See more of the story


Rick Nolan is a 68-year-old freshman, posing for photos, making wrong turns in the halls and hugging old friends in the cafeteria.

More than three decades after quitting Congress in frustration with politics, Nolan is back and relishing his second go-round.

The Minnesota Democrat is among the newly elected members of the U.S. House in D.C. this week for freshman orientation, a whirlwind four days of icebreakers, closed-door meetings and mandatory classes on topics ranging from ethics to iPads.

It's also the start of the scramble to hire staff, score coveted committee assignments and find office space before his January swearing-in.

"I'm sure I was excited the first time around," Nolan said. "But I just feel more optimistic, more excited, more enthusiastic than ever before."

The three-term lawmaker is one of at least nine former House members returning to Congress in January, but Nolan's case is unique.

He's been away for 32 years, and he'll enter a much different political arena.

Because of it, Nolan could face a steep learning curve despite his institutional knowledge, said former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, the director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University.

"The intensity of politics has ratcheted up quite a bit," said Hamilton, who retired from Congress in 1999 after 17 terms in the House. "It makes for a very difficult environment."

Nolan said he's better prepared to navigate Congress now than when he left in his 30s, disillusioned about politics.

"It's not like he moved to [another planet]," said Dennis McGrann, a D.C. lobbyist for Lockgridge Grindal Nauen, who hosted a Nolan fundraiser in May. Nolan, he said, is "aware of some of the challenges."

The road back

Nolan's return to Congress was not a cinch.

He had to defeat first-term Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack in what became one of the 10 most expensive U.S. House races in the country.

Political action committees, advocacy groups and the candidates themselves spent more than $20 million combined. Nolan said the race itself was emblematic of what's wrong with politics today: too much outside money, too much time spent on campaigning and too little time solving problems.

Nolan's experience became a prime target for Republicans, who spent millions trying to paint Nolan as a relic who was out of touch with modern politics.

Nolan said all along his experience would help the district. As it turns out, it also helps him. Despite decades away, he walks into the 113th Congress as a four-term member, with all the clout that level of seniority brings. It may boost his odds of landing his desired committee choices: the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, along with the Natural Resources Committee, which hears legislation that directly affects the mining, forestry, agriculture and tourism-based economy of the Eighth Congressional District.

Nolan also has a well-placed contact looking out for him: Minnesota U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson sits on the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, which decides committee assignments for party members.

"He can be very helpful for me," Nolan said.

Other than his own delegation, Nolan can't count on seeing many familiar faces. Just two members of his original 1974 class remain in the House. Another three serve in the Senate. At least 10 members of the new Congress weren't even born when he won his first election, part of a wave of Democrats elected in the wake of the Watergate scandal that brought down Republican President Richard Nixon.

California Rep. George Miller, a longtime friend of Nolan's, said Congress is a "much more partisan, much more toxic" than when he and Nolan entered.

Nolan "brings some history about how people used to work together," Miller said.

The long haul

Nolan will face challenges that never arose during his previous stint in Congress.

With Republicans in control of the U.S. House, Nolan will serve in the minority -- unthinkable back in the 1970s, when Democrats had owned the lower chamber for decades.

"There's always been partisanship," Nolan said. "That's nothing new."

He left Congress after the 1980 election, when a victorious Ronald Reagan swept into the presidency and ushered in a new era of more conservative politics. But even before then, Nolan had struggled. Despite introducing more than 100 pieces of legislation during his six years in office, he saw only three bills become law. The man he's replacing, Cravaack, reached that total in one term.

To better his batting average, Nolan will have to find Republican colleagues willing to help shepherd his bills through the House, Hamilton said.

Nolan said he hopes to land a spot as ranking Democrat on one or more of his subcommittees, which would increase his odds.

"Rick will bring the right kind of mindset because he understands his limitations," Hamilton said. "Progress comes very slowly."

Aware that he'll need time to make his mark, Nolan does not envision another abrupt departure from politics. He says he would like to serve five more terms in the House, if voters approve.

"I've never been more excited about the prospects for the future," Nolan said.

Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @CMitchellStrib