VIRGINIA — U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan didn’t hesitate when asked why the 8th Congressional District — once solidly Democratic blue — again turned Republican red in November’s election.
“It’s because of the anti-mining forces in the Democratic Party,” he said.
“Mining is big. It’s who we are as a nation and a people. We all need mining in our lives for so many reasons. Yet, those against mining oppose anything mining,” the Democratic congressman said with a disgusted look and a frustrated tone in his voice during an interview in Virginia while on a farewell media tour of the district.
“They even fight land transfers that help everyone. Democrats told people, ‘we’re not with you.’ What the hell then do they expect,” said Nolan, referring to the PolyMet Mining copper/nickel/precious metals project near Hoyt Lakes that is now moving through the final permitting process.
A land exchange with the U.S. Forest Service was completed in the summer to help facilitate the venture. The company provides 6,690 acres of private land for the Superior National Forest in exchange for 6,650 acres of land on top of the mineral deposit already owned by PolyMet.
PolyMet officials say the project will create about 300 direct jobs and another 600 in spinoff employment. They say it has met or exceeded all federal and state environmental standards, while opponents argue it will do long-term damage to the water quality in the region.
Nolan, who is from the Brainerd area, connected well with mining supporters when he defeated former Republican U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack in 2012 and then narrowly won re-election against Stewart Mills in 2014 and 2016.
But both victories over Mills were a struggle, which was far from the case before Cravaack stunned the political world in 2010 when he denied Oberstar of Chisholm a 19th two-year term in the U.S. House.
Minnesota’s 8th District had been the sole domain of the Democratic Party for 64 years straight until then.
Prior to Cravaack’s victory, Oberstar and John Blatnik had held the congressional seat for more than six decades.
Nolan says those days of Democratic dominance in the district are now just political nostalgia. The fight over non-ferrous mining will continue to split Democrats in the district.
“That makes no sense for the party because we have the minerals right here … we can create jobs and a better life for people and do it safely.
“If done elsewhere, children will be in the mines and there will be no environmental standards,” Nolan said.
Republican Pete Stauber of Duluth, who defeated Joe Radinovich in the 8th District, “will do a good job in Congress,” he added.
Stauber was a strong supporter of Iron Range mining. So, too, was Radinovich. But Nolan said mining opponents have caused a toxic political perception problem for Democratic pro-mining candidates.
Nolan, however, said internal polls showed he could have won in November. “But it was time to move on,” noted the congressman who had two acts in Congress — representing the 6th District from 1975-1981 and then a redistricted 8th District from 2013 to 2018. The 32-year gap between stints in Congress is the longest ever in American political history.
Nolan said it’s somewhat “bittersweet” stepping away from Congress.
“I feel bad more wasn’t done. But that’s always the way it is in Washington. It’s also the burden that goes with aging.
“But on the other hand, there’s a time and season for everything and everyone. It was time to pass the baton,” he said.
It’s helped, Nolan said, by seeing young and more diverse members of Congress being elected.
Nolan is hopeful that the bitter atmosphere in Washington will grow less tense and acrimonious and lead to more healthy governing. But it will take time, he said.
“Process matters. We need to get back to full debate on all proposed amendments and bills. That helps get people working together,” said the congressman, who was part of a bipartisan group advocating a more collegial workplace in Congress.
Nolan cited personal health and family as reasons for not seeking another term.
The congressman, who said he’s “doing great now,” has had two heart attacks in the last 16 months — the first more than a year ago quite severe; most recently “a mild one.”
Talking about his health issues comes easily; but not so when it turns to his daughter Katharine’s courageous battle with cancer. Nolan’s eyes water and his face saddens when he says she is now in palliative care at home while undergoing intense chemotherapy treatments for Stage 4 lung cancer at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Katharine is a young woman in her 40s, but to Rick Nolan she’ll always be his little girl. She’s dying and a dad feels helpless.
“She’s a tough kid, but it (the cancer) is spreading everywhere,” he said. “It’s really just a matter of time. But we have to hope she stays alive long enough for a cure. And that is our hope every day.”
Looking ahead, Nolan said he’ll remain in public service, but not as a lobbyist.
And Nolan said don’t expect a third political act, which signals that the congressman’s last campaign will have been a loss in September when he ran as lieutenant governor candidate on a gubernatorial ticket with Attorney General Lori Swanson in the DFL primary election.
However, Nolan does not dwell on any election defeat or work undone in Congress.
“I’ve failed in life some time at just about everything I’ve done. You learn and move on. There’s now more ahead as I move on.
And he’s doing so with his perpetual glass-is-half-full outlook and unabashed optimism.
“I believe in the art of possible, and I’m still a dreamer, too,” he said. “I’m just a flawed average guy who’s very grateful where my life has gone.”