Notes from my interview with Rick Nolan

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan

This week I interviewed Minnesota Eighth District Congressman Rick Nolan for today’s newspaper column. We spoke for almost an hour, so much of it couldn’t fit in an already overstuffed 900-word column.

Here are a few more thoughts from the Feb. 15 Rick Nolan interview after he announced his retirement from Congress. Of course, you will want to begin with the column.

In the column Nolan stressed his desire to spend time with family, a fairly standard reason for leaving Congress. But he also revealed that his campaign polling showed Democrats leading in the generic ballot in the Eighth District, an ideal opportunity to keep the seat. As you might know, I’ll be following that race closely here at MinnesotaBrown.

Finally, the Congressman was gracious with his time and his kind words. I thanked him for his service. What follows are summaries of my questions and Nolan’s responses, edited for length and clarity.

Why retirement now?

It’s obviously something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Corny as it may sound I’m a real true native of the north. There are a few people who enjoy hunting, maple syruping and enjoying the great out doors than me. I have a wonderful wife. It was time.

A friend told me when we started our careers, in terms of life expectancy, we had 80 percent of our life ahead of us. Those numbers have flipped.

It’s really pretty simple. My dreams weren’t always the dreams of my wife and family but they supported me through all of this. I simply want to go back home to have time with my wife and my children and enjoy life. You don’t have enough time in life.

It’s much easier to decide to run than to decide to leave. You have all these people who are appreciative and counting on you. Hard to walk away and go home. You do it with a certain amount of guilt almost. Having said that I feel it’s time for me to spend more time with my wife and family and do the things I enjoy doing while I can still do it. The response from people has been very very understanding. Including my colleagues.

The eighth district is in much better shape than when I started. Thousands are back to work in good paying jobs. A lot of things that happened that are fundamentally good. Nice to leave knowing you made a difference.

Since I returned to Congress [in 2012] the Republicans have been winning the generic polling. For the first time we show the Democratic Party leading the generic ballot. We’ve really got a strong bench. We’ve got some remarkable candidates. Many of them know how to win tough elections, serve effectively. I want to go home. The time is right. For once we will have the wind at our back. We’ve been running with wind at our faces for a long time.

What are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of having gotten all the mines back open and all the thousands of good paying jobs that went with that. I’ve always felt that my purpose was to champion working men and women and those who have been forgotten or left out for one reason or another. When you stop at a convenience store and someone says I’m getting a job in the mines. Or a woman tells me her daughter has a good paying job in the mines. So many jobs dovetail into that. The shops up and down main street. The service providers.

We’ve put thousands of people back to work. We were able to enlist the support of President Obama through Denis McDonough. We got Congress to join in a fight for tariffs against the cheap foreign steel. I’m probably more proud of that than anything. Supplement that with the messaging I have done to accompany that. To ensure that all of these mineral extractions add to the quality and length of our lives. We have a better ability to do them than anywhere in the world given a level playing field. In the process we should not and ought not to abandon the rigorous environmental rules to accompany that.

We have a better opportunity to do it here and do it right than anywhere else. One has to question the desire of going to war in Afghanistan, costing thousands of lives, and President Trump says we need to stay there? And you know one of the reasons are our mineral interests in that country.  Are we comfortable getting our minerals through human exploitation and environmental exploitation in other parts of the world? I am for doing it here, provided that we maintain those rigorous state and federal rules and regulations.

When the president tried to cut enforcement by 80-90 percent I said we wouldn’t do it. 
I’m as proud of my environmental record as I am of my work for the miners.

The bulk of what goes through the Sault locks is iron ore. If those locks go down it would through the country into a depression. We’re not just talking about a couple hundred jobs on the Iron Range, we’re talking about our national security and our economy.

And of course I’m proud of where I’ve stood on gun safety, war and peace, the budget, rights for the immigrants and progressive values.

What do you wish you could have resolved?

Pensions. We have about ten million people in this country, working men and women who worked all their lives, put in every penny and ever nickel agreed to for their pensions and never with any complaint.

Well, the Central Pension Fund — that’s the Teamsters fund — several companies never put their money in there. The late night so-called solution in 2014 voted to gut their pensions. That is just so unbelievably unfair and unjust. To punish the very people who honored every nickel and dime they contracted for, to punish them through no fault of their own. I’ve petitioned [Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck] Schumer and [Democratic House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi, [House Speaker Paul] Ryan and [Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell and I’m glad to say they have agreed to establish a select committee to fix these pension without punishing pensioners. I’ve got a chance to fix it before I leave. 
We’ve got pensioners killing themselves, losing their homes. They’re depressed and their children are concerned. I’m OK with the Dreamers, but pensioners are dreamers too.

My first term I was one of the original sponsors in getting out of Vietnam. I said then that if I did nothing else, that would have been worth it.

The other thing, this may be fundamental to all of it. It’s all embodied in what I call my Restore America act. The lack of democracy in Congress. The Congress has set what came to be called regular order. If you had an amendment, you got a chance to offer it and amend it. Everything went to committee. If it had matured and you were good at it you could get it done. That never happens anymore. We passed a defense resolution, no amendments. Lights on bill, no amendments. Never could add amendments to fix Obamacare, or gun safety. Immigration is a huge dispute. We’ve never had an immigration bill on the floor. Under Ryan we’ve had nothing but votes and floor debate and then run across the street and raise money.

I’m trying to overcome Citizens United. I want to put a limitation on the time people can campaign. Most of the western world has 30-90 days of elections. My bill calls for 60 days. Restore democracy to America. Both in politics and in the Congress. Without that we’re going to have a hard time getting around to budgets that make sense.

The people’s business is a lot of hard work. Not that raising 10-12 million for an election contest isn’t hard work, but that’s not the people’s business. The constitution provides a way for us to make critical changes for the public good. I think the public awareness of what needs to be done is growing. I leave confident that we’re going to find solutions. Politics is not a destination it’s a journey, an American journey, a beautiful one. I walk by the U.S. Constitution every day and it’s signed by a lot of wealthy landed white guys. Over time this country has come to include more voices and reflects more of the American people, so we face greater challenges.

We’ve got to end these continuing wars of choice. The president said 7 trillion for defense. For one trillion you can graduate every kid in America from college. Instead you get veterans who need care. Do the math and you’re spending 10 trillion. We have no friends in those conflicts.

I’m greatly distributed by loss of pensions. And the unaffordability of college education.

Speaking of the journey, on once side I see the constitutional signers, and on other other we have Chief Buffalo from Fond du Lac, and in 1853 and he got in a birch bark canoe and headed to washing to to save his people and nation. The hunting fishing rights, he set up the eight sovereign bands. He gave up the rest of the land to educate indigenous children. And of course most of that began with these cruel boarding schools that separated children from the their parents and community.

One-hundred and sixty years later we got $12 million for Bug-O-ne-gey-shig School. That was the journey that Chief Buffalo started 160 years ago.

There’s a time for everyone to pass the baton.

How can the DFL keep its coalition together on controversial issues like mining?

As you might recall the DFL central committee had Resolutions 54 [a party resolution opposing nonferrous mining in Minnesota] and I stopped what I was doing and headed to central committee. They tried to prohibit me from speaking and found that as a past vice-chair of the party I still had the right to speak.

I made what was a very persuasive argument. The conventional wisdom was we would pass that amendment and we were able to defeat it. The argument was that political parties are coalitions of people who generally in agreement with each other, but not necessarily on everything. If we want a winning coalition and achieve our goals we have to provide some room for disagreement on some important and critical issues. It’s a big tent. 
When you find yourself in 90 percent agreement but someones got a different view on war or abortion or mining, we can’t let that 5-10 percent be so divisive that we turn the reins over to people who disagree with us on 90 percent of things. We defeated that.

The other thing is that there is so much misinformation. Where do you begin with it? Have you ever asked a biological scientist what they think about this?

When I grew up the rivers were sewage, the kids working the boats were breathing tiny fibers, dying young. We can do both, we must do both, and we did it. It’s not perfect, but the kids on the boat work safely now. They have masks. Catalytic converters stopped acid rain, the scrubbers on the stacks. Removal of sulphur form water.

I’m same guy I always was. One action creates reaction. We’re never done learning.

We’ve doubled life expectancy since my grandfathers time We’ve created a middle class. Science and technology.

I am grateful to have opportunity to serve the Northland. It’s the greatest place on earth. I’ve lived and worked all over the globe and I’ve never worked with a more beautiful people and place. It’s time for me to go home knowing theres’a new generation ready to take over.

Read the column.

Follow the MN-8 race to succeed Nolan in Congress.

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