Nolan embraces role as 'veteran freshman' in Congress

Nolan wins
A newly elected Rick Nolan raises hands with his wife, Mary, during his acceptance speech early Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, at the Nolan headquarters at the Brainerd Hotel in Brainerd, Minn.
Vickie Kettlewell for MPR

After more than three decades, former DFL Rep. Rick Nolan is returning to Congress on Monday for freshman orientation sessions this week.

Nolan, however, stands out in the class of incoming representatives because he has already served three terms in Congress, which gives him instant seniority.

As Nolan campaigned in the 8th District against first-term Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack, he often noted that if he won, he would return to Washington with a certain amount of clout. Nolan's three consecutive two-year terms ended in the early 1980s.

He hopes his seniority will help him get named to the Transportation and Natural Resources committees.

"I've had conversations with everybody in the minority leadership," he said, "and they've all said that they will help me secure the committee assignments that I want."

As Nolan campaigned, he spoke often about working across party lines in Congress. He is still talking that way, despite the fact that he is heading to a bitterly divided Capitol.

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"I wouldn't have run if I hadn't thought I could go out there and make a difference on Day 1," he said. "And the country is at a tipping point and we need to make a difference."

One observer doubted that Nolan's congressional veteran status will leave him better positioned than others to work across party lines.

Jessica Taylor, who follows Congress for the Rothenberg Political Report, said his seniority will give him an edge over newly elected freshmen but noted: "A lot has changed since he was in Congress."

"He's going to be dealing with a more polarized Congress," Taylor said. "Certainly just the way Congress functions has changed some, too, so will he sort of be at the top of seniority of those incoming freshmen? Yes, but I think that he's going to be in the minority still, and it's certainly not the same Congress he was in there in the late '70s."

The most senior member of Minnesota's delegation is 7th District DFL Rep. Collin Peterson, who was just elected to a 12th term. Peterson said he is looking forward to having Nolan on the team.

"I think he'll fit in very well," Peterson said. "He's somebody that I've known from back when he was congressman when I was in the state Senate."

Peterson said Nolan's seniority should net him better office space than other newly elected members. He also said Nolan might be in a better position to join the committees he wants.

But Peterson said there was something even more important: "The main thing is that he has the experience of having been in Congress. Some of the members that were there when he first came are still there, so he knows those people."

And he said that although Nolan hasn't served in Congress for more than 30 years, he has been a frequent visitor to the House. "That will help him, you know, navigate things."

Nolan will be 69 when he is sworn in for his fourth term in January. He said that doesn't mean he has plans to retire anytime soon.

"My health permitting and the voters accommodating, yeah, I'd like to serve another 10 years in the Congress," he said.

His 2012 campaign is tweeting that supporters should return Nolan campaign signs so they are ready for the next election cycle in 2014.