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.