Nolan to retire, but ‘political journey’ goes on

Rep. Rick Nolan speaks with Vice President Joe Biden on stage at Hibbing Community College in 2014. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

“Politics is not a destination, it’s a journey,” Congressman Rick Nolan told me this week. “It’s an American journey, and a beautiful one.”

On Feb. 9, Nolan announced that his leg of that journey will end with his current term representing Minnesota’s Eighth District, creating a wide-open race in Northern Minnesota’s tumultuous political climate. I spoke to him from Washington, D.C., Friday morning.

Nolan said he feels now was the right time for him to step aside.

“Looking ahead I had 25 district conventions, 30 fundraisers, 135 town hall meetings on the schedule,” said Nolan. “But I’ve also got 13 grandkids I’ve been neglecting. My wife pointed out that I haven’t unpacked my suitcase in seven years. There’ll always be more county conventions, but you’ll never have that opportunity to see your granddaughters play, to have that special time with your wife and family. So next weekend I’m not going to a county convention. I’m going to watch my grandchildren play basketball and hockey.”

More than that, Nolan said for the first time since 2012 his campaign’s internal polling showed Democrats ahead in the generic party ballot. There would be no better time for a DFL successor to hold this seat.

“The Eighth District is in much better shape than when I started,” said Nolan. “Thousands are back to work in good paying jobs. A lot of things happened that are fundamentally good. It’s nice to leave knowing you made a difference.”

Depicted in negative ads as an “old time politician” in pink house slippers, Nolan nevertheless won three tough races in Minnesota’s Congressional Eighth District. He used his boundless energy and skillful retail politics to outlast opponents in what has become the most expensive, most ferociously competitive House race in the United States. Nolan even walked parades beside a truck blaring a campy 1970s theme song that seemed lifted from the B-side of a Johnny Horton record. It worked.

“Rick is the kind of politician that other politicians never want to speak after for fear of deflating a room he just fired up,” said Carly Melin of Hibbing, a former state lawmaker. “His passion and energy are unparalleled. He’s genuine and speaks from the heart. Rick was in politics for all the right reasons.”

The economic situation for the district improved significantly since Nolan re-entered the House in January 2013, marking a historic 32-year gap between stints in Congress.

“I’m most proud of having gotten all the mines back open and all the thousands of good paying jobs that went with that,” said Nolan. “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.”

For a time Nolan patched deep divisions in Northern Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor party. He led the argument that new mining projects could be done safely, so long as environmental regulations were followed. These last two years, however, saw increasing discord within the DFL over that issue. This year, Nolan faced an endorsement challenge from former FBI counterterrorism analyst Leah Phifer.

Nolan said the party should remain united.

“When you find yourself in 90 percent agreement but someone’s got a different view on an important issue, 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.”

Nolan comments that politics is a journey. There’s no doubt that journey was going to become bumpy, and soon.

Nolan would have faced a serious challenge in the 2018 race. So will any of the growing number of DFL candidates seeking to replace him. Republican Pete Stauber, a Duluth police captain and St. Louis County Commissioner, is already running. Stauber might see a primary involving recent GOP nominee Stewart Mills and House Speaker Kurt Daudt, each also considering bids for Congress in the Eighth. Skip Sandman, an environmental advocate, is running on the Independence Party ticket.

Nolan urges persistence to those who want to see change. He used the example of Chief Buffalo of the Fond du Lac Ojibwa nation. In 1853 his people were starving, pushed off their ancestral lands. He navigated a birch bark canoe to Washington to negotiate a treaty, one provision of which was education for his people. After decades of cruel boarding schools and broken promises, Nolan points out that he and his Senate colleagues secured $12 million for the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig school on the Leech Lake reservation.

“That was the journey that Chief Buffalo started 160 years ago.”

Progress takes time, and Nolan isn’t done yet. He’s still hoping to break through on restoring pensions that were stripped from Teamsters before he leaves office, calling it the one thing he wishes he could have fixed sooner.

“I am grateful to have the opportunity to serve the Northland,” said Nolan. “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 or place. It’s time for me to go home knowing there’s a new generation ready to take over.”

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. Thanks for the great interview! I’m excited to support Leah Phifer!

  2. Dave McTeague says

    Well, Nolan left and R’s won seat. And I’m wondering if I should return to go paddling in the wilderness that a majority of NE Minnesota voters aren’t willing to protect.

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