Nolan perseveres through challenges in personal, professional life

On bleachers clustered with players' families, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., stood out as he sat among a tight-knit group of hockey moms. His oldest daughter, Leah, was among them.

On bleachers clustered with players' families, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., stood out as he sat among a tight-knit group of hockey moms. His oldest daughter, Leah, was among them.

Nolan arrived at the Duluth Heritage Sports Center on a cold Saturday night in January to watch Leah's son, Huck, play goalie for a team of 10- and 11-year-olds called the Northern Lakes Lightning.

Even with the collected powers of Aitkin, Pequot Lakes, Pine River, Backus, Ironton and Nolan's home of Crosby, the Lightning hadn't summoned a win on the season.

"He takes it so hard," the 8th District congressman said of Huck, who shooed and absorbed many pucks but not all.

His own grandson's trials playing for a squirt hockey team resonated as a metaphor for Nolan himself.


Nolan, too, can take things hard.

During an interview at the game, he talked equally about personal trials - with his youngest daughter's recent diagnosis of terminal cancer - and public angst, in which he described working in a world according to the Speaker of the House John Boehner of Ohio.

People who know Nolan say he talks fondly about how it used to be during his first tenure in Congress from 1975-81, when ideologies took a back seat to shared priorities.

Now 71 and back in Congress since 2013, he also takes things as they come.

Unlike his younger years, when he could wake up and go, Nolan's concession to age is a morning routine that unfolds over an hour and a half. Joints loosen. Coffee energizes. And by the time he's perused a host of newspapers every morning, he is ready to hit his stride.

"Right this moment," he said between the groans and cheers around him. "I feel as good as I have in all my life."

The big twist

Nolan lives out of a suitcase, he said, jockeying back and forth weekly between Washington, D.C., and Minnesota.


In between making more than 95 percent of his votes so far in 2015, according to numbers provided by, Nolan likes to stay in touch with both his family and the district. The same weekend he watched his grandson play hockey, Nolan helped celebrate Brainerd's six national Blue Ribbon Award-rated elementary schools.

"I don't like to lose connection with the district," Nolan said. "I like to combine family business with official work."

Nolan announced in January that the youngest of his four grown children, Katherine, was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.

Lately, Nolan has made a point of coming home and stopping first to spend a night at Katherine's home in Roseville. She is a 39-year-old mother of four children and Nolan has worked the phones hard to expand her treatment options in the face of a grim prognosis. Katherine is a match for molecular therapy, Nolan said, that can extend her life an additional 10 to 12 months.

"They're little organisms that will learn to disguise themselves," Nolan said.

While her family prays for Katherine to be an outlier and even for a cure in the time she has, Nolan said he's been exposed to the deficiencies of health-care reform. A longtime proponent of single-payer health care, he's even more emboldened to the idea now, saying there are some countries that pay 60 to 70 percent less than Americans but get more back from their healthcare providers.

"This has given me insights into some of the shortcomings of the health-care insurance system," he said, describing his daughter's high-cost deductible and huge copays. Even though his daughter was fortunate to be a candidate for molecular therapy, the pharmacy in Tennessee wouldn't ship medication without money down - all $5,500 of it.

"She's fortunate her mother and father have money to afford to help her out," Nolan said, comparing Katherine to patients without access to financial means.


Family connections

Nolan said there's only one other person on his family tree to encounter cancer - his beloved aunt, Eleanor Nolan. Unlike Katherine, Eleanor was a smoker, but they share lung cancer. Eleanor died of it in 1965 at age 55. Before falling ill, she was a candidate for an opening on the Minnesota Supreme Court. Eleanor was a prominent Brainerd attorney and served her country in World War II in the Women's Army Corps.

"She was a real important role model for me," Nolan said. "She was the first female judge in the state of Minnesota (1957), the first female commander of an American Legion in the state and a strong mentor for me."

The story of how Nolan and his aunt grew close is the kind of story that explains a lot about a person. First, Nolan had to be kicked off his high school basketball team in Brainerd as a sophomore for subbing on a team made up of players from the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. Unaware of high school rules that prohibited his playing for another team, Nolan was cut to save his team from sanctions.

"It worked out well," Nolan said.

He got a job as an errand boy in his aunt's office and she opened up the world of public policy to him.

"I learned about city hall and cut my teeth on politics," he said.

Politics today

To hear Nolan tell it, today's gridlock isn't something that's generated on the floor of Congress.

"There's a lot of good will among Democrats and Republicans," he said. But that goodwill amounts to a bridge to nowhere right now as "we're sidekicks in the show," he said.

"Things are going up for votes without argument," Nolan said. "It's all decided in Boehner's office."

Nolan wrote his weekly column in early February about how "regular order" - the process of publicly debating potential legislation - has fallen by the wayside in favor of secret meetings among leadership. He said he feels for legislators who have worked for years to become committee chairs only to see nothing come to their committees.

After his most recent congressional service began in 2013, Nolan followed in the footsteps of fellow Democrat Jim Oberstar by joining the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. But whereas the late Oberstar built a legacy as a transportation icon, Nolan is left to lament Congress' inability to pass anything but an ongoing series of temporary eight-month funding increments.

"The transportation bill," Nolan said, "they won't even let us bring it up."

Funding shortfalls for roads and bridges can be found everywhere across the country, and rural areas, especially, are getting short shrift as population centers become the focus. Legislators' pet projects that once were able to be earmarked onto bigger bills go nowhere fast.

"At this point we are now working backwards; we're not even staying ahead," said Bill Erzar of Ely, the co-chair of the Highway 169 task force who attended Nolan's transportation funding forum in Duluth recently. "We see it in our roadways that are crumbling and bridges that are falling apart."

Erzar gave Nolan credit for personally driving and taking other policymakers on the difficult stretch of Minnesota Highway 169 between Tower and Ely that is finally scheduled to be fixed beginning in 2017 after about 15 years of mostly environmental hurdles.

"Rick is a ray of hope for the common working person," Erzar said. "He's doing a lot of the stuff Congressman Oberstar did; he's that kind of compassionate and caring guy. But he despises the political gridlock."

There was movement recently when the nation's transportation secretary pleaded to the House transportation committee for funding. Some say it could signal a shift toward the first major road and transit funding bill since 2009. Current funding is set to run out May 31.

Between now and then, Nolan figures to stay plenty busy.

None other than U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said she has admired Nolan's resolve.

"I've seen him several times since the session has begun," Klobuchar said. "I've been really impressed by how he's been handling this. It's really hard to have something so difficult in your personal life and at the same time be there for your district for late-night votes and hearings.

"He's been involved in all the key issues in the district, whether it's about mining or about grants, trying to get funding for the district," she said. "He's been very focused on what's happening. I haven't seen him letting up at all."

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