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30 Years Later, Nolan Considers Comeback Bid

The story of former Rep. Richard Nolan’s possible comeback attempt more than 30 years after he last served in the House may end up merely as an asterisk in any post-mortem of the 2012 election cycle.

But for those of us who love the ebb and flow of politics, it could offer a window into how politics has changed — and how it hasn’t.

Attempted comebacks aren’t all that rare. A number of former Members run each cycle, and sometimes Members who have been retired for many years suddenly get the urge to re-enter the arena. In 2006, for example, Ohio Democrat Bob Shamansky took on Rep. Patrick Tiberi (R) 24 years after Tiberi’s predecessor, John Kasich (R), had ousted Shamansky from Congress.

Nolan was elected to Congress three times, the first time with the Watergate class of 1974. His Congressional district stretched from the southwest corner of the state into central Minnesota.

An unapologetic liberal who strongly opposed the Vietnam War, he served three terms and then, at the age of 37 in 1980, simply walked away. Republican Vin Weber, who had already been mounting an aggressive challenge to the Democrat, won the open seat.

Nolan, wrote the late Ward Sinclair in the Washington Post as 1980 was coming to a close, “is going back to the rural area of Minnesota he represented to take up farming and remake a life upset by a divorce spurred in part by politics.”

“Congress is relatively impotent to make the changes the country needs: mandatory wage and price controls, drastic tax reform, national health insurance, arms cutbacks, new directions in energy, mandatory conservation, a redirection of agriculture. But there is no political will in Congress” Nolan told Sinclair, who described the Democrat in his article as a “liberal idealist unhappily turned wiser and more realistic.”

While the country has moved far away from wage and price controls, it is still wrestling with many of the issues Nolan was talking about in the late 1970s, and it is still looking for the political will to make tough decisions.

In May 1979, Nolan was one of five House Democrats who publicly stated their opposition to the renomination of Jimmy Carter for president (two of the others, Michigan’s John Conyers and California’s Pete Stark, are still in Congress), and the Minnesota Congressman led an effort to draft then-Sen. Edward Kennedy (Mass.) into the race.

Nolan, who was first elected to the Minnesota Legislature at age 24, was 28 when he nearly beat incumbent Republican Rep. John Zwach in 1972. The young Democrat never stopped running, and when Zwach retired two years later, Nolan was elected to Congress.

In a telephone interview last week, Nolan told me he is “very close” to a final decision and “99 percent” likely to run. His interest in running for Congress again was first noted in April by Mike O’Rourke of the Brainerd Dispatch.

Why, after all these years, would Nolan want to return to Congress, especially after the frustrations he experienced in the 1970s?

“There are times when people are willing to make big changes. We are at a tipping point with wars of choice, the financial future of our entitlements, the federal budget deficit and the decimation of our middle class. This is a time when big changes are needed,” said Nolan, who doesn’t seem to have changed his liberal bent over the years.

The former Congressman also noted that he was happy being represented by Democrat James Oberstar, who was upset by GOP challenger Chip Cravaack in November.

Nolan says he understands times have changed, and he promises a well-funded, modern campaign if he runs. But politics has changed dramatically since the 1970s.

He spent a then-impressive $212,000 on his last re-election campaign but now agrees he’ll need to raise closer to $3 million than $2 million to win. According to end-of-the-year FEC figures, Cravaack spent $630,000 on his race last cycle and benefited from $332,000 in spending from the party and outside groups on his behalf. Oberstar spent $2.2 million trying to hold on to his seat.

More importantly, two other Democrats are already in the race, openly gay Duluth Councilman Jeff Anderson and EMILY’s List-backed former state Sen. Tarryl Clark, a favorite of liberals who recently moved into the district after losing to Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) last cycle.

To make things more interesting, Republican legislators have proposed a dramatic redrawing of the state’s Congressional lines, and Nolan, Clark and Anderson might ultimately live in the northern district of Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson, not in Cravaack’s central Minnesota district. Because the state’s governor is a Democrat, redistricting is likely to end up in court.

Frankly, it’s hard to imagine a 67-year-old who has been active in community issues and some local politics but otherwise off the radar screen for decades succeeding in a comeback attempt against much younger politicians who have had to operate in the current political environment.

But regardless of whether Nolan runs and wins, he reminds us that age is no impediment to having ambition and the desire to play a part in molding the nation’s future.

And after spending years talking with too many plastic political wannabes who parse their words and regurgitate talking points, it was more than a little refreshing talking with an old-timer who was in the middle of things in the 1970s, just walked away, and now is flirting with a comeback attempt that would be one for the record books.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.