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Nolan's days in office grow short

Congressman Rick Nolan touches on the high points of his career during an interview Tuesday. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 4
Congressman Rick Nolan talks about some of his accomplishments in his job as congressman. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 4
Congressman Rick Nolan talks about his recent health issues including a recent heart attack and heart surgery during a Tuesday afternoon interview at Fitger's. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 4
Congressman Rick Nolan, 74, talks about his plans for the future when he leaves Congress at the end of the year during an interview at Fitger's Tuesday afternoon. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com4 / 4

Rick Nolan emerged from the boardroom at Fitger's Inn on Tuesday to be greeted by a smiling, familiar face.

"You've earned this," said Craig Olson, president of the Duluth Building and Construction Trades Council, as he presented the retiring congressman with a crisp, new lumberjack flannel. "By the way, how are you my friend?"

Nolan, just days from turning 75, accepted the parting gift graciously. And if he was being honest, the answer to Olson's question wasn't as easy as the one Nolan gave. The sands of his career in politics have nearly run out, and as he closes his 8th Congressional District office in Duluth and gets set to leave Washington, D.C. behind, Nolan has endured what could be described as a most difficult year.

Hardly sailing into retirement, Nolan encountered an election-year scandal last summer, has seen his daughter's lung cancer diagnosis take a bitter turn and been confronted with health scares of his own.

"I had four hours of heart surgery — it was not open heart — about 16 months ago, and then I had another heart attack here about six weeks ago," Nolan said.

He described the latest heart attack. It began with routine. He was up at 5 a.m. and reading a series of newspapers when he felt a sharp pain in his chest that wouldn't recede. Tests found dead heart tissue in his blood and a near complete blockage in one of his arteries. It's being treated with medication.

"I've had a couple of heart attacks," Nolan said, revealing things he's long kept to himself. "I've had open heart surgery — bypass. I've had stents. I have stents inside of stents."

The irony was that he'd spent whole days working in the woods last fall with his adult sons to no ill effect.

"Then I'm just sitting there reading the paper — go figure," he said.

Nolan, a Democrat, has been a two-time incumbent in Congress twice in his life, including a stint in the 6th District from 1975-81. He won six of the seven congressional races he ever entered, losing only the first one. It was a charmed run that first saw him advocating for single-payer health care — in the 1970s.

"I just thought it made sense," he said, still bristling at the idea that a clinic's waiting room can be filled with 50 people on 50 different health plans.

Throughout his career as a federal legislator, Nolan said he has tried to balance being both idealistic and pragmatic. One day could be spent drafting legislation aimed at getting dark money out of politics, and the next lobbying to get logging trucks off Superior Street through downtown Duluth and onto Interstate 35. He achieved the latter and is still dogged by the former.

"I'd like people to remember I worked on those larger issues," he said. "I showed good leadership and been a forerunner on them. But what I do every day is fix the things that are fixable."

Not all of it has been rosy, especially lately. A rumored bid for governor fizzled, and his heart issues might explain that. But almost immediately after announcing his retirement from Congress last February, he joined the Lori Swanson gubernatorial ticket as its lieutenant governor. Strong early, the ticket short-circuited and fell hard in the August primary. Leading up to it, media reports revealed Nolan, in 2016, had fired a longtime congressional aide only to see the man resurface on his campaign team. There were credible allegations of sexual harassment against the aide Nolan had rehired. It left some of Nolan's female staffers livid and blowing the whistle amid the backdrop of the #MeToo movement.

"He was never accused of assaulting anyone," Nolan said. "He was an old guy flirting with younger women — and that's unacceptable and we fired him (again). Does it rise to the occasion of capital punishment? I don't think so."

Nolan claimed to have recent polling which says his popularity has never been higher. He joked that it might be because he didn't have 10 million campaign dollars spent telling voters how awful he was.

In rapid-fire succession, he addressed some of the issues still on the table:

• On his successor, Republican Pete Stauber: "As far as I'm concerned Pete Stauber is a good man and I want to do everything possible to help him be successful. If he's successful, it'll be good for the district."

• On the next Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party candidate in the 8th District: "The one thing they have to do is make it unequivocally clear that they are supportive of mining and the environment. You can't be playing games with people. They see through that. The DFL has, I think, become perceived as the anti-mining party."

• On his 44-year-old daughter Katherine Benson's fight with lung cancer, which he first announced in January 2015: "She is in palliative care at this point. It's a step before house hospice. She's still able to get around and do a number of things, but they've reached a medical conclusion that there's no cure and, 'We want to make you as comfortable as possible in the interim.' She's a tough kid. If she doesn't somehow miraculously find a cure she's going to tough it out a long time. She does chemo every three weeks and immunotherapy and after that spends a week in bed. Then the second week she gets out, and by third week she actually feels pretty good. She doesn't complain."

Nolan and his wife, Mary, have 13 grandchildren from their four adult children to keep them busy attending all manners of games, concerts, plays and more.

As a couple, they've planted more than 100,000 trees in their lifetime together. Nolan joked that Mary wonders aloud how she'll miss him now that he'll be home more often. He might join his sons more often at the family sawmill near Crosby. He promised he won't lack for activity in retirement.

"I love to hunt; I love to fish," Nolan said. "I can hardly wait for the ice to get thick enough to get my fish house out there. I love to make maple syrup and harvest wild rice. I love to garden and we're already ordering trees for planting next spring. That's just who I am. That's who people in the 8th District are. I'm not unique."

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