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.