The curse of public service: Nolan discusses surprising bid for Minn. lieutenant governor
CROSSLAKE—At the spry age of 74, Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Crosby, is becoming something of a practitioner of sudden reversals—at least in terms of his future plans.
In early February, the six-term congressman made the sudden announcement he would not be seeking another term as representative for the 8th Congressional District after previously signaling he was on the ballot in November. At the time, the Brainerd-born politician said he was walking away from politics to devote more time to his family—a family, he said, he had somewhat neglected for the sake of his work in Congress.
Now, Nolan is changing course once again—a surprise announcement Monday, June 4, that his political aspirations have been resurrected, this time in the form of a governor-lieutenant governor bid with Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson. It represents a "partnership," he emphasized, between two moderate and practical progressives; reminiscent of the working relationship between former President Jimmy Carter and his vice president, Walter Mondale.
Though, if you asked Nolan, his decision remains true to his desire to return to Minnesota—even if it's back to the political arena to a certain extent, not twilight years spent in the stands of his grandchildren's basketball games.
"My main goal is to come home, be closer to family and the things I enjoy," Nolan said during a sit-down interview Saturday, June 9, at Crosslake Lutheran Church. The congressman was attending a kick-off event for the National Loon Center under consideration for the Whitefish Chain city. "I am coming home, so that hasn't changed. My one daughter—five minutes from the Capitol (in St. Paul)—and I'm not in Washington four, five days a week. I'm back home."
This comes at a time of many significant and unexpected shifts within the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. So many seats in play it could be called "musical chairs," or—as Minnesota Republican figures like party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan and Communications Director Preya Samsundar termed it—"chaotic," a party in "disarray."
Nolan's partner on the ticket, Swanson, started her last-minute bid for governor after getting rebuffed by a substantial cadre of delegates for her fourth term as attorney general at the DFL Convention in Rochester—a convention Nolan said "had come off the wheels."
Shortly after, Rep. Keith Ellison of the 5th District opted to leave his seat on Capitol Hill and filed for the attorney general seat.
Rep. Tim Walz, of the 1st District, failed to garner enough convention delegate votes for the DFL endorsement for governor after he too decided to leave his hotly contested district for a different mantle in government.
Even in terms of Nolan's successor, the DFL race in the 8th Congressional District has been a competition fractured over the issue of mining, where the one-time leader, Leah Phifer, stepped down on account of dwindling campaign funds.
As such, June 4's last-minute announcement by the newly minted Swanson-Nolan ticket is a continuation of recent themes in Minnesota politics.
In an interview Monday, June 11, Swanson said she didn't go into the DFL convention mulling a governor bid, but circumstances prompted her to take that leap—not the least of which were a series of pledges she was pressured to take, including one to push for the disarmament of police officers in the state.
Swanson said her refusal to accommodate these pledges—stumping for special interest groups, she said, instead of executing the law in a fair manner—in part led to her to lose the DFL party endorsement after previously winning three terms.
Swanson said these events made her consider how she could best serve the state.
"I decided that I can best serve the state as governor. I can take all this experience I have in the state executive branch as attorney general and apply them to all these areas I've talked about," Swanson said. "I'm running for Minnesota, not against anyone else."
Less than three days later, she was dialing the number of a longtime peer and colleague of hers: Rick Nolan. She gave him an ultimatum, Nolan said, an ultimatum he couldn't refuse.
"Anyway, I get a call on Sunday morning from Lori and she says, 'Rick, I've decided I'm going to run for governor, but I'm not going to do it unless you'll be my running mate,'" Nolan said. "So my wife and I talked about it all day Sunday, Sunday night and Monday morning. I remember saying to my wife, 'Is this passion for public service, is it a disease or a curse?' Mary did say, 'I did marry you for good health and bad health, good times and bad times, not three meals a day.'"
Nolan said his selection as Swanson's running mate points to areas of expertise he brings to the table, positions and track records that align philosophically, as well as complement each other's deficiencies. He touted himself as an experienced, effective congressman—citing a 2015 study by the University of Virginia and Vanderbilt University that listed him as one of the 10 most effective members of Congress, as well as a number of bills he's recently pushed through.
Beyond that, Nolan said his partnership with Swanson bridges the gap between rural and urban—Nolan has roots throughout the Brainerd lakes area, while Swanson hails from Eagan—as well as brings his experience as a legislator in multiple levels of government, alongside Swanson's long track record as a constitutional officer and litigator in the state.
"Lori said, 'Hey, he's a good legislator, he gets stuff done. I want some help with that and (he) can help me with federal-state relations,'" Nolan said of Swanson's thought process. "So there are some things she feels complements her work as one of the leading attorney generals in the country."
Looking at this governor's race, Nolan commented on it through the prism of experience. He noted Mike Hatch's failed bid for governor in 2006 was, in his opinion, doomed by Hatch's selection of state auditor Judi Dutcher as his running mate—an overtly metro-centric lineup that didn't appeal to rural voters. This was evidenced by Dutcher's ignorance of E85 legislation, he said, which deals in billions of dollars through agricultural operations across the state.
"She didn't know," said Nolan, who leveled nearly identical criticism against the DFL-endorsed duo of Erin Murphy and Erin Maye Quade, state representatives from St. Paul and Apple Valley respectively. "Years later, same thing—we've got two candidates from the metro area and the first question for the lieutenant governor candidate is, 'What's E85?' 'Uh, I don't know.' You know that's kind of 101 in farm country."
In a similar vein, Nolan dismissed the DFL endorsement of Murphy and Quade—an early nod of approval that neither he and Swanson, nor Walz and his running mate Peggy Flanagan, were able to garner for their own campaigns.
"The last time a DFL-endorsed candidate won the governorship for the state of Minnesota was 48 years ago," Nolan said. "Wendy Anderson's campaign, 1970, and I managed his endorsement campaign. DFL-endorsed candidates don't have a good record. ... so I do know a thing about winning elections and state politics, which should be an asset."