There’s little doubt that the late Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka would’ve continued her straight-talking ways during a Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner administration.
Topinka was “good copy” for reporters. When she criticized a budget or a fiscal position, we listened.
Other Statehouse denizens respected her fiscal smarts as well. If she attacked a proposal, legislators and everyone else under the dome took note.
Rauner showed great deference to Topinka after the election, officing in her Statehouse suite and giving her chief of staff the authority to hire most of his new employees. I don’t think there’s any question that he grew to truly admire the quirky redhead.
But Topinka had called for a far more gradual reduction to the state’s 2011 income tax hike than Gov.-elect Rauner has said he wants. A particularly brutal package of budget cuts or one-time gimmicks proposed by Rauner next year wouldn’t have gone down too well with her. Rauner would’ve had to take her opinion into account before unveiling his budget, or suffer the consequences afterward.
She was also much more liberal than Rauner admits to. Topinka was expected to help build bridges between Rauner and organized labor, as well as to Democrats and left of center groups she worked with over the years and who have not yet become comfortable with the idea of a Republican governor.
Yes, many of us lost a friend this month, but we also lost an experienced, respected politico who could counsel the new and inexperienced governor about how to be a more effective leader, and one who could help nudge him, publicly or privately, to stay on a more humane and fiscally responsible fiscal path.
And with Topinka’s post-election passing, I don’t see any of Rauner’s fellow Republicans out there with the power or credibility who will also have the guts to stand up to the guy.
Some holes can be patched here and there. Both Republican state legislative leaders have ties to unions, for example. Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno is a former social worker who has championed human services causes.
But neither of those leaders have yet to show much independence from Rauner, whose money had a major impact on House races this year and could have an equally big impact on 2016 Senate races.
For instance, Gov. Quinn, Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton have all forcefully argued for a special election so that Rauner’s pick for Topinka’s replacement won’t serve beyond a 2016 special election. A four-year appointment by Rauner, they all argue, is just downright undemocratic.
When the topic was first broached, Rauner claimed such an election would be unconstitutional, but the Illinois Constitution clearly says that the appointee serves until the successor is elected and qualified “as may be provided by law.”
The next day, the two legislative leaders, Radogno and House GOP Leader Jim Durkin, released what higher-ups in the attorney general’s office derisively dismissed as a “half baked” legal opinion about why a special session would be unconstitutional.
The opinion deliberately left out crucial words in important constitutional passages, defied logic by claiming “as may be provided by law” passage didn’t allow the Legislature to actually do anything, and ignored committee reports from and debate at the state’s Constitutional Convention which made it abundantly clear that the Legislature has the authority to act.
Not only did that opinion bode ill for the incoming Rauner administration (with one person at the attorney general’s office saying it reminded her of Rod Blagojevich, whose lawyers would often pull legal arguments out of thin air to counter the attorney general), it also showed an astonishing servility by the two GOP legislative leaders.
I don’t know whether Comptroller Topinka would’ve wanted a special election to replace her in 2016, rather than allow her successor to serve four years until after the regularly scheduled 2018 election. None of us do. She had her partisan leanings, so she might be wary of holding a special election in a presidential election year, when Democrats do much better than off years. But she was also a small “d” democrat and a four-year appointment sure doesn’t feel democratic to many folks.
I do know, however, that Topinka never would’ve signed her name to an obviously bogus legal “argument” like the one released last week.
“There’s a hole in the hearts of the people of this state,” Gov. Quinn said at Topinka’s memorial service last week. That’s true. But there’s also now a gaping hole in the government which assumes power next month.