D.C. Dispatches is on the campaign trail in the 8th District this week, profiling the DFL congressional candidates competing in next week’s primary election. Today is former congressman Rick Nolan.
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DULUTH, Minn. — Rick Nolan considers himself a veteran of this “running for Congress” thing, even if this is his first race in more than 30 years.
He’s 68-years-old, pulling 15-hour days, trying to convince voters in the 8th Congressional District to give him back a job he gave up in 1981. He routinely starts his days before sunrise, cruising around the district from his home in Crosby, just outside of Brainerd.
The former three-term member of Congress is the oldest DFLer running in next week’s primary election, and if he defeats Rep. Chip Cravaack in November, he’d be the oldest member of the Minnesota delegation, but he says he’s not slowing down.
“There are times when I grow weary and tired,” he said. “But the minute I see people whose values I share and the enthusiasm for public service and making a difference, I get energize and I just keep on going.”
Nolan was elected to Congress in 1974, the same year as James Oberstar, whose old seat Nolan now seeks. He stayed in D.C. for three terms, leaving Congress two years before his home, then in the 6th District, was redrawn into Oberstar’s 8th.
Though all three DFL candidates have espoused traditional Democratic positions, Nolan pitches himself as the most progressive in the race, advocating a single-payer health-care plan, public campaign financing, more rigid gun control laws and immediately removing U.S. troops from Afghanistan: While campaigning, Nolan reaches a crescendo when talking about “ending these wars of choice.”
“DFLers want to see the end of these wars of choice and the nation building abroad, where it’s not welcome, and the constant expansion of the military empire. They want to see those ended and they want to see that money spent rebuilding America,” he said “[Voters] want to see rules and regulations and the laws that gave us good health, and good air and clean water and healthy, safe working conditions. Those are the boilerplate, main issues.”
Defending his time in business
Nolan said his political experience will serve as a backdrop to his campaign message, but he spent a lot of time Thursday explaining a second section of his resume: his time in the business community.
Candidate Tarryl Clark released her final campaign ad of the primary season Wednesday night, a spot charging that Nolan took “lavish” vacations and a swollen taxpayer-funded salary while working at the Minnesota World Trade Center Corp. in the 1980s and 1990s. All the while, the ad says, the group failed to create any jobs. The ad is a preview of a line of attack Republicans plan to make if Nolan advances to the general election.
The WTC was a public-private initiative with the goal of helping a collective of Minnesota businesses forge international relationships. It launched in 1983, with Nolan as its governor-appointed unpaid chairman, a position he held for four years (at which point he was voted president and received a $70,000 salary, “making him one of the highest paid public officials in the state,” the Star Tribune reported in 1989).
The organization ran budget deficits and cost taxpayers millions of dollars at the time, according to news reports, but Nolan bristled at Clark’s suggestion that the organization was ineffective.
Minnesota added 326,000 jobs during the administration of Gov. Rudy Perpich, who helped launch the WTC, Nolan said. In this case, he claims correlation equals causation. When the WTC launched, only 10 percent of major Minnesota companies did business overseas, he said. That’s up to 90 percent today.
“The evidence is there,” he said. “328,000 jobs were created during Gov. Perpich’s administration. Many of those were in manufacturing, because of Minnesota companies getting into the international marketplace, selling their products.”
He called Clark’s ad “last minute desperation.”
DFL endorsement ‘huge’
Politically, Nolan has pleased progressives who see him as the most committed liberal on the DFL ballot next week.
“He’s absolutely the strongest candidate on the issues,” said Daniel Fanning, who was briefly a candidate in the DFL race and endorsed Nolan in March. “He is the one who is articulating a vision and a message and a plan that I agree with.”
Given the DFL’s endorsement of Nolan (opponents Clark and Jeff Anderson didn’t actively seek it), he has a whole legion of Minnesota Democrats backing his campaign, from Gov. Mark Dayton and Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken to former Vice President Walter Mondale.
But the DFL’s endorsement has much more quantitative effects than just the endorsements of the party’s leaders. The DFL has spent more than $135,000 advertising on Nolan’s behalf this week, and it was already up with a radio spot Thursday night hitting Clark for her WTC ad.
Nolan has worked to carry the mantle as the endorsed candidate, campaigning with DFL-endorsed state Legislature candidates both for their benefit and his. Former Sens. Becky Lourey and Rep. Mary Murphy and House candidate Mike Sundin appeared with him at a campaign stop outside of Cloquet on Thursday, and they were his most vocal supporters in the room.
For his part, Nolan said Clark and Anderson “have no idea” how much of an impact the endorsement will have on the primary. Oberstar, who endorsed Nolan after committing to back the DFL-endorsee, predicted strong primary turnout among party activists, Democrats who remember how low turnout in a traditionally blue district led to his ouster in 2010.
“In the primary, people who turn out are the true, blue believers,” Oberstar said. “They care about the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. They want it to mean something. They want their endorsement to be a stamp of approval, setting the stage for a better service to the 8th District.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry