, Topinka managed to eke out a 77,018-vote win over Democrat Nancy Drew Sheehan, a Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioner.

In 1998, with George Ryan topping Democrat Glenn Poshard by just 119,903 votes in the governor’s race, Democrats rebounded to capture the secretary of state and comptroller posts, and nearly beat Topinka. Facing a well-funded 1998 challenge from Orland Park Mayor Dan McLaughlin, Topinka’s margin shrank to just 62,279 votes.

Despite her incumbency and presumed visibility, Topinka lost Cook County by a bigger plurality in 1998 (281,488) than she did in 1994 (202,812). And she will likely lose Cook in 2002 by a bigger plurality than she did in 1998. Edgar won Cook in 1994 by 65,616 votes, and Ryan lost Cook in 1998 by 128,264 – which means that Topinka ran about 265,000 votes behind the popular Edgar, and about 150,000 votes behind the less popular George Ryan.

There is no doubt that Topinka, in 2002, will get more votes than Jim Ryan. But the vote for state treasurer, at least in Cook County, is generally a party-line vote, and if Jim Ryan loses Cook to Blagojevich by more than 500,000 votes (which is a conservative projection, given the fact that Gore-Lieberman beat Bush-Cheney in Cook by 746,005 votes in 2000), then Topinka is in grave danger. She cannot win statewide if she loses Cook by more than 350,000 votes.

Topinka possesses some major advantages in her race against Dart:

First, she has a solid record, and she will get most of the major newspaper endorsements. The treasurer’s job is to invest state funds, and Topinka can brag that she has earned $30 million a month in interest, or a total of over $2 billion since taking office. But that doesn’t set voters’ hearts aflutter, since any occupant of the job would do it. She did cut her office’s staff and budget, and create the post of inspector general. She also proposed merging her office with that of comptroller. Her office also handles the collection and distribution of abandoned property, such as savings accounts and investments, and the contents of safety deposit boxes. She got some headlines when she advocated destroying abandoned handguns, rather than returning them.

But most of her name recognition came from her Bright Start college savings program, which allows parents or grandparents to buy up to $100,000 in state bonds, to be used for a specific child’s college tuition. With a $4.2 million state-paid TV-radio media buy, Topinka has been hawking her plan for the past three years – and she hopes that she has generated the same type of familiarity that attached to George Ryan back in 1998, after years of organ donor public service announcements.

Second, she has plenty of money. Recent campaign disclosure reports had Topinka with over $1 million in funds. That means plenty of TV ads in the autumn.

Third, she will benefit from gender voting. She is one of only three women running statewide this year.

But there are some problems, which Dart fully intends to exploit. For example, since 1993 Topinka’s campaign accepted over $47,000 in contributions from George Ryan’s campaign fund. Topinka recently gave the money back, but that tie to the governor could be damaging. Likewise, Dart slammed Topinka for collecting $16,400 in contributions in 2001 from employees of her office, a practice which Dart maintains has persisted throughout Topinka’s two terms. Dart accused Topinka of “George Ryan-style campaigning” and promised that, if elected, he would not accept any donations from employees under his control. Dart also stated that those treasurer’s employees who gave to Topinka got bigger raises and quicker promotions than those who did not, a charge which Topinka emphatically denied.

Topinka shot back that Dart was a “hypocrite,” and that he has received annual campaign contributions since 1994 from an employee on his state legislative payroll.

My early prediction: Topinka is much better known than Dart, age 40, who has been a relatively obscure South Side legislator since 1993, specializing in law enforcement and child abuse issues. But while Topinka is known, primarily because of her college bond ads, she is not otherwise clearly defined. Topinka needs to get on TV soon, and stress her “independence” and her “competence.”

If Dart raises the money to go negative on her, and tie her to the hugely unpopular George Ryan, then Dart can win. If Blagojevich wins the governorship by more than 500,000 votes, then Dart will win. Right now, Topinka rates as the underdog.