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Miller: Topinka works overtime for endorsement

Published: Monday, Jan. 27, 2014 10:55 p.m. CDT

I don’t think I’ve seen a Republican – or just about any candidate of any stripe – work as hard for an AFL-CIO endorsement as Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka did.

She assiduously courted the unions who represent workers in her office, worked to help the Teamsters pass a bill important to the union that jabbed at a nonunion cemetery owner (the comptroller’s office regulates some cemeteries), built strong relationships with some labor union leaders and attended tons of their events and even endorsed the union-backed pension reform bill.

In other words, she went above and beyond her Democratic rival, Sheila Simon, on pretty much all counts. The Simon family has long enjoyed union support. Except for his successful U.S. Senate primary bid in 1984, union leaders and members almost always backed her father, Paul.

And the daughter would’ve likely had organized labor’s backing this year if she’d run for the open state treasurer slot instead of for comptroller against Topinka. So it was little surprise when Topinka received the Illinois AFL-CIO endorsement this month.

It’s no secret that Illinois voters have tended to lean Democratic for quite a number of years, so successful Republican candidates have to prove they are not completely hostile to the prevailing state winds.

Voters know Topinka well, and many probably still kick themselves for voting for Rod Blagojevich instead of her. Blagojevich defeated Topinka by 10 points in 2006. You’d be hard pressed to find many people who were proud of that pro-Rod vote today.

Even though Topinka is well-known to voters, Simon’s family name still carries quite a bit of cachet, so Topinka has not rested on her laurels. Instead, she’s worked hard to outflank Simon on her left, and not with only the unions.

Topinka has long been aggressively outspoken on gay rights issues, and she upped her credibility on the issue with the gay marriage proposal, working the bill hard and then receiving a huge roar of applause when, during the gay marriage signing ceremony, she offered to serve as a “flower girl” for any couple who is married under the new law.

The state Federation of Labor will make fall election endorsements this summer, so I suppose it’s possible they could go in a different direction. But Simon probably didn’t help her case any when she blasted the Topinka endorsement by “insiders” acting “behind closed doors.” The AFL-CIO always meets privately to discuss these endorsements, and it’s doubtful Simon would’ve been so concerned about the process if she’d received the nod.

Simon sent out a press release last week shortly before the labor endorsement was announced, praising herself for raising a mere $132,000 in the fourth quarter of 2013. Topinka raised even less, but her campaign claims she back-loaded her fundraising for this quarter. We’ll see. Either way, Topinka has $914,000 tucked away in her campaign bank account compared with $379,000 for Simon, and Simon now won’t be getting much if any major union contributions in the near future.

Topinka also endeared herself to many state legislators who don’t have second jobs when she immediately cut legislative paychecks after a Cook County judge ruled last year that Quinn’s veto of member salaries was unconstitutional. Quite a few of those legislators are African-Americans and Latinos, so Simon didn’t help herself with them when she criticized Topinka for her fast action and said she would’ve waited to see if the judge stayed his order.

And even Gov. Pat Quinn, who often nurses grudges, has seemed to brush off Topinka’s paycheck move. Quinn told the Chicago Sun-Times’ Michael Sneed this month that he “can’t praise state Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka enough” for her work on animal welfare issues.

Quinn still is reportedly not happy with his lieutenant governor for the way she abruptly jumped off the ticket a year ago when Lisa Madigan loomed large as a potential challenger, and for when Simon refused to endorse him last summer when it looked like he faced a difficult primary against Bill Daley.

Despite everything, Illinois is Illinois, so this campaign isn’t a slam dunk for the incumbent comptroller by any means. And that’s a big reason why Topinka worked so hard to win the state Fed’s endorsement this month. Very smart politics.

• Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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