Illinois voters’ guilt trip’ ensures win by Topinka

by RUSS STEWART

Here is some revisionist history. Illinois is not necessarily the "Land of Lincoln." It could just as plausibly be known as the "Land of the Stupid Voter" — about 1,736,731 of them.

That is the number of votes secured by Rod Blagojevich for governor in 2006, after he relentlessly and mercilessly bashed his Republican opponent, Judy Baar Topinka. "What is she thinking?" his television ads blared, as he spent $25 million, much of it in "pay to play"-raised funds, to define Topinka as some kind of crackpot and win a second term by 367,417 votes. Blagojevich went on to infamously get himself impeached, indicted, convicted and jailed.

Be honest now. Were you one of those dolts who voted for Blagojevich over Topinka? If so, aren’t you appalled at your gullibility and ashamed at your stupidity? So, to assuage your guilt and expiate your sin, aren’t you going to vote for Topinka for re-election as state comptroller in 2014? Some of you are. Luckily you are not banned for life from voting because of one dumb mistake.

Which brings us to Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon, the well known daughter of the late senator Paul Simon. What is she thinking? She decoupled herself from Governor Pat Quinn, choosing not to run as part of a Quinn-Simon team in 2014, and chose not to run for the open state treasurer post, but instead against Topinka. The expectation was that, after winning the comptroller’s race in 2014, Simon would than challenge Republican U.S. Senator Mark Kirk in 2016. Whoever is giving her political advice needs to be canned.

The comptroller’s job is nothing more than that of a glorified bookkeeper. The office simply issues checks and pays employees and vendors. The food chain is clear: The General Assembly’s budget appropriates money and levies taxes and fees, the governor can amend various line items, the Illinois Department of Revenue collects the revenue, the treasurer invests the money, and the comptroller pays (or doesn’t pay) the bills, depending on cash availability. The comptroller makes no policy decisions or controversial choices and has no input into the budget process but has enormous media clout.

Topinka’s predecessor, Democrat Dan Hynes, who lost to Quinn in the 2010 primary by 8,372 votes, generated continual headlines by proclaiming how broke the state was and the billions of dollars of bills (primarily Medicaid vendors) which he couldn’t pay because he didn’t have the money. Topinka has done likewise.

In short, being the comptroller is a win-win situation. You do your job, pay the bills, take no position on social issues, focus on fiscal matters, and blame the governor and the legislature if there is insufficient money to pay bills. It’s an endless fountain of publicity.

Hynes, the son of 19th Ward powerhouse Tom Hynes, was elected to the open comptroller’s post in 1998, winning by 614,413 votes. He was re-elected by 1,041,441 votes in 2002, and he won a third term by 1,121,118 votes in 2006. Bland and uncharismatic, Hynes epitomized the premise that you can’t beat a bookkeeper. What is there to criticize? There is no plausible negativity.

Formerly known as the auditor of public accounts, the office became the comptroller in 1972. The job was a dead end from 1818 to 1972, with one auditor, Orville Hodge, going to jail for embezzlement, and it still is. Not a single occupant of the office has been elected governor or senator. Mike Howlett, Mike Bakalis, Roland Burris, Dawn Clark Netsch and Hynes all lost bids for governor, and Loleta Didrickson lost as bid for senator, although Howlett (to secretary of state) and Burris (to attorney general) managed to move up a notch before flaming out.

In 2010, a banner Republican year, party leaders begged Topinka to stage a comeback. However, Downstate Republican state senator Dan Rutherford had been maneuvering for several years to run for treasurer, Topinka lacked the stomach and money to run for governor again, and the offices of secretary of state and attorney general were unwinnable, so that left Hynes’ open spot.

Topinka, age 70, was first elected to the Illinois House from Berwyn in 1980, was elected to the Illinois Senate in 1984, and was elected state treasurer in 1994. Topinka’s narrow 1994 win over Nancy Drew Sheehan had musical-chair repercussions for a decade. In 1994 a Republican won every statewide office, with Governor Jim Edgar getting 63.8 percent of the vote and crushing Netsch by 1,984,318 votes, Secretary of State George Ryan demolished Quinn, then treasurer, by 685,515 votes, and Jim Ryan beat Al Hofeld for attorney general by 280,681 votes. Didrickson, a south suburban state representative, won the comptroller’s post (vacated by Netsch) by 406,994 votes over a West Side Chicago state senator, and Topinka eked out a 77,018-vote win over Sheehan for treasurer (vacated by Quinn).
The anti-Clinton, pro-Republican wave of 1994 wiped out Illinois’ Democratic bench. Had either Hofeld or Sheehan won in 1994, one of them (most likely Sheehan) would have been the 1998 Democratic candidate for governor, not conservative Downstate congressman Glenn Poshard, who lost to George Ryan by 119,903 votes, primarily because Chicago-area liberals found Poshard repugnant. Any other Democrat would have beaten Ryan. Then Ryan, who used "pay to play" (and work) money from his office’s employees and vendors to beat Poshard in 1998, later was indicted, convicted and jailed. Blagojevich, because there was no Democratic bench in 2002, won the nomination for governor with 36.5 percent of the vote and went on to beat Jim Ryan by 252,080 votes in a Democratic wave year.

Hindsight is wonderful. Here are a whole bunch of "but fors." Blame it all on Quinn. But for Quinn’s dumb decision to run against Ryan in 1994, Topinka would not have beaten Sheehan. But for Sheehan’s defeat, Ryan would not have faced and beat Poshard. But for Ryan’s 1998 win, the feds would not have investigated him. But for the cloud over the governor, Blagojevich could not have beaten Jim Ryan in 2002. But for Blagojevich’s win, Quinn would not have been elected lieutenant governor and become governor on Blago’s 2009 impeachment. But for Blagojevich’s fund-raising misdeeds, Topinka arguably would not have lost for governor. But for Quinn’s ascension to the governorship, Simon would not be in his former job.

Ever heard of serendipity? It means being accidentally fortunate, like running for an office without an incumbent. This year will not be serendipitous for Simon.

After winning the 1994 treasurer’s race, the exuberant and charismatic Topinka slowly entrenched herself. An irrepressible campaigner, she was seen in the most un-Republican places, such as the Gay Pride and Bud Billiken parades and at black churches. She won by 62,279 votes in 1998 and by 396,985 votes in 2002. In the 2006 Republican primary for governor, she was blasted by Jim Oberweis as insufficiently conservative and got only 38 percent of the vote. She then lost to Blagojevich 1,735,731-1,369,315.

With Blagojevich disgraced, esteem for Topinka swelled. In 2010, against obscure south suburban state Representative David Miller, Topinka won 1,927,139-1,497,263, a margin of 429,876 votes. She got 557,824 more votes in 2010 than she got in 2006. She got 27.2 percent of the vote in Chicago, where Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Brady got 17.4 percent. She lost Cook County by 209,549 votes and Brady lost by 500,553, she won the Collar Counties and Downstate by 639,425 votes and Brady won by 468,729.

Various polls have shown Topinka with a sizable lead, getting near 55 percent. Topinka also had a sizable financial edge, with cash on hand on June 30 of $1.2 million, to $500,000 for Simon.

"This race is winnable," Simon’s campaign manager, Dave Mellet, said. "First, Topinka is old-style politics. She’s been in Springfield for 30 years. Second, she voted for pension perks which allow her to retire with a pension higher than her current salary. Third, she is on the state Pension Investment Board but missed all the meetings, over 12 years as treasurer and half as comptroller. Fourth, she gives lip service to merging the treasurer and comptroller offices. Fifth, she handed out 15 percent raises to her politically appointed staffers and gave a $40,000 contract to the Republican state chairman. Sixth, she has not posted ‘exempt employee’ salaries on her Web site database. Seventh, she has not enforced the law that local governments file their annual financial audits. Nearly 200 governments were delinquent."

"And then she asked Quinn to get her son a (state) job," Mellet said. "It’s the definition of clout."

Simon said she would be "a fiscal watchdog, cut out clout, provide more transparency and accountability, and impose new standards of ethics and efficiency."

Brad Hahn of the Topinka campaign said that Topinka "helped block $4 billion in new state borrowing, put the state’s daily receipts, expenditures, balances and salaries online, implemented electronic payments to vendors, and cut office staff to 1998 levels." Hahn said that if Topinka is re-elected, she will work to consolidate some of Illinois 8,400 units of government and the 260 accounting systems of state agencies.

"We’re in rocky financial waters," Topinka said. "I want to make sure the politicians play it straight in Springfield, with no numbers games or the shenanigans that got us into this mess."

My prediction: Blagojevich hammered Topinka, with no response. Simon hasn’t laid a glove on her. Topinka wins by 500,000 votes.

Send e-mail to russ@russstewart. com or visit his Web site at www. russstewart.com.

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