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Rick Nolan: Not just another pretty face

by keewatinrose on July 11, 2011

Perhaps the most intriguing candidate to enter the race against Chip Cravaack is former Congressman Rick Nolan, who represented the 6th district from 1974 – 1980. His candidacy has been characterized as a re-entry to politics, but the truth is Nolan has remained active in politics in Crow Wing and Aitkin Counties through the years.

Nolan, a former staff assistant to Senator Walter Mondale, began his political career in 1968 when he was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives.  The Royalton (Benton, Morrison Counties) civics teacher represented District 53A for two terms serving from 1969 – 1972.

Nolan’s first try at congress was in 1972 when he attempted to unseat the entrenched conservative, Representative John Zwach. He lost in the only close congressional race that year, receiving 109,995 votes to Zwach’s 114,537. 1974 proved to be a much better year. Like his counterpart Jim Oberstar in the 8th district, Nolan won an open congressional seat, defeating republican Jon Grunseth by 18,668 votes.

During his tenure in Congress, Nolan earned a reputation as an outspoken and staunch advocate for the less fortunate, bucking the establishment when necessary. Congressman Nolan demonstrated his independent streak and adherence to principles when he joined disaffected democrats and labor leaders in creating a movement to draft Senator Edward Kennedy for president in 1980. President Jimmy Carter was felt to have been “going against the grain of the party”. Of particular concern was the fact Carter did not attempt to enact universal health care, a promise he made during the 1976 campaign.  The hotbeds of the Draft Kennedy movement were Iowa, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Ohio, New Hampshire and Colorado. Carter did ultimately win re-nomination, receiving 2,129.02 votes to Kennedy’s 1,150.48.
Nolan retired from Congress in 1980 to start his own import-export business. In 1987, Governor Rudy Perpich asked the successful businessman to serve as president of the new World Trade Center Corporation, a unique state agency created to promote international trade with Minnesota businesses.

With this impressive resume, Nolan is arguably the strongest candidate to emerge to date. The only real negative (for some) is his age. But he is an energetic 67 year old and has several advantages that greatly outweigh the age factor. He is well-known and respected by veteran party activists. The 8th district has an older populace who will likely remember his previous public service. As a former congressman, Nolan will not have a learning curve and can hit the ground running. Another plus for those of us in the 8th: his previous years of service in the House count towards seniority, so he will be a fourth term congressman, equal to Tim Walz, Keith Ellison and Michele Bachmann (if re-elected), not a freshman.

It is clear that the successful DFL candidate will need to at least hold their own in the western and southern parts of the district in addition to getting a solid turnout in the north. Nolan has a demonstrated ability to win in conservative areas. The 6th congressional district that he represented included Mille Lacs, Benton, Sherburne, Wright, Stearns, Kandiyohi, Meeker, Wright, Chippewa, Big Stone, Lac Qui Parle, Yellow Medicine, Renville, Lincoln, Lyon, Redwood, Pipestone, Murray, Cottonwood, Rock, Nobles and Jackson Counties and a part of northwestern Hennepin County. With the exception of Mille Lacs, these counties are now part of the very conservative 6th and 7th congressional districts. Sherburne and Benton counties were once part of the 8th district and may well be again after redistricting. The Brainerd native and former Little Falls resident clearly has the ability to undercut Cravaack in his base.

Nolan can also be expected to run well in the North, where his solid ties to organized labor and his close relationship with the Iron Range’s own Rudy Perpich will certainly be an asset.

The ability to raise money has unfortunately become a requisite for a candidate. The former congressman has the support of colleagues and has many contacts in the national business community (the Supreme Court ruling regarding corporate contributions may actually help us for a change). His long-time ties to the party should not be overlooked and more importantly, he is seen as one who can beat one-termer Chip Cravaack. Nolan can certainly raise big money quickly.

Those of us who knew Rick when he served in the Minnesota legislature and in congress remember him as a good campaigner and a thoughtful, dedicated public servant. It is this dedication to public service that has prompted him to consider another run for congress. He is indeed a formidable opponent. If elected, we can expect the same effective representation we had under John Blatnik and Jim Oberstar.

And wouldn’t that be nice for a change?

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