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Nolan reflects on retirement, look forward to family time

Rick Nolan

DULUTH, Minn.—The airplane carrying Rick Nolan home from Washington, D.C., on Friday reached Minnesota in the middle of the afternoon.

By suppertime, the surprise retirement announcement from the 74-year-old congressman was a workday's old. The hard part for Nolan was over, and he had already shed his proverbial navy blue 8th District DFL jacket for the robe of family.

"I'm with Katherine here and the others," he said, referring to his daughter Katherine Bensen, who has been open along with her father about her fight with incurable lung cancer. She manages the disease with targeted therapy treatments.

Bensen is one of four adult children to Nolan and his wife, Mary. Nolan cited his appreciation for them all, along with his 13 grandchildren and his children's spouses in a retirement announcement on Friday. The single-spaced, page-plus letter seemed a heartfelt ode to his time in public service.

In a discussion with the News Tribune later in the day, he combed through his decision with measured wit, reflection and, as can be the case with Nolan, bipartisanship.

"I used to joke with everybody and promise not to serve more than 30 years," Nolan said. "That always got a good laugh."

Nolan will have spent about half that time (16 years) in Congress all told between stints in different districts, the 6th and 8th. He started his second run from Crosby, Minn., "kind of later in life," he said, at 68. He described working behind the scenes in 2012 to find a Democratic-Farmer-Labor challenger to Republican Chip Cravaack. Nolan said it was 8th District icon Jim Oberstar who was the first to tell Nolan, "You should run."

"I couldn't have been more surprised," he said. "I couldn't have been more delighted."

A pallet-maker and international trader who once tried striking it rich in oil in the Middle East, Nolan was thinking his previous legislative experience followed by three decades of business and community service would make a good combination to get things done.

"I never envisioned staying as long as I did," Nolan said. "I always said when I lose my energy and enthusiasm for the job, or the prospects for handing the baton looked really good, I would move on. Both of those occurred together.

"Reality has its way as you grow and age in life," he continued. "It's constantly teaching you new lessons. It became more apparent to me my family didn't necessarily share my dream."

Nolan said he will now be allowed to substitute campaigning and the upcoming mad series of county endorsement conventions for weekends watching his grandkids play "hockey games and basketball games and soccer matches."

Nolan has confidence in the district-level candidates vying to replace him, and he likes the election climate just as much.

"The prospects for a Democrat to win are better than we've seen in a long time," he said.

He had planned to announce the retirement sooner, but circumstances got in the way. He said he feels like he left "plenty of time (for candidates) to present themselves for delegates and the people of the 8th district."

Flush with campaign money in the high six figures, Nolan got out at a time when he said he had the wind at his back.

"The way you pay it forward and show gratitude is by giving something back," he said. "I was quite surprised when people thought I still had something to give, and we were able to get a lot of things done. The district is in much better shape than it was when I went to Congress: Most everybody is back to work; wages are getting better; all the mines are back open, and there are more coming on; we've made improvements at the harbor and airport (in Duluth); we've been able to help a lot of individuals with everything from health care to veterans' benefits or Medicare. We've helped a lot of people get money back from the (Internal Revenue Service) — money they were owed and due and struggling to get. We've done a lot of good."

With the conversation winding down, he reiterated his belief that there was an accomplished new generation to follow him. And he even had conciliatory words for Republican candidate Pete Stauber of Hermantown.

"It's comforting to know the loyal opposition has a candidate who is very authentic with deep roots in the community and is a good man," Nolan said. "But I'm going to do everything I can to get a Democrat elected, I assure you that."