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Nolan: One ‘12- to 15-hour’ day at a time

Businessman Stewart Mills, who lost to Rick Nolan in the 2014 Congressional election, is thinking of challenging Nolan to a rematch in 2016. (Associated Press file photo)

Businessman Stewart Mills, who lost to Rick Nolan in the 2014 Congressional election, is thinking of challenging Nolan to a rematch in 2016. (Associated Press file photo)

The joke was an obvious one, and U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan did not have to wait long for it. As the Minnesota Democrat walked into his office one day this week, a Congressional staffer asked if he had gotten a haircut lately.

The question was a sly reference to the news that Stewart Mills, Nolan’s 2014 Republican opponent, had shorn the long hair that had attracted so much local and national coverage last year. In a Facebook post announcing the new look, Mills said the trim became necessary after a “singeing” incident related to a Fourth of July cookout.

Nolan’s answer, after a laugh, was quick, and in keeping with his homespun persona.

“I did get one, actually,” he said. “But I get what’s called a ‘secret haircut,’ where you and the barber are the only people who know you got it.”

Also a secret, even to Nolan, is the source of energy for the 71-year-old, now serving a second tenure in Congress after a 32-year hiatus from elective office. Nolan said he works “12 or 15 hours” a day, and said his position as a junior member in the minority has not limited his ability to land legislative accomplishments for the northeastern district.

Nolan announced last week that he would seek re-election for a sixth non-consecutive term, though he said he had known his intentions since last year’s Election Day. Nolan spoke to Capitol Report this week to discuss his experience in office during a time of political gridlock, and how he plans to sell his 2016 campaign to the voters of the 8th District.

The Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.

Capitol Report:  What goes into the decision for you to seek re-election?

Nolan: Two things. The country’s been so good to me and to my generation, I want to pay it back, and pay something forward. That’s been one of the greatest things for me in my life. That, and the fact that I have been able to make a difference, on a range of issues even though I’m in the minority.

CR: Would you be concerned at all that by retiring, you might make the 8th District seat more vulnerable to a Republican?

Nolan: That’s a part of it. I’d hate to see [the district] go into the hands of someone who didn’t share so many of the values that I embrace, because so much of the values that I’ve learned have come from that part of the country. But really, it’s mainly that I’m really loving and enjoying what I’m doing, and I think I’m making a difference. If it wasn’t a combination of both of those things, I’d retire.

CR: Republicans now have control of both the U.S. Senate and the House. Under these conditions, what sort of things are you able to point to, for your constituents, as real accomplishments?

Nolan: Well, Time magazine cited my leadership in keeping us out of war in Syria. I’m very proud of that. I have been able to pass any number of pieces of legislation important to the 8th District. That’s things like funding for lung cancer research …, or 3,000 acres of land for Fond du Lac, shutting down the lock-and-dam.

Minnesota gets back 85 cents out of every dollar we send to Washington, and there’s some states that are getting back four and five dollars for every dollar they send. It tends [to be] that members of Congress that are more most aggressive about securing [funding] for their constituents are the most successful, and I’ve been among the most successful.

Sunlight Foundation [does]an analysis of members, and what they’ve accomplished, and if you go through it, you’ll see I’m in the upper 10 percent, which is not bad for a freshman in the minority.

CR: The mining industry in that district has gone through some tough times lately, and some say that’s due to larger economic forces. What can be done at a federal or congressional level to help start a rebound there?

Nolan: There’s a number of things that can be done and should be done. I’ve been leading the fight against fast-track for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. There are no real protections in there for wages and benefits. And you have to take my word for that, because I’ve read that agreement. The public is not entitled to see it, which is a statement in itself — a person should be against it just on process alone.

The problem with [TPP] is, in America, we doubled life expectancy in a little over a generation, and that saddles businesses and taxpayers with some pretty expensive items. Social Security, Medicare, workers compensation, health and safety and environmental regulations, combined with living wages and pensions.

Then with these trade agreements, we say we want you to compete with these people around the world who have little or none of that. In some cases it’s against people who make 60 cents an hour. That is pretty clearly a race to the bottom, and I think that’s been clear since NAFTA was passed. Millions have lost their jobs; millions of others have seen their wages and benefits decrease.

CR: The final decision on TPP has now been pushed back for at least a few months. Do you think that can be restructured in a positive way, or would you prefer to see it killed?

Nolan: I quite frankly don’t see an opportunity where it could be significant fixed. Were that to be the case, I would consider it. But instead I’m championing other things, like the Export-Import Bank, for example, because I know how important it is to small companies to be able to export their products. I believe in trade, but it’s got to be fair. When these … good small manufacturers are working with a small town bank, they don’t have the expertise to tell if it’s a bona fide contract to sell something in Nigeria, or China, or Timbuktu or Germany.

That’s where the [Export-Import] Bank steps in. They’ve got the resources, and they know how to examine a contract with a company around the world.

CR: You’ve been open about your distaste for fundraising. Have you come around on that at all, or are you counting on surrogates to do most of the heavy lifting there?

Nolan: Some people have said that, ‘Nolan’s not a good fundraiser,’ because I don’t like to do it.’ And I don’t really like raising money, but I raised more money in the last Congressional election than any Democrat has ever raised in the history of Minnesota, and I survived one of the most expensive elections in the country.

Every job and every walk of life has some things you’d rather not have to do. I can do it, I can do what’s necessary. … When I’m at home, on the farm, I can sit at my kitchen table and make calls, fundraising. And I actually really enjoy the fundraising events. I’ve learned to enjoy that, too, interacting with people at the events.

CR: Stewart Mills has said he’s thinking about challenging you to a rematch in 2016. Would he be a stronger candidate than he was the first time around?

Nolan: Everybody is better at just about anything the second time around. You can’t help butlearn from experience. I noticed he even got himself a haircut. [Laughs] It looks like he’s taking as serious look at it, but I think his assessment of what happened in the last election leaves a little to be desired.

He omitted the fact that I had a Green Party opponent that took 5 percent of the vote off my side, and I’m not sure he understands that in a presidential year, an average of 100,000 additional voters come out in our district, and the majority of them tend to be Democrats.

Having been a member of Congress, and having done a good job and gotten some things done, makes me a better candidate, as well. I’m confident of our prospects.


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