WASHINGTON – Rep. Rick Nolan was annoyed again, clutching a letter he had written to powerful members of House and Senate appropriations committees on his official congressional stationary. The letter, highlighted with yellow marker, underscored the decrepit conditions of a Bureau of Indian Affairs school in his district.
"I want to hand this to the chairmen and the ranking members," Nolan said, glasses on the tip of his nose. "They have a school up there that was designed as a mechanical house and a bus garage. ... It's mold, it's fungus, it's rodents, it's a leaking roof ... for poor Indian kids going to school! They have a very low graduation rate. There is nothing about it that says to them, 'Boy, people think my education is important.' So I'm going to hand-deliver this letter."
Nolan, a Democrat, is unapologetic about how much he loves to bring money home to his district. What others call pork, he calls essential to improving life for his constituents.
When he's not voting on the House floor, Nolan eschews the fundraising calls that consume so much of lawmakers time. Instead, despite a three-year-old official ban on federal earmarks, he spends hours phone-banking federal agencies and beseeching bureaucrats for funds to send back to his 8th Congressional District,
Since June 2013, when Nolan returned to Congress after a 32-year absence, he has steered roughly $60 million in funds to his district. That includes $10.6 million in housing grants for Indian tribes, a $2.9 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to promote wood-based products and fuels and $10.9 million for the Duluth harbor.
Nolan, who faces a tight race this fall against a small-government, fiscally conservative Republican, says he is trying to "even the score" for Minnesota in Washington. He says he even helps funnel cash to other districts, when respective members don't want to do the work he does courting federal agencies.
A dollar for a dollar
"It's irritating to think some states are getting $4 and $5 for every dollar they give to Washington. I want to get us at least up to par — a dollar back for every dollar we spend," Nolan said. "They [the grants] are improving the community. They are creating jobs. They are expanding the services available in the community, whether it be the airport, housing, colleges, the roads, the bridges."
As members of the minority party, House Democrats can have a tough time proving their productivity. They have no control over which bills or amendments are considered or how they are debated. They have no control over the floor schedule. Their burning issues — like DFL Rep. Keith Ellison's push to vote on boosting the federal minimum wage, for example — often languish in news release and talking points land, with no prayer of congressional movement as long as the other side is in charge.
For Nolan, who served in Congress from 1975 to 1981 before returning last year, this has been remarkably frustrating. He stays in Washington for votes, but doesn't hesitate to jump on a plane or in a cab to meet federal bureaucrats to plow through red tape or promote in person a Minnesota project. This includes a trip he took to Chicago last summer to wave off the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in proposed construction of a district highway and a meeting he attended with Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon recently at the Federal Aviation Administration about the Duluth airport.
Kathryn Pearson, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota, said for all the complaints from members of both parties about funneling federal cash to local projects, the public usually likes it. Even within the Minnesota delegation, Republicans tout federally funded projects in their districts as legislative accomplishments. In GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann's office, for example, staffers say among her biggest achievements in four terms was getting the House to fund the St. Croix River Crossing.
"The public may be wary of earmarks as a practice," Pearson said. "But few would view a particular project in their district as wasteful."
On the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig school in Bena, Nolan hopes to get a new building for the roughly 120 Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe students housed there in grades 7-12. The band has a contract with the Bureau of Indian Education system to run the school.
The school's superintendent, Crystal Redgrave, has testified in front of Congress about the deplorable conditions, including rodents nesting in the building and having to evacuate students when winds hit 40 miles per hour because the building may fall down.
The letter Nolan wrote went out in early April, and now the congressman is trying to get a meeting with the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs at the Department of Interior.
A picture of the school hangs in Nolan's office.