Rare GOP office holder in St. Paul resigned to chase a dream, but now he’s back to run for state auditor

Tom Conlon — who’d long been a rare politician in St. Paul, an elected Republican — is back home.

Conlon resigned his seat on the St. Paul School Board last summer and moved to North Carolina to operate the Cedar Crest Inn in Asheville, N.C.

But operating an inn apparently isn’t the easy-going, laugh-a-minute lifestyle that many of us recall from Bob Newhart’s old television sitcom about running a Vermont inn.

And Conlon says he missed St. Paul.

“I enjoyed the work, and there were a lot of wonderful guests,” he said. “But there are always challenges in managing something like that. Sixteen-hour days, and it’s really not the Bob Newhart show, which makes it seem a lot more idyllic job than in real life.”

Now that he’s back, Conlon wants to run for state auditor in 2010. He’s one of three Republicans currently seeking their party’s endorsement for the job.

The auditor’s race
Although he’s not an accountant, Conlon said he’s learned lots about auditing during his years on the school board.

Tom Conlon
Tom Conlon

“One of my key interests on the board was fiscal responsibility, finding the best use of dollars in classroom,” he said. “In the role of a nonpartisan auditor, I could bring a strong education component to assisting governmental units, and work in a policy role. When there are issues of concern to the public, I’d push hard for accountability. I’ve been doing that for years on a local level, and I can translate that interest and passion into being a good state auditor.”

He’s particularly interested in monitoring how the stimulus dollars are being used:

“Are they going for jobs programs? But what happens when those dollars dry up? And are developers and their cronies making contributions to politicians and maybe getting some favorable votes in return?  I’d look for facts, and if we find improprieties, the auditor’s role is to go to the Legislature or the county attorney or the attorney general and seek action. If they won’t look at it, the auditor should take the lead.”

Incumbent DFL State Auditor Rebecca Otto is expected to seek re-election. The other Republican candidates who’ve formed committees (and Facebook pages) are:

Jeff Wiita, a certified public accountant from Minnetonka, who works in the state auditor’s office.

Randy Gilbert, the mayor of Long Lake.

Long the lone Republican
Conlon was first elected to the school board in 1991 and was re-elected four times. Often, he was the only Republican elected official in the DFL-dominated city of St. Paul.

He grew up in St. Paul and graduated from Highland Park High School. After a stint in the Marines, he attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism and political science and then a master’s in public administration.

He maintained those Carolina ties, which led to the hankering to run the inn in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“The B&B business interested me for a number of reasons,” he said. “Asheville is a beautiful area that I’m familiar with, and it has a tourism market — about 50 B&Bs there alone. I considered simply investing in one there at different times, but not running one. I learned that was not feasible — you need to be hands-on with that type of business — and a lease-option opportunity arose where I could do so, but needed to be there.

“I like historic homes and history, and I also envisioned tying my photography work into events which would grow my business. I enjoy travel and have been many places where guests may come from, so you would interact with many interesting people. For a combination of those reasons, I explored it, not knowing for sure if it would work or not or if I’d want to do it long term, but had to try it and am glad I did.”

Conlon resigned from the school board before the major decisions were made on selection of the district’s new superintendent. His successor on the board, Vallay Moua Varro, was elected in November and played a role in choosing new superintendent Valeria Silva.

Conlon says Silva is a fine choice.

“I followed the selection process in the media, because of my knowledge of the district and love of it, but I didn’t get involved at all, didn’t call any board members or offer any opinions,” he said. “I let them do their work. And I’ve worked a lot with Valeria over the years and know she’ll be a good superintendent.”

Family and St. Paul ties
Conlon is divorced and moved to North Carolina alone, but didn’t sell his Highland Park home; his parents stayed there while he was gone.

“The plan was at some future time they would likely move down, but we never made specific arrangements at that time,” he said. 

Conlon has a photography business and also teaches classes at Metropolitan State University. While in North Carolina, he taught an online course in organizational behavior for Metro State. Now that’s he’s back, he’ll teach that class again next semester, this time with students alternating each week with online work and in-the-classroom classes.

Joe Kimball writes about politics, St. Paul and other subjects. He can be reached at jkimball [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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