By Will Oremus
Greg Conlon has a tough problem to solve.
He's a mainstream Republican running for Congress in a district dominated by liberal Democrats. Not only that he's up against Jackie Speier, a popular former state senator with big-time name recognition and heavyweight backing from her party.
But that's just the type of problem Conlon says he built his career solving.
Conlon, an accountant who rose to senior partner in the Arthur Anderson national accounting firm he retired before it went bust helped expose public employee fraud in San Francisco's 1978 "Metergate" scandal and put himself through law school while serving on the California Public Utilities Commission.
Far from resting easy at age 74, he's spent the past three years trying to resurrect Arthur Andersen.
Asked how he thinks he can win election to Congress, Conlon instinctively delves into the numbers. He notes that the 12th Congressional District consists of about 50 percent registered Democrats and 22 percent registered Republicans.
"The thing going for me that nobody realizes isthe decline-to-states," Conlon says. "My view is and I may be wrong on this that the decline-to-states are really closet Republicans. If I'm right on my assessment, this election could be a lot closer than people think."
The many doubters include his own party's national strategists. While local Republican honchos urged Conlon to run, the national party hasn't funneled any money toward his campaign, seeing the district as "safe" for Democrats.
But Conlon, who once worked in a Utah smelter to help pay for college, aspires to be more than a palatable patsy for his party to throw against Speier.
He knows winning the April 8 open primary is unrealistic; his goal there is to soundly beat anti-war Republican candidate Mike Moloney while blocking Speier from the majority she needs to step into Lantos' seat for the rest of this year. If he does that, he believes party donors may line up behind him.
First, though, Conlon must convince voters that his conservative agenda isn't out of step with their values.
He defines himself as the candidate of fiscal responsibility and commitment to stability in the Middle East stances he believes are shared by many San Mateo County voters, if not more liberal San Franciscans. And he's moderate on education and the environment, opposing the rigid, test-based standards of No Child Left Behind and calling for a European-style cap-and-trade program to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
On the federal budget, Conlon produces charts that are an exact opposite of the ones Green Party candidate Barry Hermanson likes to hand out.
Hermanson's highlight the big share of the discretionary budget that goes to the Pentagon and Iraq; Conlon's focus on the even bigger share of the overall budget tied up in entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
"Medicare costs are out of control," he says, citing a government report that puts the program's long-term unfunded liabilities at $34 trillion. While most politicians avoid that uncomfortable fact, Conlon says, "I'm beholden to no one. I'll touch that third rail, and I'll get that deficit down."
On Iraq, he chides the other four candidates for wanting to "cut and run." For Conlon, it again comes down partly to the bottom line: Gas prices, which he believes could rocket to a disastrous $6 per gallon if the United States exits Iraq without winning the peace.
One number Conlon doesn't take seriously is his age. A contemporary of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, he figures he could serve for 10 to 14 years, easy.
"I just have so much energy," he says. "I've got to keep solving the problems of the world."