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U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan to retire from Congress, leaving a legacy of coalition building in fractured district

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan announced Friday morning that he is retiring at the end of his fourth term. In this file photo from May of 2014, Nolan gives remarks about the death of former U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar at his Duluth office. Clint Austin / Forum News Service

DULUTH—"Rabble rouser."

"Dedicated public servant."

"Thank you."

The tributes came pouring in Friday morning, Feb. 9, as U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan announced he would not run for a fourth term representing Minnesota's 8th District in Congress.

The DFLer from Crosby weathered increasingly tight races in a geographically massive district that is starting to lose its solid blue hue. After initially campaigning to hold his seat in November, Nolan now intends to serve out his term and "pass the baton to the next generation."

"It finally all just came together," the 74-year-old congressman told Forum News Service. "It's the toughest decision. It was a lot easier decision to run for office. You just have so many people who are appreciative of the work you've done. They tell you thank you and there's a sense like you're letting them down."

Nolan had been weighing retirement for the past six months, and it was a combination of factors — a dip in his energy and enthusiasm, a desire to be closer to his family and strong prospects from within the DFL party — that led him to Friday's surprise statement.

"I love my work representing you in Congress, and the decision to leave is agonizing to say the least," he said.

Nolan will leave his post as a coalition builder who embraced progressive values and labor causes in a party that is fracturing along environment vs. jobs lines.

"Rick was not afraid to work in a bipartisan manner or differ with people in his own party from time to time," said Jeff Anderson, Nolan's district director. "He did that all while still being the most progressive Democrat to represent this district in Congress. He fought for single-payer health care, trade agreements and was a champion for working people."

It was a northern Minnesota visit from the White House chief of staff in 2015 that firmly endeared the Iron Range to Nolan, who helped arrange the visit that was later credited for the Obama Administration cracking down on foreign steel dumping. Nolan's proven commitment to mining likely led to his narrow victory in 2016, even while the 8th District went to President Donald Trump by a wide margin.

"Working for Rick Nolan is a Ph.D. course in how to move the levers of government and get things done in Congress," Anderson said.

Nolan served a total of six terms in Congress, having represented Minnesota's 6th District in central and southern Minnesota from 1975 to 1981. He is one of two remaining "Watergate Babies," the wave of Democrats first elected to Congress in 1974 following President Nixon's resignation.

The Brainerd-born businessman was not an easy candidate to beat, losing only his first congressional race in 1972 to the Republican he later ousted in the 6th District, John Zwach. Including his two wins in the state House of Representatives, Nolan won eight elections.

After giving up his seat in the 1980 election, he helped get the Minnesota World Trade Center built and eventually passed on his sawmill, Emily Wood Products, to his daughter and son-in-law.

Nolan returned to politics in 2012, telling Forum News Service at the time: "I believe with all my heart that I can make a difference or I would not be a candidate."

The congressman assessed that promise in Friday's announcement.

"Good politics is about making a positive difference in people's lives, and together with all of you and a brilliant dedicated staff, we've made a real difference for the 8th District of Minnesota and our great nation," Nolan said in a statement. "Jobs are coming back. Wages are going up. The Iron Range and the 8th District are on the economic rebound, and our best days are still ahead."

The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, while undoubtedly wringing its hands over losing a three-term incumbent in a tight district, applauded Nolan as "a tireless and committed public servant who will continue to be a fierce fighter on behalf of his constituents for the remainder of his term."

Republican 8th District candidate Pete Stauber likewise tipped his hat to Nolan's time in office.

"Congressman Nolan has been a dedicated public servant for decades and while we haven't agreed on many issues, I appreciate his enthusiasm and thank him for his service."

The National Republican Congressional Committee remained in campaign mode, however, painting Nolan as "too liberal and out of step with his deep red district, (he) saved us the trouble of defeating him this fall."

Former Nolan spokeswoman Samantha Bisogno responded on Twitter: "Rick Nolan's daughter has stage 4 cancer. He said he's leaving to spend more time with his family. This is how the @NRCC responds? No class. He is retiring. There is no reason to throw more punches. This vile, disgusting statement represents the worst politics has to offer."

Since 1946, a Republican has represented Minnesota's 8th District for only one term. It was long the seat of John Blatnik and Jim Oberstar.

Pending any other surprise announcements, Nolan will remain in the House until the end of the session in January. And as U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar put it in a statement, there is plenty of work still to be done.

"He has decided to put his family first, and after all he has been through this year, he deserves it. Thanks to Rick and Mary for their work and I look forward to the remaining months ahead. Oh, and by the way, Rick is such a rabble rouser, he isn't done yet!"

Brooks Johnson

Brooks is an investigative reporter and business columnist at the Duluth News Tribune.

(218) 723-5329
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