Former Rep. Rick Nolan returns to the House after a three-decade absence, having beaten tea party-backed freshman Republican Chip Cravaack. Nolan quit in 1981, telling The Washington Post, “Congress is relatively impotent to make the changes the country needs.” But now, a full generation later, he says he’s confident he can get things done in a district that overlaps in some southern areas with his old one.
Nolan grew up as the middle of three children in the old railroad town of Brainerd, Minn. As a teenager, his aunt, Eleanor Nolan, was appointed Minnesota’s first female district judge. He calls her his biggest political influence growing up. He attended St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., but completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Minnesota. Nolan did graduate work in public policy at the University of Maryland and later in education at St. Cloud State University. He campaigned for Eugene McCarthy during his 1968 antiwar presidential run before serving two terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives.
In 1974, Nolan made the leap to the House, where he compiled a liberal voting record. He made his mark in 1979 when he traveled to Cuba to secure the release of American prisoners. Nolan and Cuban leader Fidel Castro bonded over fishing, and Castro—after agreeing to the prisoners’ release—extended an invitation for him to return for some deep-sea angling. Nolan also battled what he saw as large-farm favoritism by the federal government, and pushed legislation that proposed education programs, equipment loans, and tax-code changes to benefit small farmers.
Frustrated with his party’s leadership, Nolan broke ranks and joined five House colleagues to lobby Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., to challenge incumbent Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination in 1980. He then left Congress, calling himself a “liberal idealist unhappily turned wiser and more realistic,” and returned to Minnesota.
When the Minnesota World Trade Center Corp., or WTC, launched in 1983, Nolan was appointed as an unpaid chairman by then-Democratic Gov. Rudy Perpich and in 1987 went on the payroll as the organization’s president. Nolan claims to have created 326,000 Minnesota jobs through his work at the organization, a public-private initiative to help Minnesota businesses expand into international markets. But his Republican foes criticized his $70,000 salary, which they considered high for a civil servant at the time, and the budget deficits the company ran up. In 1994, Nolan became president of Emily Forest Products, a sawmill and pallet manufacturer.
The lack of local jobs, he says, inspired him to return to Washington at age 68 to push for small-business tax breaks and infrastructure investment. “There are times when I grow weary and tired,” he recently told the Minnesota Post. “But the minute I see people whose values I share and the enthusiasm for public service and making a difference, I get energized and I just keep on going.”
In 2012, national Democrats targeted Cravaack, who scored one of the upsets of the decade in 2010 by beating 18-term Rep. Jim Oberstar, then chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Nolan beat two other candidates in the August Democratic primary with 38 percent of the vote. That set up a confrontation with Cravaack, who dismissed Nolan as “a big-government, more-taxes, more-spending, more-regulation kind of guy.” But Nolan continued to play up his support for small business and blasted Cravaack for backing House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s controversial plans to introduce vouchers into Medicare.
Far from being the stereotypical urban liberal, Nolan is an avid hunter, fisher, and farmer; he harvests wild rice and makes his own maple syrup.
Cory Bennett contributed to this article.