When Nolan retired from Congress in January 1981, the Reagan Revolution was just beginning, cable news was in its infancy and the No. 1 song in America was John Lennon’s “(Just Like) Starting Over.”
Now, Nolan is starting over, returning to serve next year in a bitterly divided Congress to work alongside some colleagues who weren’t alive when he first left town.
There are few opportunities for a successful second act in American politics, but Nolan is among seven Democrats and two Republicans returning to the House after previously losing reelection battles or retiring from office. It’s the highest number of former members to return at the same time in modern history, according to political aides and congressional researchers.
In interviews, many of the newly elected members said they eagerly sought a return to Washington in order to block the tea party’s rise and for a second chance at finishing what they started.
Nolan first came to Washington as a staffer for then-Sen. Walter Mondale (D-Minn.) but went back to Minnesota to serve in the state legislature. He won a U.S. House seat in 1974 as one of dozens of “Watergate baby” Democrats elected in the wake of President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation.
But he left Congress in 1981 of his own volition and returned home to run a wood-pallet factory and export company, and to serve as president of the Minnesota World Trade Center and as chairman of his hometown planning commission.
“I came to the conclusion that — not in all cases — but way too many people stayed in this town too long,” Nolan said in an interview. “When I decided to go into public life, I didn’t advertise and promote it, but I decided I’m going to give it my best for a few years and then go back home.”
While in Washington, he earned a spot on famed columnist Jack Anderson’s list of most respected members of Congress, a group that in the 1970s included Sens. Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Minn.), Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) and Mondale.
“People would see my name on the list and say, ‘Who the hell is he?’ ” Nolan said, adding with a touch of sarcasm, “What a tragedy to think that you could distinguish yourself for being honest and doing the right thing.”
After more than three decades away from Congress, Nolan said he stepped back onto the national stage last year after watching tea-party-backed Republicans try to undo policies he had helped enact.
“I served well and effectively the first time, and I’m proud of that,” he said. “I’m going to try and repeat it again.”
Unlike Nolan, the other House Democrats coming back for a second act all lost reelection during the 2010 tea party tide: Reps.-elect Ann Kirkpatrick (Ariz.), Bill Foster (Ill.), Carol Shea-Porter (N.H.), Dan Maffei (N.Y.), Dina Titus (Nev.) and Alan Grayson (Fla.). Five of them, including Nolan, scored political revenge by unseating freshman tea party Republicans.
The former Republican congressmen coming back are Steve Stockman of Texas and Matt Salmon of Arizona, who were elected in 1994 as part of the Newt Gingrich-led Republican Revolution. Stockman lost his seat in 1996. Salmon left his seat in 2001.
“Many times, running for office is all about timing,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. “Some of them lost their seats in bad years but had the fortune of running in a better year to come back.”
At last week’s orientation sessions for new members joining the 113th Congress, Foster was sporting the gold-and-red lapel pin worn by lawmakers during the 111th Congress. “This pin voted for TARP and the health-care reform law,” he said. “I don’t have a pin from the tea party Congress, something I will never miss.”
Already familiar with the mechanics of Congress, Foster joked that during orientation sessions, “I’m sort of that big dumb guy who’s been held back who sits in the back of the room making wisecracks.”
A physicist and amateur iPad app developer, Foster predicted that this year’s election results will force his GOP colleagues to relent on certain issues.
“If they don’t compromise on things like the ‘fiscal cliff’ and immigration reform, then in two years they will be seen as a party that has produced not two years of zero productivity but four years,” he said. “And under those circumstances, it will not end well for the Republican Party.”
Shea-Porter said she had expected to lose in 2010 after strongly supporting the health-care overhaul, which deeply divided the nation. “But if you don’t come down here to make a difference, then what are you doing here?” she said.
During her two-year absence, Shea-Porter wrote a newspaper column, trained liberal activists and spent time with her mother, who died last year.
“It’s definitely easier the second time around,” she said last week, referring to the task of moving to Washington and setting up shop.
Nolan’s first stint in Congress came during a bygone era when lawmakers worked and raised families in Washington and socialized together regardless of party. Back then, he lived with his young family in Glover Park, but he’s now looking for an apartment about 10 minutes from his Capitol Hill office and reluctantly planning to go home on weekends.
“I don’t apologize for saying we ought to go back to the old days,” Nolan said. During his first year in Congress, he said, the House met for 48 out of 52 weeks, usually from Monday to Friday. This year the House is set to meet for about 32 weeks, usually from Tuesday night through Friday morning.
“Republicans would argue that under the new schedule they’re spending a great deal more time at home with their constituents,” Nolan said. “But at some point you have to govern.”
Amid all the change, Nolan seemed unaccustomed to a political culture that no longer reveres congressmen and frazzled by ethics rules likely to put a crimp in his social schedule.
“We obviously have to have rules and ethics, but I just think that they’ve gotten too far when you literally have to call somebody [on the House ethics committee] to have dinner with a neighbor or go fishing in your neighbor’s boat,” he said. “If anybody does anything for you that’s in excess of $9.99, you’ve got to get an approval.”
While meeting with a reporter at the Capitol Hill Suites hotel housing incoming lawmakers, employees with the House sergeant at arms told Nolan that he had to step outside for his interview because the press is barred from the building.
“I’m tired of getting pushed around by hotel management to do a press conference,” he barked. “I’m not sure why a middle-level government bureaucrat is better at making decisions with regards to the operations of your office than I am.”
But as he walked around the corner from the hotel on a chilly fall day, he grew excited again thinking of what’s to come.
“I’m wonderfully surprised at how energized and positive I feel about all of this and the prospects of success,” he said.
And how will he feel in six months once he’s immersed in the daily grind? “I’m sure I’ll be a little more jaded,” he said. “But right now, I’ve met a lot of the Republicans and they’re thinking the same way as the Democrats. They heard a message back home: Start cooperating.”