Not many election surprises Tuesday in St. Paul — the City Council races went pretty much the way most of us expected, although I wasn’t willing to bet my big MinnPost salary on my hunch that Melvin Carter would beat Debbie Montgomery, which he did.
The big question, though — the one we ask every four years in St. Paul — is: How does Republican Tom Conlon keep winning? He retains his School Board seat, which he’s held since 1991, by finishing third in the eight-person school board race. The top four were elected.
Conlon is the lone elected Republican Ranger in a city dominated by DFL office holders. Not since Norm Coleman changed his party stripes in Mayoral Term Two (1997) has there been another Republican elected in the city. Before that you have to go to the 1970s and ’80s with names like Ron Sieloff and John Drew and Joe O’Neill and Bob Pavlak.
In those cases, Republicans were elected in St. Paul thanks to their personalities and connections, and despite their Republican affiliation. So, it seems, is the case with Conlon.
“Every time, I hold my breath, thinking: Is this the time they’re going to get me?” Conlon said Wednesday, before heading out to pick up lawn signs from supporters’ lawns all around St. Paul.
So what’s the secret? Conlon points to three things:
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.”
Some observers note that Conlon doesn’t exactly tout his Republican endorsement and affiliation with 72-point type and searchlights. As an incumbent, he’s able to fly below the partisan radar in the lightly publicized school board races. But he claims he doesn’t run from his Republican roots, either, saying it’s always brought up in press coverage.
Asked why Conlon keeps winning, George Latimer, the DFL mayor of St. Paul from 1976 to 1989, says, “Why not?”
“Tom’s a decent guy, he supports some good things, and it’s fun to have one guy who says ‘no’ most of the time. Plus, he’s a familiar name. That’s important in a town like ours, where people do tend to get to know the people in public office.”
Len Levine — former St. Paul City Council member, state Commissioner of Transportation and Human Services and a devout Democrat — agreed, calling Conlon “a nice person.”
“He’s also pretty low key, and he gets to vote no on tax increases,” said Levine (who I’m working with on an unrelated writing project). “Combine all those things, and maybe that’s why he wins.”
“We put up a strong slate, and to his credit he still got re-elected,” said Stuart Alger, chair of the St. Paul DFL. “He’s from the Highland area, which always has a big turnout; voters there know him and turn out for him,” Alger said. “It helps to be an incumbent, with the name recognition. And Tom tends to characterize himself as an independent when he’s running.”
Does Conlon foresee a time when the Republican Party sees a St. Paul resurgence? Not any time soon. “It’s pretty bleak right now. But if it happens, it’ll be because we’ve got strong candidates. So we’ve got to keep trying. Keep our folks active and keep our ideas out there. Provide opposition, I’m hopeful our day will come, but so far, it’s pretty demoralizing.”
Meanwhile, in Mayor Coleman’s office, there was a sense of vindication this week; the mayor supported six of the seven Council seat victors (and stayed out of the Ward 6 race, even though he’s worked comfortably and well with winning incumbent Dan Bostrom.) With a big tax hike coming around the bend, city voters might have tried to send a message to the mayor by rejecting the status quo. But they didn’t, indicating some comfort with the Chris Coleman direction. At least for now.