Tom Conlon was a very rare bird in St. Paul politics: an elected Republican — a school board member for nearly 18 years until he stepped down in 2009.
Conlon, 50, was found dead in his car near his home about 5:30 Sunday morning. He’d been seen shoveling out his car a few minutes earlier. No cause of death has been announced yet.
By coincidence, I had seen Conlon just last Friday night. During our conversation, Conlon told me he planned to run again for the school board in November but wanted to wait until after the holidays to make the announcement.
Conlon had surprised many of us when he resigned from the school board in May 2009 to move to North Carolina to run a historic inn. He called it a longtime dream to run a place like the Cedar Crest Inn in Asheville, N.C. That didn’t work out, however, and he returned within months to St. Paul, where he had a photography business and taught undergraduate Intro to Management and Organizational Behavior classes at Metropolitan State University.
He also worked for the past 10 years as official scorekeeper for the St. Paul Central boys basketball team; I sat next to him Friday night for the JV and Varsity games when Central played Hill-Murray. He talked about his renewed commitment to school issues, saying he’d recently joined the site council for a local school. He also sat next to Superintendent Valeria Silva at a recent meeting on getting alumni involved with the schools.
He made an early run last year at seeking the Republican nomination for state auditor, but dropped out at the state convention, where Pat Anderson got the nomination.
In a sea of liberalism — the overwhelmingly-DFL political landscape in St. Paul — Conlon was an anomaly.
Norm Coleman won a term as mayor as a Republican in 1997 but had first been elected as a DFLer and then switched parties. Before that, you have to go back to the 1970s and 1980s for a few lone Republican election victories in the city.
After winning reelection in 2007, Conlon told me he had three things going for him:
1. “It’s been wise for me not to align with either wing of the DFL party in the city. He calls them the Pastel Democrats (the Randy Kelly, pre-Republican Norm Coleman, Chamber of Commerce and big developer types) and the progressive liberals, like (ex-Mayor) Jim Scheibel and (current Mayor) Chris Coleman. Although I do try to find support from both wings,” he said.
2. “I keep my independent perspective. With a 6-1 partisan makeup on the school board, I’m not going to get many conservative issues passed, but I like to think I move them back toward the center,” he said. Military recruitment at the schools and the mandatory reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance are examples he cited.
3. Constituent service. “When a student or parent has a problem, I answer their phone calls or emails and try to find the answer, or at least get them in touch with someone who can help. And I go to the church dinners and Scout breakfasts and all the parades, even when it’s not election year.”
To that I would add: It didn’t hurt to have the Irish name in St. Paul, and he never went to great lengths to advertise his Republican ties during campaigns. And he could look good to conservatives by voting “no” on budget issues on principle, knowing that the six liberal members would pass the measures.
This morning, Superintendent Silva recalled Conlon as “a man who really cared about the community,” someone who was “always pleasant, very calm and always had a big smile.”
She said: “He always took the job very seriously — and being a board member is a huge job [that requires] giving so much time to serve the community, and rarely [being] in the spotlight in a positive way.
“He was always asking the next question: How can we be sure the students will be the bottom line. He cared a lot about St. Paul. It was in his blood.”
Late Friday night, as the big snowstorm was just starting, he and I reconciled the final stats at the Central scorer’s table, and as he left, he said: “I’ll call you in January about the election plan.”