WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan's surprise decision to drop his re-election bid was still roiling Minnesota politics as the DFLer, back home in Minnesota this past weekend, edged toward what's soon to be his new routine: managing to make three of his grandchildren's basketball games in a three-day period.
Nolan, 74, shocked Minnesota's political class this month by dropping out of a re-election race that he had earlier committed to run. DFLers, and Democrats nationally, desperately hope to hold his seat in a northeastern Minnesota district that's trended toward President Donald Trump. A progressive iconoclast whose unpredictable streak showed itself as he bucked his party on northern Minnesota mining, Nolan said in an interview that he was no longer willing to make the sacrifices necessary to a competitive congressional campaign.
"When you get in these tough election contests, you've got to give it everything you've got, or I don't think you should run," Nolan told the Star Tribune. "That's what I did over the years, and that's how I won. But now it's time to give something back to my family and my wife, and I'm really hungry for more time with them."
Nolan has talked publicly about his adult daughter's lung cancer diagnosis. But he said his decision encompassed the rest of his family, too; he has four children and 13 grandchildren.
"It's not just her — it's all my kids, and all of our grandkids, and all of our friends," Nolan said. "We all know there's a finality to life, and it becomes more apparent when you're my age."
Nolan was elected to his current stint in 2012, but his political service goes back much further. He was initially elected to the U.S. House in 1974, as part of a wave of Democrats swept into office following the Watergate scandal. Nolan is the last of the so-called Watergate babies still in the House; his last remaining colleague of that era, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, has moved to the Senate. Nolan left office the first time in 1981.
In his second time around, Nolan found himself caught between mining and environmental interests in northern Minnesota, spurring divisions among DFL residents who want stronger environmental protections in areas around the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
"Rick was fearless in his ability to advocate for what were sometimes controversial projects," said Nancy Norr, chair of Jobs for Minnesotans, a coalition of business and labor interests.
Norr expects mining to be a big issue in the upcoming campaign.
"There are parties that will buy into this issue that you can't have mining and a quality environment, and that obviously was not where Congressman Nolan stood," she said.
Ely business owner Paul Schurke praised Nolan for supporting affordable health care, fighting for senior benefits and opposing steel dumping into U.S. markets by foreign companies.
But, he added, "I can't deny that many of us progressive DFLers do feel betrayed by his transition on mining issues ... somehow in the years since [his 2012 election] he's aligned himself with this anti-public lands agenda and with these far-right Republicans."
Nolan said he believed it was about jobs. He said he'd continue in his final months to support the coexistence of mining activity in northern Minnesota alongside environmental regulations.
"I think my greatest sense of gratification is that I've been able to get the people I represent back to work in good-paying jobs, and the economy is moving along strongly," he said. "I had a very deliberate and active role in making that happen."
Between now and November, Nolan said he'd also advocate for the overturning of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which opened the door for corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns. He said he'd keep pressing for a single-payer health care system.
Nolan acknowledged frustration with the current Republican agenda in Washington, expressing a wish for the chance to at least vote on more issues, like an immigration bill or gun safety measures. He's critical of a system that, he said, forces lawmakers to make fundraising calls at party call centers across the street from the Capitol building. It's at the expense of more substantive policy debates, Nolan maintained.
DFL candidates seeking to replace Nolan so far include former FBI counterrorism expert Leah Phifer, North Branch Mayor Kirsten Hagen Kennedy, retired news anchor Michelle Lee and Nolan's former campaign manager Joe Radinovich. Another possible contender, state Sen. Tony Lourey, said over the weekend that he would not run.
Nolan said a good DFL bench made his decision to retire easier. He declined to endorse a successor.
On the GOP side, the leading candidate so far is St. Louis County Commissioner Pete Stauber.
Nolan said he has observed a much greater awareness from constituents of what's going on in Washington and more interest in getting political involvement. Nolan said he'd seek to still have a voice as a private citizen after leaving office.
"I'll spend my Fourth of July weekend with the family picnicking and boating and fishing and water skiing — I won't be going to 10 parades that weekend," said Nolan. "Not that I didn't enjoy every one of those parades."