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Nolan's singular career draws to close: 8th District rep will not run again

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., talks to the crowd at Gregory Park in Brainerd attending the science march last April. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

As the last of the "Watergate Babies" exits the U.S. House of Representatives and bids farewell to Capitol Hill, he can look back at a historically unique career of public service and say it all started with liver and onions.

Well, that's one way it started. U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Crosby, announced he would not seek a fourth term in office Friday. The announcement was a sudden reversal on prior statements by the three-term representative of Minnesota's 8th District, who announced in June he would not run for the open governor seat because associates urged him to continue in his role as a representative of a crucial congressional district.

For Nolan, 74, exposure to a life of public service began at an early age—whether that was hanging around the likes of his uncle, Joe Nolan, a Brainerd Police Department captain, or working in the office of his aunt Eleanor Nolan, the first female judge in the state of Minnesota. Around the dinner table, Nolan said his parents were planting even deeper seeds, such as quiet admonishments to consider others' perspectives and "walk 10 miles in their moccasins."

But his first tangible political victory came when he mounted a boycott against a certain menu item at the Brainerd High School cafeteria when he was a freshman. Liver and onions wasn't particularly popular among kids at the time. Sensing the ire of the student body, Nolan felt convicted to make some changes.

"That was the first time I realized I wanted to do something about things," Nolan said during a phone interview. He chuckled at the memory. "And it was the first time I realized I could do something."

Now, Nolan is taking a step back from public service and returning to his roots: family—grandchildren instead of constituents, track meets instead of fundraising meet-and-greets. Nolan has narrowly won every election in the swing-district since he first revitalized his congressional career and beat Republican incumbent Chip Cravaak handily in 2012. It's been hard-fought battles and expensive ones at that—a sore point for Nolan, who frequently mentioned his desire for campaign finance reform, particularly the reversal of Citizens United. During his first stint in Congress, 1975-81, Nolan said his most expensive campaign spent $250,000. In 2016 alone, the Democrats spent more than $20 million to keep the district away from Republicans.

It's not the first time he's expressed these misgivings. Steve Wenzel, a political science instructor at Central Lakes College, said Nolan left Congress in '81 in part because he was, in Nolan's words, "spending life in the hospitality suite." Wenzel is a former 30-year veteran of the Minnesota House of Representatives and a longtime friend of Nolan's.

The problem only got worse when Nolan returned to Congress 32 years later—a hiatus between terms in Congress that ranks as the longest in American history—after a career in the private sector as the owner of Emily Wood Products, a sawmill and pallet company in Emily. Deep political divides go beyond ideological disagreements in Washington, D.C., Nolan said, and much of it has to do with a legislative culture that's centered around fundraising—an unglamorous schedule that often includes making calls for donations, hours and hours at a time, in cramped office conditions.

Members of Congress just don't socialize and interact with each other the way they did in the '70s and early '80s, Nolan said, and it's hurting the democratic process.

"There'd be these cook-outs, barbecues, picnics—getting out there and seeing people. You'd get to know these guys across the aisle, learn their wife's name and meet their children," Nolan said. "Now there's not much of a reason to stay in Washington (D.C.) on the weekends. Nobody's around."

That's not to say Nolan doesn't feel his tenure was worthwhile. The U.S. representative often said it was a "joy and privilege" to serve in Congress, an act of "gratitude" to his district and communities like Brainerd, where he found his genesis.

Economic growth and job creation in the 8th District—particularly in the mining industry—stand out as a high point of his tenure, Nolan said. When he was first elected in 2012, the region was still reeling from the Great Recession and struggling to find its footing. Now, he said, he leaves the district in the best economic shape it's been in for years—evidenced by the return of many mining jobs, as well as burgeoning areas like the stretch of businesses along Highway 371.

Wenzel said Nolan has been criticized by members of his own party for being too pro-mining, fighting for the industry to the detriment of environmental causes—such as renewable energy and clean water initiatives—that Nolan has championed in the past.

Nolan said achieving both—a better, cleaner Minnesota and a healthy mining industry—were always his intentions and it's becoming a more viable goal as technology progresses.

"Back in the day, I think people were telling us that it was impossible, but we knew from the beginning. Yes, you can have both," Nolan said. "Mining is rather unique. If you can't get it through mineral extraction from Mother Earth, one way or another, then you don't have much of anything."

When he was a young man, Nolan said, some of his first political actions were to protest the Vietnam War. Stopping "wars of choice," as he called them, still ranks as one of his highest aspirations and counts most prominent among his failures as a public servant—with the exception of being identified as one of the key opponents to putting boots on the ground in Syria during 2012-13, which President Barack Obama ultimately opted not to authorize.

The costs of the war on terror—Iraq, Afghanistan and many other nations the United States is currently operating in—is staggering, especially in light of other areas of need at the national level, he added, calling it a "waste of blood and treasure."

"We've spent over $6 trillion on these wars," he said. "Think of college education. With $1 trillion you could graduate every kid in America. With another trillion you could buy universal health care. With another trillion you could pay for the infrastructure they've been talking about."

Speaking of subjects in terms of international affairs and trillions of dollars is a day-to-day reality for a House representative of the world's premier superpower—though it still doesn't detract from the friendliness and natural engagement Nolan brings to his role, said Wenzel, who described Nolan as the "best retail politician," or a personable, down-to-earth statesman, from the state of Minnesota since Hubert Humphrey.

It's easier to visit constituents regularly, stump for individual causes or remember people on a first name basis when it's a natural pleasure. While many politicians can be personable and engaging, for only a few are one-on-one conversations such a source of enjoyment and energy, Nolan said.

It's this infectious energy that's carried Nolan this far—from a Brainerd High School student, to a English/social studies teacher in Royalton, to a staffer for then-Sen. Walter Mondale, to state representative, then as a U.S. Representative in eras as different as Gerald Ford and Donald Trump are different, with a career as a private businessman sandwiched in between.

"It's never the destination, it's the journey," he said, summarizing his life path. He spoke warmly of his "perfect" and "idyllic" childhood in Brainerd. "I've failed in everything I've ever done—including my first congressional race. I guess that's what they teach you in Brainerd, that failures aren't failures, but lessons on the path to success."